Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Sickbed Salvation Over Spring Break

I hate spring break.

I know, it’s un-American. Everyone is supposed to love free time and I’m a blasphemer. Whatever. But it’s true. For one thing, Julie doesn’t get time off from her job so there’s nothing we can really do. But honestly I just miss teaching. I miss the students, I miss doing work I enjoy, and since it’s unpaid, I really miss the money.

Usually I pick up extra work at a local printshop to tide us over, but they’ve been really slow lately, and then Julie and I got clobbered with this nasty flu thing that’s laying waste to our town. We catch everything anyway, because she works at a hospital and I teach in public school, so we might as well be crew on a plague ship.

Now, generally these things hit Julie a lot harder than they hit me. But she was up and around in no time, whereas I am still kind of shaking it off, and finally I went to the doctor because the damn thing seemed to have somehow migrated to my right ear and it wasn’t getting any better. Turned out that, despite my deskbound and sedentary indoor lifestyle, this damn bug had gifted me with a really nasty case of what’s called “swimmer’s ear.” Even though I have not been swimming in at least two decades. So I am housebound and a little woozy from the ear medicine and the antihistamines and so on.

This has left me useless for much of anything except vegetating on the couch. So I settled in to get caught up on the books and movies that have been piling up. Mostly Westerns… Elmore Leonard’s, in particular.

This is kind of my obsession of the moment because the current book project is a Western of sorts and Leonard’s Western stories just seem to put me in the right frame of mind to work on it. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get around to these for years. (If you are curious, you can’t do better than this collection to get you started.) Movies too– revisiting old favorites like The Tall T and 3:10 to Yuma, as well as finally getting around to Paul Newman in Hombre.

Not sure how I missed that one for the last fifty years, but it really is as good as everyone says. And the DVD was only a buck. Julie loved it too. “It’s just like Stagecoach,” she said, and it is– but then it takes a hard left turn about halfway through and becomes completely its own thing and it’s pure Leonard. I’m embarrassed now at how long it took me to get around to it. Reverse snobbery, probably. But sometimes the popular stuff is popular because it really is good.

However, the real find was a movie that is so wonderfully unlikely in its awesomeness that the only comparison I can make is… well, back in the late 1950s, early 60s, here in the USA we were just starting to figure out that this rock and roll music thing might be more than just a passing fad. It was largely the province of black blues musicians and some country-music crossover guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison and Elvis.

But over in Britain, where kids could hear the stuff without all the cultural baggage, you had people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend and so on, who just loved this new sound and wanted to make their own, and they gave it back to us in a completely new way that had us looking at the old stuff with fresh eyes.

Well, that’s kind of how The Salvation strikes me.

Directed by a Danish guy after he co-wrote it with another Danish guy, made in South Africa, and loaded with European actors… it is nevertheless a terrific old-school Western, and clearly made by people whose love of the genre shines through so pure and clear that it feels like everything old is new again.

It helps that the cast is uniformly terrific, and many of them are doing things I would not have thought them capable of pulling off. I would never have believed Mads Mikkelsen, so demonic in stuff like Casino Royale and Hannibal, could play a guy that was so decent and caring and salt-of-the-earth likable. But he is amazing in this.

Likewise Eva Green, so utterly British and classy in so many other things, is dark and nasty and earthy here, and since she plays a mute, she has to do it all with her eyes and expression. It’s brilliant.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is an utterly evil piece of work as the villain, as well. Genuinely scary.

The story starts out as a simple revenge story– outlaws gun down Mikkelsen’s wife and child, and he goes after the men what done it and takes them out. You can feel Mikkelsen’s grief and his righteous fury and you are right there with him.

But that’s only the first twenty minutes or so. It’s after that, when Mikkelsen thinks he’s done, that it gets interesting. Because the outlaws were related to evil Jeffrey Dean Morgan and he is going to get him some payback. So suddenly what Mikkelsen thought was a simple eye-for-an-eye lawful execution escalates into all-out war. Almost before he can comprehend what is happening, he and his friends are fighting for their lives and everyone in town is forced to pick a side. It’s the story of what happens AFTER the bad guy gets his… and the slow realization that there is always a worse guy out there waiting.

