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Paint Your Wagon (1969)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

A musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood might seem unlikely, but this movie is a treasure for many reasons. I enjoy musicals and I also have a great fondness for westerns. Paint Your Wagon is an instance of a western musical or musical western. There aren't that many movies which are both. Although Oklahoma is perhaps more renowned and The Unsinkable Molly Brown may be even more optimistic about success, this movie captures the essence of the pioneer spirit in a way that few other movies ever have.

Paint Your Wagon, adapted from a Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical by Paddy Chayefsky, is centered around gold miners and the No-Name City they erect on the site of a gold find. The movie opens showing one wagon of a wagon train careening down the side of a hill. The wagon crash leaves one of two brothers dead and the other injured. Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin), a passing miner who helps the survivor, digs a grave for the other. In the process of burying the dead brother, while they are laying the deceased to rest, the burial attendees all simultaneously discover that with his grave digging Ben has unearthed what they are all seeking: gold. Ben stakes the claim for himself and his new Pardner, the living brother (Clint Eastwood).

The character of Ben Rumson “was born under a wandering star” and his iconoclasm was something that symbolized much of the world of the Sixties and early Seventies. “They civilize freedom till no one is free, no one, except by coincidence me.” No-Name city is the nexus of activity that rises from the enterprise of the gold miners near the site of Ben’s find. It might as well have been called No-Gov’t City. Although the miners and other inhabitants don’t have much if any state, they do live by rules: mining law. When Ben wins a bidding war and buys a wife (in accordance with mining law), she falls for both him and Pardner. If you are looking for gold, freedom, polyandry and an irreverent anarchic city, as the parson of the movie would say, “Here it is, I mean here it is.”

Although Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou) and Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales) may not be able to compete with Gordon McRae singing the title song of Oklahoma, they actually don’t do too badly with the musical side of things. What Marvin does shouldn’t really be called singing, but it works. Eastwood does a passable job with his songs. The real singing in this musical is mostly done by a chorus and the supporting cast such as Harve Presnell (The Unsinkable Molly Brown), who could give Mr. McRae a contest with his rendition of the classic “They Call the Wind Maria.”

There is also a fair amount of comedy in this musical. Here Lee Marvin is really in his element. As he did with Cat Ballou, Marvin makes this his movie. In addition to Lee Marvin this movie boasts the musical comedy presence of Ray Walston. Like Presnell, Walston is an underappreciated component of many fine movies and television shows, with more musicals than you might expect in his early career.

I haven’t mentioned Jean Seberg (Breathless) who plays Elizabeth, the wife shared by Ben and Pardner. She didn’t make as many English language movies as many people might have liked, spending most of her foreshortened career in Europe. As with the other players, Seberg is also excellent in this movie.

Like Cat Ballou and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Paint Your Wagon is a movie which I saw in the theater when I was a young man. All three of them feature music in a comedy western format. All of them have aged fairly well too, perhaps because they concern a period of history far enough removed from our own to be mostly unaffected by many of today’s prejudices. A freedom loving person should be drawn to Paint Your Wagon.

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