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This week Roger starts us off with a Western. I then review scripts for two movies that played over at Toronto, both of which are getting some early Oscar buzz (Oscar buzz? In September??). I'll also review an enormous super-thriller that's been kicking around development for awhile. And for those freaking out because I didn't do Amateur Friday last week, fear not as I am doing one this Friday. In my world, Friday is September 31st. Now, here's Roger with a review of a Richard Donner project. Enjoy!
Premise: A deaf gunslinger running from his past finds his destiny in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he becomes embroiled in a war between rival railroad companies.
About: The only information I can find is the sentence that was attached to the script, “All Richard Donner will say on the project, a Western, is: ‘It’s got an incredible character in it that makes it unique.’” If, for some insane reason, you don’t know who Donner is, he’s the director responsible for such classics as Superman, The Goonies, and Lethal Weapon. Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is the screenwriter telling Donner’s tale.
Writers: Story by Richard Donner; Screenplay by Brian Helgeland
Brian Helgeland is the guy most likely to rewrite your screenplay should a) you manage to sell it, and b) it’s greenlighted with either Scott Free Productions or The Donner’s Company as producers. Richard Donner is the guy that convinced everyone to go the straight route on a Superman movie, and for his efforts created a modern classic that all geeks favorably point to when arguing about the cinema of superheroes. His name is associated with the zeitgeist of popular 80s flicks, The Goonies and Lethal Weapon, and although he’s directed a ton of movies and television episodes, he’s only been attached to two Westerns, Maverick and the 60s tv show, Wanted: Dead or Alive.
So, my interest was immediately piqued when this script made it into my hands with the note, “All Richard Donner will say on the project, a Western, is: ‘It’s got an incredible character in it that makes it unique.’
Who is this incredible character, Rog?
John Bowman Young is in love with a girl.
When we meet him, he’s one of the Union soldiers at war with the Confederates at Gettysburg. He’s scared and fighting for his life, and in the midst of all the chaos, he tenderly takes a moment to place a Bible under a dying friend’s head in an attempt to comfort him during his last moments.
If you’ve ever asked the question, ‘Why does Brian Helgeland get to rewrite everyone’s work?’, then this script will help tell you why. There’s both powerful and economic storytelling here, and during this war sequence we flash back to visions John is having of his circumstances in Boston before the war.
As John defends his dying friend, we meet the gal he’s in love with, Mary Deacon Powell. We’re told everything we need to know about them. How he first saw her during a downpour on a cobblestoned street in Boston, how he escorted her home to her mansion through the rain. How, at a Boston Society Ball, he watched her dance with the rich Alfred Roebling, the son of railroad tycoon, Temple Roebling.
Although John dreams of marrying her, he knows that this ambition doesn’t match his wallet. Temple has a proposition for John. He offers the young man four thousand in gold to serve as a draft replacement for his son, Alfred, “Money which would be worth ten times as much by war’s end.”
Mary protests, says that the only thing she wants is for him not to go. Says that the only thing she wants is him. John ignores her, and all she can do is give him a keepsake, a locket containing a lock of her hair.
And, the war ends.
But, before it does, he holds onto the locket as he’s charged by bayonet-wielding Rebels, accepting his death, but as he drops to his knees, a cannon unleashes hell just above John’s head, cutting down his attackers.
The cannon saves him, but at the price of his hearing.
John Bowman Young returns home from the war, deaf.
There’s a brilliant scene of John making the trek back to Boston, always moving against the grain of crowds of people, and he’s walking away from Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address on a military platform.
He stares, and of course, he hears nothing.
What happens back in Boston?
John makes his way to the bank and discovers that there’s no money waiting for him in his name. Zilch. Apparently, Temple duped him. Regardless, John sets out to find Mary.
Only to find her with Temple’s son, Alfred. He follows them on a busy street, and to all appearances, it looks like they’re a bonafide couple. In actuality, Mary is telling Alfred she misses John, but to a man who can’t hear, he can only react off the visual cues. When a woman screams because John is almost hit by a carriage, Mary spins around to see John, but John flees.
Mary recognizes him and screams, “I –“ but the ‘love you’ is silent in John’s world, and he leaves Boston despondent, full of despair. It’s a tragic case of Shakespearean miscommunication, with John assuming the worst and acting off of his perception of events, not the reality.
Where does John go?
He heads West, full of grief, hoping to find peace as a homesteader in the great move to settle the land. He can’t really stand being around people anymore, so instead of joining the Manifest Destiny caravan, he travels alone on foot. He acquires a best friend, a starving redbone coonhound named Moocher. They scavenge wagon train camps for food on their journey, and one day, he sees his reflection in a pool of dirty war. He hates seeing what he’s become.
He silently screams and howls, catching the attention of some Pawnee Indians led by a man named Six Killer. Six Killer allows John to stay within eyesight of them as they all travel, convinced that the crazy are good luck. The Indians call John, “Screams Alone”. He validates his presence when he saves the Indians from a buffalo stampede during a thunderstorm because he hears their approach when no one else can.
