Monday, May 20, 2013

Eagle’s Wing (1979)



          There’s a good reason you’ve likely never heard of a Western called Eagle’s Wing: It tells such a diffuse and underdeveloped story that even with dynamic actors Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston starring, the picture is painfully dull. On the plus side, the movie looks gorgeous—director Anthony Harvey and cinematographer Billy Williams arrange visuals with artful precision. Yet the only thing more dispiriting than Harvey’s lethargic pacing is the director’s inability to fuse his narrative’s various strands. Eagle’s Wing bounces around between vignettes involving Plains Indians, white fur traders, a displaced Irish priest and his sister, and the denizens of a Mexican hacienda. The various characters eventually converge, more or less, but it’s a long haul getting to the point where the story feels unified. Worse, since the heart of the piece is really just a simplistic macho duel between an Indian (Waterston) and a trader (Sheen), everything else feels like a distraction.
          Before moving onto anything else, by the way, it’s worth noting that Wasterston’s casting as a Native American isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. Yes, there were plenty of Native actors would could have played his role, and yes, Waterston is a Northeastern WASP, but with his lean physicality, massive eyebrows, prominent nose, thin eyes, and generally sober demeanor, the actor cuts a striking figure.
          The plot isn’t worth describing in detail except to say that the Indian and the trader begin their duel over possession of a horse, and then deepen their conflict once the Indian abducts the priest’s sister. (English actress Caroline Langrishe, playing the girl, lends grit and loveliness but has virtually nothing to do except suffer and watch while male characters advance the narrative.) The reason the plot isn’t worth describing is that it doesn’t seem to be of particular importance to the filmmakers—Eagle’s Wing is primarily a mood piece about desperation, obsession, and survival. However, these themes are not dramatized effectively. Many of Sheen’s sequences, for instance, comprise the actor soliloquizing in order to explain what his character is thinking. (It’s a rare movie that makes one wish Sheen would stop talking, given that he possesses one of Hollywood’s most mesmerizing voices.)
          Further, the film is littered with wordless scenes in which nothing of significance happens, or in which significant events are shown at excessive length—such as an interminable scene of Sheen’s character breaking a horse. Virtually the only stretch of the film that sustains interest is the long opening sequence featuring Harvey Keitel; he and Sheen play bickering partners until Keitel’s character meets the business end of an arrow. Nonetheless, if you’re able to groove on a movie simply for the beauty of its visuals, you might be able to do so with Eagle’s Wing, at least for a while, because the film offers an endless procession of elegantly minimalistic images sculpted from subtle textures of color and light.

Eagle’s Wing: FUNKY

2 comments:

D said...

Two trivia items about this - it was produced by Peter Shaw ( Angela Lansbury's husband) and it was written by JohnBriley who would later go on to write and win an Oscar for Gandhi.

The Mutt said...

I haven't seen this since I saw it in the theater when it was first released. I remember loving it, and telling folks it was on my list of best westerns ever. Time for a re-watch.

I'm also pretty sure that this was the first time I;
d ever encountered these actors.