I had time for one more movie before February’s streaming purge kicked in. This, my third choice, also creates a trilogy of postbellum posts, none of which are really about the years following the Civil War. The doubly-third film is The Salvation, a Danish-made Western.
The story is one we’ve seen before. Two brothers, veterans of the Schleswig-Holstein wars, come to the American Southwest to create a new life. After seven years establishing themselves in their adopted country, brother Jon sends for his wife and son to join him from Denmark. An incident that seemingly sprung from the family being in the wrong place in the wrong time turns out to be part of a conspiracy involving the town elders, an evil gang leader, and a shadowy corporation. This time, though, they messed with the wrong Dane. Mads Mikkelsen plays the reluctant hero whose battlefield skills empower him to take on all comers.
This film follows a pattern of European movie-making I’ve enjoyed recently. Although having a budget enhanced by government grants (Wikipedia estimates 10.5 million euros), these are still small projects by American standards. Some shaky CGI aside, though, this one stands up fairly well on its own merits. Mikkelsen has built a solid name for himself as action star and plays the vengeful victim à la Clint Eastwood. One notices a number of European accents among the supporting characters. This probably isn’t so strange historically (westward expansion was fueled by immigration), but does further betray a non-American production. Leading woman Eva Green (French actress who played Vesper Lynd* opposite hero Daniel Craig against Mikkelsen’s villain in Casino Royale) is helped along by her playing a mute character – she’s had her tongue cut out by Indians. Mikkelsen’s opposite is gang leader Henry Delarue, very well played by Jeffery Dean Morgan, whom I know best as Watchmen‘s Comedian.
All-in-all this was a decent movie, worth watching. I’m glad there are European filmmakers willing to augment Hollywood’s sequel-fest. This one is particularly well-suited to American audiences who might otherwise shy away from foreign productions. While the Danish characters occasionally speak to each other in their own language**, the vast bulk of the film is in good ole American English. It’s an action shoot-em-up, so the tension is mostly of the “how’s he going to get out of this one” variety. It’s not deep, but its what we expect from the genre.
So The Salvation is good, but I can’t call it great. With Netflix films, I always must struggle with their rating system. I’d give this one 3 1/2 stars, but that’s not an option. So is it 3 1/2, closer to 3 or 3 1/2, closer to 4? In this case it gets a “closer to 3” rating and I have a couple of specific issues. There is, of course, what I led off with. The story is a stock Western tale, done so often its not even worth trying to figure out what it copied. But while copying Shane can get you an entertaining Pale Rider, to create The Unforgiven, you have to have something unique to say. Yet even given the stock plot, in this case I found the story too depressing. Maybe it was me and what I was in the mood for, but at some point I was thinking that, while we’ve got to see our hero driven to seek vengeance, does that mean simply killing everyone?
A third strike comes from the portrayal of guns, an inability to do correctly seems endemic to Hollywood. Of course this isn’t exactly Hollywood – it’s a European production, filmed in a believably-American-looking South Africa. Nor it is it all that bad relative to other movies. Still, the one thing that got me was the use of rechambering lever actions to indicate the imminent threat of a shooting. The first time Mikkelsen finds discarded rifle, he wisely checks the chamber. So far so good. But as the film goes on, it seems like every encounter, nearly every shot fired, has to be preceded by ejecting a round and chambering a new one. At some point, I couldn’t take it any more.
The final area where I have some criticism and parting thoughts is the historical grounding of the film, of which there is little. Not that I would expect it. Everything to this point says action film, not historical drama. I also was required to learn a little Danish history to understand the backstory of the main characters, which is an added bonus. However, the key twist to the movie – the tie in to big oil – is way out of its historical context. The discovery of oil and the beginnings of its use for consumer goods is probably about right time-wise, its just in the wrong place. Oil was being extracted from Canadian Oil fields and, circa 1871, there was some oil harvesting occurring in the American northeast. A woman named Lyne Taliaferro Barret had even begun the effort to extract oil from her Texas land by this time, but she was still nearly 20 years out from completing her project. The idea that a sinister big-oil corporation could be driving the criminal activity in this film is a fevered 20-teens dream.
There was another historical bit, however, that got me to wondering, and on this one I don’t know the answers. A Western trope that pervades the genre is the small town taken over by a menacing bandit gang. In film, it is the quest of the hero to free the innocents by killing (or just running off) the bad guy that makes the story. While corruption and powerful criminal syndicates are all too common, now as well as in the past, how “realistic” is this story? Was this a feature of the post-Civil War west that even organized, but isolated, settlements would frequently fall victim to lawlessness and extortion? If that did indeed happen, was it more likely to have been tied to organized activity (Ranchers, Cattlemen, Railroads, Oilmen, etc.) or was it a form of petty warlordism rising in the wilderness? Something to think about.
Unlike this movie, which isn’t an occasion for deep thoughts. Enjoy the action. Enjoy the shootouts. Expect Mikkelsen to get his revenge in the end.
*Vesper Lynd appears in Casino Royale to manage the financing for Bond’s gambling venture. Eva Green’s character in The Salvation, The Princess (also Madeline), manages the money for Delarue’s crew. Coincidence? I think not.
**Jon’s wife and son, having just arrived from Denmark, speak no English. Said wife is played by Danish pop-star, Oh Land, who is also the money.