The Hired Hand and the Interchangeability of Men

The Hired HandAlan Sharp wrote the screenplay for one of my very favorite films, Dean Spanley. It is notably superior to the Edward Plunkett short story it was based on. So I’ve been going back and watching some other films he wrote. Last week, I wrote about The Osterman Weekend, Idealistic Basis of Liberal Patriotism. And before I had written about another of his movies, Night Moves and the Tragic Search for the Truth. This last weekend, I got a copy of another film, The Hired Hand.

It is a Peter Fonda film, released in 1971, just a month and a half after Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. It shouldn’t be surprising that the films look a lot alike; they were both lit by Vilmos Zsigmond. But there is much less of a flamboyant quality to it in The Hired Hand. And that is what most comes across in the film: the effort to tell the story in the most direct way possible. But that’s not to say that film is all that direct. For one thing, Sharp leaves a whole lot unstated. For another, the editing by Frank Mazzola (at Fonda’s request) is ostentatious, even while it is largely effective.

The Hired Hand tells the story of Harry Collings (Fonda). When he was 20 years old, he married a 30 year old woman. She had a daughter and soon after, Collings hit the trail, spending the next 7 years wandering around with Arch Harris (Warren Oates). Collings decides to go back home and try to get back together with his wife. Complications ensue. First, his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) is not a shrinking violet, but a strong and self-assured woman. Second, the film is bookmarked by the story of the killing of a friend of Collings and Harris, and their reprisal and counter-reprisal.

In addition to McCabe & Mrs Mill, the film reminded me of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 classic El Topo. There is something about the pacing, the lack of specificity. Is the story really about Harry Collings? Certainly in the context of Hollywood it is. But he isn’t very interesting. By far, Hannah is the most interesting character. There is a clear reading of the film in which men really are interchangeable: the hired hands. At one point, Hannah even says so to Harris, “Wouldn’t really matter if it was you or him tonight.” Of course, you don’t need to see it that way. At The American Conservative, Bill Kauffman wrote that it was “a lovely meditation on friendship and responsibility.” I see that; I just don’t really agree with it.

But that’s when films are at their best: when they take the viewers seriously enough to have them take part in the creation of the work. Still, I think that both McCabe & Mrs Miller and El Topo are better. That’s mostly because The Hired Hand is too short. If you took out flashy transitions, I doubt the film would be 70 minutes long. So I think the viewer is left with the feeling that there isn’t quite enough material to gnaw on. But it still offers far more nourishment than most films.

21 thoughts on “The Hired Hand and the Interchangeability of Men

  1. Certainly more then that damn Star Wars I cannot escape.

    Although funnily enough, the plot sounds like something that supposedly happened in my family tree on my mother’s side. One of the great grandparental units had a husband who liked to roam around doing terrible things to the native people. My great grandmother eventually divorced him for his roaming ways in a time when that was just Not Done. Women in the west then had to be pretty tough and she was tough enough to raise five kids mostly on her own (he stopped by long enough to leave her with them although I think she had a “friend” from one of the tribes since my grandfather and mother look decidedly different then the rest of the family.)

    • The myth of the “little woman” is mostly something of polite society. And I don’t know how much it was ever true of actual working people. It’s kind of a bourgeois concept.

      • I think the myth was created to give women some excuse for the fact that they were forcibly shoved out of the public sphere when industrialization occurred. “Oh we took everything you did of value away from you? Well um, here have a myth about how you create a lovely home for a man who does way more important things than you will ever do since we certainly don’t want you doing anything like that.”

        I was listening to “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” once and it suddenly dawned on me why she was annoyed beyond his being an idiot on the battlefield-he wrecked her career since the acceptable option was being a wife and mother.

        • I have been fascinated to watch how a lot of men have the attitude that they are superior because they make money — or more generally because they make more money. Of course, shoving women out of the public sphere is far older, but they had different justifications. Rigid sexual roles are mostly a result of civilization. It’s very strange because I do rather like civilization.

          I’m more fond of “The Night Chicago Died.” But can you imagine the conservative uproar if “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” were a hit today? How dare we not honor the troops! (Even though the song romanticizes the subject.) As Carly Fiorina told us at the last debate: we need to bring back the “warrior class.” Because we’re Spartans, apparently.

