Episode 15 - Paint Your Wagon

Post date: Aug 15, 2016 7:1:57 AM

It's so much worse when they manage to get you to like a movie before they turn it to shit.I watched Paint Your Wagon, a cheesy movie made in the 1960s very loosely based on a musical written in the 1940s based on life in California in the 1840s. Although, the movie has almost nothing to do with the play, other than the names of a couple of characters and some of the songs force-fed into the script.I fully expected this movie to suck - after all, it's a musical staring Clint Eastwood, and it got terrible reviews even from people who like musicals. It was incredibly cheesy, even for a musical, but it managed to suck me into the story and make me care about the characters. It was surprisingly deep and progressive in places, in spite of the heavy-handed patriarchal values that make women into property.

Ben Rumson is a drunken gold miner who loves living miles outside of civilization. He hates everything that civilization stands for - rules, regulation, order. His first song is all about how, when a territory becomes a state, the first thing you know, the government comes in and takes away your freedoms (I have to admit to a bit of solidarity here).

On his way to try out a new mountain stake in California, he witnesses a couple of brothers in a wagon from a large wagon train, go over a cliff edge, and one of the brothers dies. Ben runs down the mountain to discover that one is still alive. During the funeral, the men helping to dig the grave discover gold dust, which Ben promptly claims with the other brother as his partner, to make up for the first one dying. Here, we officially meet Pardner (Clint Eastwood).

Eventually, a crappy little miner town springs up with a shanty General Store, Barber Shop, the usual. There are 400 men in the town and no women. Until one day, a man drives up in a carriage with 2 women and a baby. We learn that he is a Mormon and the women are his wives, but not too happy about the situation. The miners offer to buy one of his wives, since it's not fair for him to hoard what is so scarce, and Elizabeth goads her husband into agreeing to sell her, with the assistance of her jealous and catty sister-wife.

So she goes up for auction and Ben awakens from a drunken stupor just long enough to double the highest bidder and win himself a wife. Since they are in a territory and not part of any government, the only legal recourse they have is miner law, which doesn't have any rules about marriage. So Elizabeth is made a "claim" and purchased by Ben. On their wedding night, she says that even though she is bought and paid for, she'll strike an agreement with Ben. She'll make a good wife and care for him, but in return, he is to build her a log cabin with a stone fireplace and a door she can bolt if she wants to, and he is to treat her with the respect of a wife, not of a paid woman. Otherwise, she'll shoot him. He agrees.

Eventually, Ben builds Elizabeth a house & Pardner lives on the property in his tent and they continue to mine for gold. But Ben, being the owner of the only woman for hundreds of miles, finds himself turning into a jealous lunatic, terrorizing the other miners with wild accusations & attempts to kill them for the slightest (or imagined) infractions. Well, someone gets word that 6 French prostitutes are arriving in a boom town about a hundred miles away, and Ben and Pardner manage to convince the entire town that they ought to kidnap the prostitutes and bring them to their town to solve Ben's jealousy issues.

I have to say, even taking into account the era in which the story was written, and the era in which the story is supposed to take place, the blatant sexism in this story was hard to swallow. I had to keep reminding myself that women really *were* property back then, and that all one could hope for was to find herself an owner ... uh, I mean husband, whom she didn't hate too much. And that prostitutes really *were* (and still are) considered not to have any say in their own bodies; having put them up for rent, they were considered communal property, lower on the food chain than even other women, although with a handful of counter-intuitive freedoms that married and single women couldn't access, depending on era and location.

As usual, in order to explain whether or not this deserves to be added to any poly movie list, I'm going to move on to the spoilers. I figure this movie has been out for roughly 50 years, which is more than adequate for giving away spoilers. However, if you still haven't seen it and want to watch it for the first time fresh, skip down to the conclusion.


There were a few objectors to the plan of kidnapping the prostitutes, and it was pointed out that they would be, effectively, entering the white slave trade with the plan, but the miners went along with it anyway and the women eventually arrived on the doorstep of a brand, new two-story saloon and whorehouse, built just for them. With the addition of prostitutes, the little mining community turned into a boom town called No Name City, with 4 gambling houses and a huge influx of miners with their gold dust to spend.