It’s not for the squeamish, though I didn’t think it was terribly gory or anything like that. But it’s emotionally very hard on you. No punches are pulled.

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. It somehow ended up on the art-house circuit, in front of folks who really don’t get Westerns. It wasn’t a parody or a deconstruction, there is no too-cool-for-school smirkiness or homage. It is just the most balls-out revenge Western that these crazy Danish fanboys– director Kristian Levring and screenwriter Anders Jensen– could come up with. It did okay with critics but I daresay its real audience won’t find it until it starts showing up as cable-TV filler. If then.

At any rate, I’m glad I found it, and thanks to Adam-Troy Castro for the recommendation. It certainly took my mind off my earache for a while. Here’s the trailer.

Do check it out if you get a chance. As a double bill with Hombre for an evening of hard-guy cowboy action, you couldn’t do better.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    In regards to skipping Hombre all these years; I had a similar relationship with Casablanca. Part of it was I felt like I had seen it, from so many film and tv references to it (everything from “Play it again,” to the ending, to Bogey…). Then I finally watched it and was blown away. The scene where the Germans are singing their songs of conquest and Victor Lazlo has the band strike up La Marseilles, and seeing the spirit in every defiant voice singing (especially the nightclub singer) had me in tears.

    The Europeans do some pretty interesting westerns; film and comics. Love Moebius and Charlier’s Blueberry, and the series Tex; the Blueberry film (with Vincent Cassell), not so much. It’s less a western and more a weird head trip. I really wanted to love Jean Dujardin in Lucky Luke; but, apart from looking the part, it wasn’t as entertaining as the Terrence Hill one (which handled the comedy better).

  2. Terrible-D

    I’ve been fight a cold myself the last couple of days. My weekend is going to be spent in bed. I spent the early evening tackling the insurmountable task of restarting a complete watch-through of Dark Shadows (bought the complete series dvd set some four years ago on a whim, and made it about a hundred episodes into the over 1000 episode series before losing interest). Tomorrow, however, will be spent with the all new MST3K episodes that Netflix has poasted. Nothing like a malady to give one a good excuse for excessive amount of blue filtered light (tv casualty).

  3. John King

    Hope you get well soon

    I can’t think of anything to say on topic.

    I’m currently looking through the recent Nightraven collection.
    While I got most when it was first published over 30 years ago, this is the first time the majority of it has been reprinted – and as the pulp-style illustrated prose stories were originally published in 50 issues of 6 different monthly magazines in installments of 5-pages or less it’s good to have them all together (especially as they include some good stuff from Alan Moore and Jamie Delano)

  4. Swario

    I’ve read one Elmore western and one of his crime books which he wrote later in his career. To my surprise, I enjoyed the western a heck of a lot more. It was Hombre and I’d recommend reading the book if you haven’t. Myself, i’ll have to check out the movie.

    As someone else pointed out, Salvation is on Netflix. I started watching it yesterday. Hopefully I’ll finish tonight. Good so far, but the beginning of the movie reminds me just how hopeless and terrifying your life could be in that time period.

    Greg, have you ever written a post about great western novels? I’ve been in the mood to explore the genre a bit more. I’m doing some research before I head over to the used bookstore but all i’m finding are listicles which are pumping out the same recommendations. I’m not convinced these are the books i’m looking for. Anybody else write westerns like Elmore? I like his.

  5. Greg, have you ever written a post about great western novels? I’ve been in the mood to explore the genre a bit more. I’m doing some research before I head over to the used bookstore but all i’m finding are listicles which are pumping out the same recommendations. I’m not convinced these are the books i’m looking for. Anybody else write westerns like Elmore? I like his.

    I have not specifically done a column about best western novels, though I’ve made individual recommendations here and there. Nobody does it like Leonard though there are guys who are just as good in a different way. I think it deserves its own column so I’ll get back to you on this one. But it’s on deck now.

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