Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Directed by Joshua Logan

Artistic Value: * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * *

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While Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin), a rough, hard drinking frontiersman living in the Wild West, is burying the body of a man killed when his wagon went over a cliff, he notices gold dust in the soil of the man's grave. He promptly claims the ground for himself and the dead man's unconscious brother (Clint Eastwood), whom he names as his "Pardner." When Pardner awakens, he discovers that a mining town has risen up in the wilderness and that Ben is working a claim for the two of them. Shortly thereafter, a Mormon arrives in this newly founded city with his two wives and sells one of them, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), to Ben for eight-hundred dollars. Unfortunately, the attention the town's solitary female citizen receives from its male inhabitants causes Ben to become increasingly jealous and to begin to violently threaten every person he suspects may be interested in her. In order to restore peace to their community, the townsmen decide to send Ben and several others on a mission to kidnap a group of French prostitutes so that they can set up a brothel. While Ben is away acquiring these women, however, Elizabeth and Pardner fall in love. Since Elizabeth also loves Ben, the three decide that the two men will share her as their wife. In the days that follow, Ben, Pardner, and Elizabeth live contentedly together in their thriving town, until a group of righteous pioneers arrive and threaten to bring respectability to their free living community.

Although Joshua Logan's musical Paint Your Wagon is not a tremendous success artistically, the movie is so odd and so vibrant that it is generally fun to watch.

The film's naughty comedy, constant silliness, and sheer exuberance give it a genuine appeal and are able to keep the viewer engaged through much of its duration. What is more, even though there is little in Paint Your Wagon that is likely to strike the viewer as especially clever or inventive, the inclusion of a fair number of scenarios and themes satirizing Western values does ensure that the movie is usually enjoyable.

Sadly, the director's mockery of religious bigotry and middle-class morality is undercut by his apparent acceptance that such morality is, ultimately, more satisfying than is any rejection of it. Although he shows, for instance, the wild rantings of an itinerant preacher who rails against the decadence of the mining town, the joys of a young farm boy when he discovers the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, and sex, and the hypocrisy of a pious Mormon who is willing to sell one of his wives, Logan also makes it apparent that the free society of the mining town is, in fact, self-destructive and that the polyandrous marriage of the film's protagonists is not as fulfilling as is the monogamous bond of a man and a woman.

Such shortcomings, regrettably, are not overshadowed by the quality of the movie's musical numbers, which are never particularly impressive. Clint Eastwood does prove himself to be a decent if not accomplished singer, but Lee Marvin fails to display even a modicum of musical talent. The sequences in which he dances are even worse. Although the actor appears to be enjoying himself immensely, the spectacle he puts on is about as pleasing as watching the efforts of an awkward friend or family member cavorting about after having had too many drinks.

Perhaps the film's greatest fault is that it is simply too long. The tremendous energy which, for much of its duration, gives Paint Your Wagon a real appeal, eventually wears out, and, after it does, the film begins to grow tedious. Even though it regains some of its momentum with its frenetic conclusion, the movie still feels too long.

Paint Your Wagon is not an impressive film, but it is, for most of its duration, entertaining and is, consequently, worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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