But, while Ben was off rustling himself some prostitutes, Pardner was asked to stay home and guard Elizabeth from the rest of the miners. Naturally, they fall in love. Pardner tells Ben, when he comes back, that he's in love with his wife and therefore has to leave. Ben goes back to the house to pack up the shared property that Ben has decided to part with in favor of Pardner's leaving, and Elizabeth discovers Pardner's plan. She begs Ben not to let him leave, since she loves him back.

Heartbroken, but so in love with Elizabeth that he can't refuse and being a good friend and partner who won't stand in the way of love, Ben goes back to Pardner and orders him to stay - telling him that Elizabeth loves Pardner and Ben is leaving instead. Pardner refuses, they fight, Ben knocks him out and carries him back to the house where he packs up his things instead. To which Elizabeth begs Ben not to leave, that she loves him.

Pardner wakes up just in time to hear that, and a wild conversation takes place where Elizabeth asks both men to live with her, and why not? She points out that she was previously married to a man with two wives, so what's wrong with a wife having two husbands?

[inserted movie clip where Elizabeth proposes two husbands]

They live happily like this for a while, each man rotating nights spent in town so the other can spend the night alone with his wife. The town, having been built up around them, treats this as normal [inserted movie clip of normalizing behaviour]. There is a charming scene of the 3 of them at dinner where Ben and Elizabeth start bickering, and Pardner jumps in to defend Elizabeth, who promptly turns on him for arguing with Ben, who then stands up for Pardner, and it all ends in a chuckle as the 3 of them realize how much they care for each other and how silly the argument is.

Of course, we couldn't just leave it at that.

One day, news comes in about some farmers fallen ill in the middle of winter up on the mountain while trying to cross. When the rescue party finds them, they discover the farmers to be "good folk", meaning conservative Christian, and decide that the family can't possibly be taken into the den of inequity that is No Name city. So they're housed at the Triad's house, being set outside of town.

Elizabeth is so overcome with shame at her lifestyle in the face of the farmers' piety that she lies about having two husbands, telling them that Pardner is, not Ben. she then makes Ben take lodgings in town until the farmers are well enough to leave, to keep the story.

Now, having a happy triad, in which the woman suggests it, and it involves 2 men, not 2 women, instantly made me like the movie in spite of the cheese factor (OK, I like old musicals, so the cheese wasn't actually too strong for me). But here's where I really started to get drawn to the characters. Here's where Ben starts to look like a multi-dimensional person. He is, naturally, angered at being ousted of his own home, and he is very hurt over not being allowed to acknowledge his relationship to his wife, who was his wife first & to whom he has done everything in his power to show his love for her, from protecting her from harm from the other miners to backing away when she loved another to sharing her (and being the first of the two of them to agree to sharing) when that was what she wanted in spite of his knee-jerk reaction that it was "wrong". He leaves the home he built for his wife and helps keep her secret because it's what she wants, but it tears him up inside that they are being forced to hide who they are and what they have because someone else has a problem with it.

Pardner is also torn up about the split, but he doesn't feel there is anything he can do about it - this is what Elizabeth wants. He tries to maintain friendly ties with Ben in town and at the mine, but Ben's hurt feelings push them apart.

One day, the farmers' son is in town with Ben and insists that Ben come to dinner that night - a dinner invitation he had previously rejected when Pardner offered. Ben shows up to find Elizabeth and Pardner dressed up, saying Grace, and entertaining, just as happy as you please. Ben's rough language and coarse ways offend the pious farmers and embarrasses and angers Elizabeth. She orders Ben out of the house, but Pardner finally stands up for Ben and says that a man can't be ordered out of his own home. Then the truth comes out and both men end up kicked out.

At this time, the town is starting to dry up, and people are moving on to other parts, where rumor has suggested more gold in fresh hills. The town literally collapses in on itself, and everyone packs up to leave. Pardner goes back to the house to get his things and Elizabeth begs him to stay and re-create the happy triad they once had. Here's where the movie turns to shit for me.

