Burt Lancaster is an uncompromising lawman who defies the odds when he single-handedly confronts a gang of killers in this "extraordinarily perceptive" (Films & Filming) and action-packed taleof life and justice on the Ame... more »rican frontier. When Sabbath town-boss Vincent Bronson (Cobb) and his drunken ranch hands unwittingly kill an old man in Bannack, everyone knows it was an accident. Everyone, that is, except Bannack's marshal, Jered Maddox (Lancaster). A tough, no-nonsense manof the law, Maddox is determined to bring the killers to justice. Trailing them back to Sabbath, Maddox makes his intentions clear: "I'm gonna take these men back with me," he vows, "or kill them where they stand." So when Bronson sends word that he wants to make a deal, the inflexible Maddox refuses, a decision that forces Bronson's men to let their guns do the talking. But Jered Maddox is not aman to back down...he'll bring these desperate killers back to Bannack, his way. Dead or alive.« less
"I am compelled to write a review of Lawman in an attempt to dispel some oft repeated misunderstandings about the film. The most common error applied to the film is that it is morally ambiguous. Lawman the film is not morally ambiguous as such. The Lawman, Jered Maddox (Lancaster), is clearly the most outstanding and praiseworthy character in the film. The confusion comes in only if we attempt to universalize morality in a Kantian fashion, thereby making the actions of the Lawman "immoral" because of his willingness to use force when discharging his duties. The fact that the majority of the other characters are immoral or simply utilitarian (looking only to their self-interest) in their moral views does not in any way mystify the issue to those willing to clearly look at the circumstances of the story. A bunch of drunken cowboys accidentally killed an old man and refuse to return to the scene of the crime to stand trial, insisting it was an accident and that it should not matter anyway. Thus Maddox, knowing full-well the kind of arrogance and blatant disregard for juridical authority he is up against, states "I'm going to take these men back with me or kill them where they stand." Maddox is under no illusion about the outcome of the trial if and when it does take place. He knows the leader of the cowboys, Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), is a wealthy cattle baron and will be able to "buy the circuit judge cheap." But he is committed to his duty. Maddox is his duty: the guardian of the law. We find this hard to accept today in our era of feel good humanism which seeks to muddy everything in the waters of "moral ambiguity." Why will he not compromise? That is exactly what the cowboys who killed the old man want, a compromise, i.e. they want to get off without any trouble and without accepting any responsibility for their actions. They want Maddox to "be reasonable." Maddox refuses, however, to be dissuaded, bought-off or bullied into giving in; he is unmoved and unwavering in his devotion to his duty, fully knowing his duty is both dangerous and unpopular with the demos. Maddox does briefly consider giving in after a little female persuasion, but realizes he can do no such thing. "You can't change who you are and if you try something always calls you back."
Most of us are simply not like Maddox--which is the point of the film--and thus find ourselves disliking the Lawman and feeling sympathy for the criminals. After all, Maddox is a killer too, as he readily admits. The difference is that Maddox's job is to protect the law under the very difficult circumstances of trans-Pecos Texas in 1887. Since humans are not by nature just or lawful (for why would we need "the law" otherwise?) the guardian of the law cannot himself be just by the ambiguous standards of a demos that reduces everything to trade--which is inevitable when social relations revolve around making money(cf. Rousseau, _First Discourse_)--or there would be no legal order. When facing men willing to use force and other illegal means to evade the law the Lawman must have extraordinary means at his disposal. In such circumstances the function of the Lawman is not to be moral as such but rather to make it possible for others to be moral. We find this distasteful because of our belief in "equality" and other nonsensical Enlightenment anthropological concepts. But it is important to remember that the Lawman has no choice but to act in such a way (unless he too sells out), given the corrupt nature of the demos that equates justice with the equivalency mechanism of trade. (Another problem being indirectly pointed to here is that the law is not always just. In itself, however, this does not affect our analysis of Lawman here, except to point out that the prohibition against murder is not absolute in a Kantian fashion. Lawman is Hegelian ethically.) It is indeed an awesome responsibility to be the guardian of the law under such circumstances. At least in this case, however, the Lawman is up to it. He will not be bought-off or bullied. Lawman the film is Shane, High Noon and Rio Bravo rolled into one, and better than all of them precisely because of its more authentic view, assessment and representation of human depravity.