He’s sort of inducted as an honorary member of the tribe, but he’s forced to part ways with Six Killer when they decide to head to Canada. In an emotional scene, the band of Indians all start to scream and holler, but John doesn’t understand because he can’t hear them. “They just want you to know, you no longer scream alone! We scream with you.”
In Kansas, John learns that the Independence Mercantile Bank is refusing his loan to become a homesteader because he’s deaf.
So, in an act of desperation, he uses all the money he has to purchase a gun and one bullet. Hey, it’s all he can afford.
And, he attempts to rob the bank.
How the hell is a deaf man going to rob a bank with one bullet?
With the help of T.Z. Spaulding, of course. See, John is in the middle of trying to rob the bank when another robber arrives, and realizes what’s going on. Spaulding is quite entertained by the scenario, and he decides to help John rob the bank.
Which they do.
And the first half of the Act Two is about Spaulding and John’s relationship. You see, Spaulding is a famous gunslinger, outlaw and bank robbery. He’s the Wizard of the Pistol. He teaches John everything he needs to know about being an outlaw and thief. He’s a great raconteur, and in fact, he’s even writing a book about himself, “And you’re making an appearance in chapter ten.
“Deaf bank robber with one bullet and no horse.”
This section of the script is great fun, and a nice break from all the grief and sadness that permeates the first act. They rob trains and banks and John learns a thing or two about himself. But, good times can’t last forever and it’s not long before a posse is sent to hunt these two down.
Things don’t end well for Spaulding, and John sort of picks up his mantle, and through the book his mentor was writing before he died, he learns the intricacies and theory of becoming a gunslinger.
John becomes adept with all kinds of guns and tricks and flourishes, and he sets out to get revenge on the outlaw that tried to kill Spaulding, and in the process, took his thumb. John learns how to kill when it’s required, and he develops a reputation that brings him all sorts of trouble.
So, what happens?
John arrives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a hotbed for the war being waged between two railway companies, Union Pacific and Great Northern. Two Union Pacific detectives arrive in town to recruit John as a hired gun, but they end up becoming his enemies. Each day, more men arrive, Pinkertons, outlaws looking to make a name for themselves, and a mysterious Man in Black, all taking sides in the battle to control the railway lines.
The situation is simmering, but really starts to boil when Alfred Roebling arrives in town, the scion of the Great Northern company, with his son and wife who is...you guessed it...Mary.
Farragut and Sunday, the Union Pacific detectives, conspire to assassinate Roebling, but of course, they’re going to have to get through John, first.
To complicate matters, John is in love with a prostitute named Liza, and our hero is forced to face all the demons of his past whilst trying to protect the people he cares about and get out of all the expectant violence alive.
Does it work?
Oh, man, does it.
This is a great script about a grief-stricken man trying to cling to hope and find peace and redemption. There were several times where I teared up because of the things said about loneliness, love lost, and hope. I mean, this is a Western that’s really about the characters and relationships and the hurt we hold inside us.
But, don’t get me wrong, the action and gunplay is awesome as well. It’s great to see how John deals with several life-threatening situations, compensating with cleverness and his other senses for his lack of hearing.
You know how we always talk about fully exploiting your concepts? Well, the concept of a deaf gunslinger is explored in exciting and painstaking detail, and it’s such a good journey. There are some cool gun rigs John wisely comes up with, and you can imagine all the duels and confrontations playing out awesomely on screen.
None of it is boring.
“The High Lonesome” is an emotional page-turner that feels like a great Western. It’s hard not to envision something special here, a deaf gunslinger looking for peace against the backdrop of the Civil War and Manifest Destiny, a man attempting to cling to hope in the throes of despair. It’s one of those journeys that you can’t forget, and you feel like you’re along for the ride every step of the way. What the story says about friendship and healing is powerful stuff, expressed in T.Z. Spaulding’s words to his friend and confidante, “...just remember hope, the patient medicine for disease, disaster and despair.”
Indeed, this is a journey of hope.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s a current trend with pacing that tends to rush a story. I can see people reading this script and saying, “Wait, all the stuff in the logline and Cheyenne doesn’t begin to happen until the mid-point. Is there any way you can tighten things up and get it to start at the beginning of the 2nd Act?” I don’t know when or how this Haphazardly Rushed Sense of Urgency started, but sometimes people are so eager to make their plot move fast that they neuter their characters, sense of pace and overall story. Stories are journeys that unfold, and not all require the plot events of the logline to take place as soon as fucking possible, especially when the character stuff is so rich and required. “The High Lonesome” wouldn’t have worked without John’s journey and transformation, which all happens before his arrival in Cheyenne. Without it, the events in the third act wouldn’t pack the emotional punch they do. Sometimes, people just need to slow down and let their story unfold. Ignore the cookie cutter beats and let character be the engine that drives the story.