Pardner tells her that when it was just the two of them, he got a taste of living with her "like a real husband and wife" (because, she wasn't a real wife before, or something) and he can't go back to sharing her again. Since she is "really" Ben's wife, Pardner is taking off. On the way out of town, he meets up with Ben, who talks of also leaving. The farmers and the radical, proselytizing parson have settled nearby and are building a church and a courthouse, which means civilization. Ben can't be anywhere near civilization, so he's hightailing it outta there. When Pardner learns that Ben absolutely cannot be persuaded to stay with Elizabeth, who won't give up her home [inserted movie clip where Ben describes how attached Elizabeth is to her home], Pardner decides to stay with Elizabeth after all.

I absolutely hate movies that take 3 perfectly companionable people, and give one of them some major flaw, either character or plot, that conveniently eliminates one of them so two can live happily ever after. Usually it's death, but almost as often it's turning one guy into an asshole that the girl eventually sees and rejects, but occasionally it's making one guy so sweet that he voluntarily steps aside for the other one. Because it's not a "real marriage" if there are 3 of them (Pearl Harbor, I'm looking at you here, which managed to do all three).

It's such a shame, because the story portrayed their relationship as happy, as normal, as natural, and as *right*, up until the pressure of what other people thought broke things. Ben says in one of the more memorable lines, [inserted movie clip "If he hadn't brought his goddamn piety into this house, we'd still be a happily married triple!"]. Elizabeth sings "no fears, no fools, no lies, no rules, just doing with my life what life is for," and at one point, someone tells of a prostitute that had to go into hiding for a while because of a jealous death threat. [inserted movie clip "He wanted to marry her but said she'd have to quit working." "Well that's a narrow-minded attitude!"] These kinds of progressive ideals of letting everyone find their own happiness made me like the story and seemed to me to be in favor of those ideas, not spouting them so they could tear them down - they didn't seem to be satire or straw men, they seemed to show happy people - although the "population: drunk" sign at the city limits was a bit over the top, I admit.

Then they had to go and ruin it. Granted, Ben's wanderlust and dislike of "civilization" were established at the beginning of the movie, and Elizabeth's stubbornness was established the moment we met her. But everyone was happy as long as the town remained a boom town, with no real law and order. Ben was happy, Elizabeth, although she hated the town, was happy because without law and order, they could be a family [inserted movie clip where Elizabeth says she's happy to be with both of them], and Pardner was just happy to be with Elizabeth and he genuinely liked Ben. It didn't HAVE to end. They could have gone on indefinitely. But no, the writers had to punish people for living how they wanted, and they had to bring "civilization" with its rules and structure and one way to exist.

So if you stop the movie about 2/3 of the way into it - before the farmers come to town, it's a great poly story. If you keep watching, it's a typical, American morality play. Supposedly the lesson is that law and order are inevitable and to be desired, and for the best of all involved, but in this story the only thing I see is people losing the very things they hold most dear: freedom, love, and family, for the sake of being respected by uptight, narrow-minded, priggish neighbors. However, if the writers intended the story to say that "civilization" and telling other people how to live causes people to lose that which makes them happy, then that would be a moral I could support.

In conclusion, my official Criteria list, specifically the section on whether or not it's poly when poly doesn't "win" in the end, says that if a movie's moral is that poly is doomed and monogamy is the better choice, then it's not a poly movie. But, if a movie's moral is that prejudice or social pressure to conform destroys lives even when polyamory is otherwise working, then it may be a poly movie. So I'm going to include this on the list so that people can see it, but with caveats. If you interpret the movie's moral lesson as suggesting that conforming to "normal" societal rules makes people lose things that make them happy and aren't hurting anyone else, and considering that the movie did show negotiations between three people where each of them were empowered to negotiate for themselves in the process and it resulted in a happy triad arrangement, this could be said to be a poly movie. And, I liked the characters and I also like old musicals, so I'd also recommend watching the movie for that reason, if cheesy technicolor musicals are your thing.

You've been reading Poly-ish Movie Reviews, with your host, Joreth, where I watch the crap so you don't have to!

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