Those familiar with Eastwood's Unforgiven will notice some striking similarities. The writer of Unforgiven (David Webb Peoples) had doubtlessly seen Lawman, for it seems he borrowed a few scenes and a bit of dialogue from Lawman. The difference between Lawman and Unforgiven is that Maddox is clearly the protagonist of this film whereas in Unforgiven the lawman, Little Bill, attempts to adapt his behavior to the moral standards of the community (by accepting the demos' desire to reduce law to commerce or trade negotiations) and thus becomes "morally ambiguous." Maddox however is not interested in conformity to anything but his duty. As the morally ambiguous marshal of Sabbath, Ryan, tells Bronson: "Some men just go to things in a straight line Mr. Bronson. They don't bend and they don't trade." What makes Lawman a better film than Unforgiven is that it does not attempt to play on present day sympathies. Lawman scorns identity politics and the over-all moralizing atmosphere of Unforgiven. In Lawman there is the hint of the feeling of loss for the time--prior to the complete commercialization of Western nomoi--when a man could devote himself to his duty as Maddox does."
The real deal
Mykal Banta | Boynton Beach, FL USA | 11/24/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Burt Lancaster plays a marshall that is going to take some men in for trail or kill them. That is the beginning and the end of the discussion. This is a fascinating film. What makes it so is the reaction everyone has to such an unbending, uncompromising man. The townspeople are not behind Lancaster because the men he wants to take in all work for a very important town leader that has done much to support and help the town grow. The town boss, played with complexity by Lee J. Cobb, admits his men did wrong, but wants to "negotiate" a kind of deal with Lancaster. Lancaster is not a negotiator. He is a killer with a star on his chest. This is the other interesting aspect of this film: as the Lancaster character tells an idealistic cowboy, "a lawman is a man-killer. That is his business." All in all, a tough, lean Western with an unusually hard edge. Lancaster's ice-blue eyes dominate the film, with great performances throughout by, notably, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Ryan (as an aging gunfighter looking for an easy slide), and Robert Duvall. The writing is excellent, also, with many memorable lines that say a lot with few words. A little-known Western but, in my opinion, one that wouldn't be out of place in any discussion of the all time greats of the genre."
One of my top 5 all time favorite Westerns
Mykal Banta | 05/03/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The plotline is simple. Jarrod Maddox (Burt Lancaster), is an aging lawman, still extremely capable, who arrives in town and gives notice that the men involved in a killing will return with him for trial "or I'll kill them where they stand".What unfolds is truly interesting, given depth by the rich characterizations of Lee J. Cobb, Robert Ryan (two exceptional supporting actors), Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, Sheree North and others (look for Robert Duvall in a pre-Godfather role, as well as Ralph Waite, pre-Waltons) and a story that does not move in a conventional direction.More than once I have read reviews of this film that criticize its ending. I strongly disagree with this assessement. I think that the ending completes the drama fittingly. The ending is violent and disturbing, even dark, but this should lend itself toward reflection, not scorn."