          • Civilization has some benefits. But the weird thing is it has these common traits that regularly appear like how the initial Roman empire had some opening up for women to not being domestic chattel. And the same has happened with our civilization. Yet there is always a backlash against women for some reason and they are forced into subjugation once again whenever there is a collapse in the overarching civilization.

            I can imagine the uproar. As I think we both agree-the Republicans think life is movie so naturally she would think we should all be Spartans. And that means we should worship (not actually take care of) our soldiers.

            • But that’s the weird thing. My understanding is that Spartan was much more egalitarian with regard to gender, whereas Athens, with all its great thinkers, was terrible toward women. It’s really strange.

              I think the backlash isn’t against women as such; it’s just the same old conservative complaint that the way things were is the way they should be. I mean, look at abortion. As I noted long ago, the movement would eventually turn to birth control. And that’s because it ain’t about the fetus; it’s about what women ought to be; and according to them, women should be some kind of Victorian ideal.

              • Someone had to mind the farming, production of weapons and other things was done while the men were off playing their war games. So that meant leaving it in the hands of women since apparently slaves were right out.

                Female sexuality has always seem to upset men for some reason. Either we like sex and that is bad and proof women are terrible or we don’t like it and it is proof we are terrible. We can’t win. And the anti-choice people are all about being upset women have unauthorized by them sex.

                • But I think the tendencies towards this is really small. And that is why civilization pushes this slight tendencies of individuals to a very unfortunate extreme. But as you like to point out, this do improve. If we can just hold it together for another couple hundred years, things might be very good.

                  • If you mean how every male (at least in my experience) has this vague unease when a woman is explicit in her sexuality even when in an appropriate place for it? And some of those men really let it control them by becoming the ones who think that no woman should have sexual thoughts without it being carefully controlled?

                    Then yes. And it does appear to be slowly dropping since young women ten or so years younger than me seem a lot less fearful of being honest about what they want so they are not suffering as much of a social cost anymore.

                    • No, not exactly. I mean it in a more general sense of men wanting to control women. Of course, it isn’t just women; men want to control everything. But the main thing is how small tendencies get magnified by civilization.

                    • I view it coming back to the issue of controlling sex. Who gets to have it and under what conditions and how it leads to a lot of tragic outcomes.

                    • That is unquestionably true. If you look at the Abrahamic faiths, you will see a general terror toward female sexuality. Look at the way we are so concerned children seeing women’s breasts. First, all children have seen them before in the most up-close and personal way. Second, most other cultures don’t have this taboo.

                    • What I find confusing, as a woman, is why? Why does it cause so much unease?

                      The only explanation that makes sense is the problems with property and since no one had DNA tests back in the day…

                    • I really don’t know. There’s got to be a good book on the subject. Go find it and report back! That is if you can drag yourself away from, The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex.

                    • I read that in an afternoon. It really lacked anything sexy so I was pretty disappointed.

                    • Kristen Schaal is not normally who I think of when the subject of sex comes but, but that is probably why she talks about it a lot. She’s one of my favorite comedians.

                    • Yes, you have mentioned her before. I suppose most people do not think of comedians and sex unless they are very attracted to the comedian.

    • Oh, fuck. I succumbed to marketing and bought a ticket for “Star Wars.” I’m not proud of this. I stayed long enough to finish my popcorn and fled, it was terrible. My brain actually went through the process of:

      — You could be watching “Rick & Morty” cartoons instead of this crap.
      — True, but I paid for the ticket. I can watch cartoons on my computer anytime. Stick around! It might get less self-referentially awful.
      — Aren’t you miserable, though?
      — Ye Gods, I really am.
      — Your money’s gone. If you really want to see the rest of this . . .
      — I don’t!
      — . . . then you can get it on DVD from the library in eight months. Sitting here and being miserable doesn’t save you a dime. Unless you want to buy another huge tub of popcorn.
      — Shit, no. I’ll hate myself for a week after finishing off that first one.
      — So go home and watch cartoons already!
      — You know, I think I will.

      This is not that far from how my crazy brain works. It doesn’t actually take on different voices! The above process probably took about five seconds. I’m narcissistic and uncaring, not schizophrenic. Or at least that’s what I’m told.

      • I am so tempted to point and laugh. I went to play in the snow instead of going to see that movie I was so over with. The marketing on it was insane and I am probably not going to see it ever.

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