"First, the caution: the "widescreen" VHS version is a sham! It doesn't show you the actual original widescreen film, it simply chops off the top and bottom of the already reduced TV image! So just buy the regular VHS or the DVD,and make some noise on chat boards and elsewhere till they release a true widescreen version of this beautiful, beautiful film.Okay, this is the longest review I've ever written, but here's why. I watch a LOT of movies (I'm a film and lit prof). IMHO, this is the most underrated film I've ever seen.First off, DON'T THINK OF THIS FILM AS A WESTERN! If you do, you'll miss out on a great artistic experience, and that would be a shame. It is a film that, among several other things, bravely challenges the macho ethic while presenting characters of enormous moral ambiguity, all the while featuring a) some of my favorite direction ever, and b) simply unmatchable acting. Oh yeah, it takes place in the West :-).Winner's directing is incredibly thought-provoking, literally second-by-second. Never, ever have I seen a more thoughtfully directed film--every once in a while he over-thinks, but it's more than forgivable. Just two of many elements: The cuts from scene to scene are ALL great, and there are no wasted moments, everything provokes thought.Two examples: 1. Two macho guys are talking about all the land they own, and this weird flute theme slowly rises, creating an odd dissonance--suddenly we cut to a mouth playing the flute, then we realize it's Lancaster: Mr. Macho himself, out to get the other two, but differentiated from them through his flute playing--yet he then has to grab a gun because of a simple knock on the door, and we're reminded of his reality, and then we're presented with the sad irony of his throwing open the door and pointing the gun at his long-lost love...just moment after moment after moment, nothing wasted. 2. A shot of the marshal in bed with a prostitute jumpcuts to a close-up of a beautiful desert flower on a cactus, a subtle echo of both the dissipated marshal and the prostitute--but it's not a gratuitous shot, because behind the flower we then see 4 guys riding in to the climax of the film. Every symbol or image in this film is neatly tied in with the action: nothing feels cheap or forced. Virtually every scene is as thoughtfully constructed as the two moments I just described.The moral complexity of the film. Everybody has a different reaction to this film, and that reaction tells the viewer something about him/herself--what more do you want from art? (Aside from that it entertain, which this film does.) Most of my students find themselves defending a group of men who begin the film by randomly shooting and burning a small town and are so arrogant that they then refuse to attend even a sham trial. Winner achieves these myriad reactions through his brilliant work with Lancaster, Cobb, and Ryan, all of whom are as multilayered as one could hope for in 100 minutes. For me, Lancaster's character is a near-hero, yet I understand why many of my students despise him. Rarely, very rarely, is a U.S.-studio film this morally complex and ambiguous.The acting. The first scene between Lancaster and Ryan consists of two marshals standing around talking about a case for about four minutes, essentially giving necessary background plot--not the stuff of riveting cinema, right? Yet it's without question one of my favorite scenes in film history. That's how good the acting is in this film. Lancaster puts across sarcasm and disgust with a subtlety few others can equal, concluding, "Just good cowboy fun. (pause) They killed an old man." Ryan's weathered, cynical face takes on the slightest bit of interest as he says, "Kin?" These are two guys who have transcended the cliches of their acting generation and simply become uniquely superb actors. Don't expect Method (and I've nothing against Method!); just expect Lancaster and Ryan at their absolute peak. Same with Cobb, and the supporting cast is just about perfect, led by Richard Jordan and Sheree North. (An aside: a strong case can be made that North's character--essentially the only woman with a speaking role in the film--is the most admirable, strong, and intelligent person in the film: another thing that sets this apart from typical "Westerns," or typical anything!)I've found in my studies that it's pretty random what gets labelled a "classic" and what gets forgotten--it has so much to do with studio politics of the time, what other films came out that week, how a film is promoted (the promo for Lawman is horrid), the personal taste of the hip critics, etc. If you like thoughtful, beautifully acted and directed films, PLEASE GIVE THIS FILM A CHANCE: I think you'll like it! Thanks for reading this whole thing :-)!"
One man who doesn't bow to people who break the law
Erik North | San Gabriel, CA USA | 07/12/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"One of the most underappreciated westerns ever made, LAWMAN stars Burt Lancaster as a hard-bitten, taciturn lawman from the town of Bannock who rides seemingly for a hundred miles to the town of Sabbath to take in a group of cowboys who, in a drunken shooting spree, had shot up his town and killed an old man.But his appearance in Sabbath causes considerable hostility among the townsfolk, because they owe their livelihoods to that same bunch, led by Lee J. Cobb, and are unwilling to give it up. Lancaster, unsurprisingly, is unmoved. Therein hangs this solid, almost psychological, sagebrush saga.Lancaster, as usual, is brilliant in his role of an efficient, cold-blooded lawman, and Cobb is equally special as the leader of the group of cowboys being sought. This is not your typical good guys/bad guys saga: what happened in Bannock was a tragic accident, and Lancaster may be pushing his authority a bit too far. Robert Ryan, always one of the better and more overlooked actors in Hollywood, gives one of his greatest performances as Sabbath's aging, pragmatic marshal.Probably Michael Winner's best film as a director, LAWMAN was shot on location in central Mexico and has some stark photography by British cameraman Robert Paynter, giving it a look not out of place in a Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone film. It is violent in places, but it makes for very good viewing, especially for those who appreciate westerns of this type."