Between Red Lodge, Montana and Bear Creek, a winding county highway snakes over a low rocky ridge and, then, past some abandoned mine workings on the hillside. A mile away, on the low, arid hill across the arroyo, there is a cemetery with many identical white crosses. A shiny and cheerless granite monument explains that the cemetery contains the victims of the Smith Mine disaster, a calamity that occurred in 1913 -- 77 men went underground but only three survived the methane blast deep in the mine. The arroyo is dry, with a scatter of nondescript ruins next to the sandy draw. I've been there four or five times and the heat is always searing, the graveyard spiky with cactus. (An even more haunting place is the ghost-town of Dawson, New Mexico, another barren canyon where a once thriving, mining town has simply vanished -- even the foundations are gone. But the cemetery with the graves of over 380 men killed in two mining explosions still occupies a gravel terrace on the side of the canyon, unkempt, wild, and tragic.)
The Netflix western, Godless, is set in New Mexico in 1881 and concerns, in part, a similar mining disaster. At the fictional town of La Belle, about 80 miners have perished in a fire in the pit. (A single survivor, a man named "John Doe" because the fire happened on his first day at work and no one surviving knows his real name, wanders half-crazed through the streets of the town adjacent to the now-abandoned head-house and mills of the La Belle silver mine.) The premise of the show is that the widows of the dead miners have not left the town, but, instead, have established a sort of female Republic -- it's a curious polity: the women maintain shabby genteel customs, some of them engaging in same-sex love affairs; everyone is armed to the teeth since it is expected that violent men will soon enough discover the gynocracy and attack it. The town whore, made prosperous by the dead miners, operates the local school. A number of plot lines compete for attention in the seven episode show, but the show's moral center is the regiment of women in the village -- this is the site to which the narrative continually returns.
On the outskirts of town, another widow, thought to be bad luck by the ladies in the village, operates a ranch. This widow lives with her Paiute mother-in-law, a woman with powers as a healer, and her gentle teenage son, Truckee. One night, an intruder ventures on the widow's ranch and she shoots him. The wounded man, who is nursed back to health, is Roy Goode, a lethal gunfighter, who was formerly the protégée of a psychotic bandit named, Frank Griffin. Goode is a character obviously modeled on Alan Ladd's Shane, a courteous, even shy gunslinger whose skill with his 38 (in a speech, he criticizes gunmen who carry 45 caliber side-arms as, perhaps, lacking in confidence) will undoubtedly come in handy when the mini-series' climactic seventh episode is reached. The Paiutes have delivered 40 head of Indian ponies to the widow and Goode also reveals himself as good with horses -- he agrees to break the horses, presumably so that there will be time for a romance to blossom between himself and the widow (played by the formidable and cadaverous-looking Michelle Dockery, apparently previously featured far from the West on Downton Abbey.) In flashbacks, we learn that Goode has broken ranks with his ferocious father-figure, the unpredictable and murderous Frank Griffin and, indeed, made the rupture irrevocable by shooting off Griffin's arm. (In an early scene, Griffin's shattered arm is amputated; this doesn't slow down the old reprobate one whit -- he is back to murdering and raping before the end of the next episode, even though he is still carrying his amputated arm in his saddle-bag and brandishing his bloody stump at foes). Griffin has murdered every man, woman, and child in the town of Creede, Colorado and, of course, early episodes foreshadow that the final showdown will be between Griffin's army of bad guys and the women in the town of La Belle led by Griffin's prodigal son, Roy Goode. (Griffin is played by a grey-bearded Jeff Daniels who seems a little muted and, indeed, bewildered by the Captain Ahab-like harangues that he must deliver.) There are a number of subplots -- La Belle's sheriff, a man despised as a feckless coward, goes in solitary pursuit of Griffin, notwithstanding the fact that he is partly blind; the sheriff's sister, played by a very remarkable actress named Merrit Wever, resists the efforts of the town women to sell the mine to a rapacious corporation -- but the sale occurs nonetheless and a new group of thugs, similar to the armed regulators in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, descend on the town to oppress its inhabitants. There's trigger-happy boy who is a deputy sheriff, a group of African-American "buffalo soldiers" living near La Belle in "Blacktown" and a variety of love affairs and romances of various kinds. Sam Waterston has a small role as Federal law man also pursuing Griffin and his mob. Individual episodes are between 70 and 80 minutes long and they proceed in a leisurely fashion -- but the script is so strong and the production values so impressive that, during the first three episodes, my attention never flagged and, in fact, the more I watched the show, the better I liked it. To my taste, the third episode, which was almost entirely an idyll, was the best -- there was a lengthy sequence in which Goode and Truckee tame horses, probably about 20 minutes, that I thought interesting and, then, later a spacious scene in which Truckee and Goode ride in a forest while the gunfighter gives the boy tips as to how to avoid deadfall that "might get your horse in trouble". The exposition is leisurely and, in fact, the underwhelming climax of the scene involves Truckee carefully riding his horse down a hillside intricate with fallen trees -- that is, applying the lessons that Goode has taught him. (In exchange for his services, the widow is teaching Goode how to read.) One plot element marks an advance from my childhood -- the homicidal Frank Griffin was raised by Mormon "avenging angels", the Mormon renegades who engineered the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre in which members of the LDS slaughtered a wagon train of immigrants on the Santa Fe trail, then blaming the atrocity on the local Indians. Griffin's upbringing, apparently intensely abusive, has turned him into some kind of God-obsessed maniac. When I was young the Church of the Latter Day Saints didn't like to talk about the Mountain Meadows massacre -- in fact, they claimed that accounts of the massacre were Gentile propaganda ginned-up to make people hate the Mormons and, in fact, justify military expeditions against them. (When I was in Junior High, my father took us to the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a bleak piece of high chaparral in Utah and I recall vividly the aggrieved anger of the locals at our curiosity when we asked directions to reach that place.)
Godless is shot in the Galisteo basin a little south of Santa Fe, much of it on Cerro Pelon Ranch (the script frequently mentions a place called "Bald Knoll" -- that is, "Cerro Pelon") and the vistas gracing the screen are, often, breathtaking. This is big budget film making with no expenses spared -- Steve Soderburgh produced the series; the acting is first-rate, the photography brilliant and there is even a plaintive folk-song like sound track supervised by "T-Bone" Burnett. The writer and director, Scott Frank, demonstrates, sequence after sequence, an ambition to make the most spectacular and powerful Western ever produced -- that is, he will take motifs from other previous films and amplify them. Whether he will succeed in this endeavor or merely founder in grandiloquence is uncertain to me at this time. The film is a compendium of all Westerns ever shot -- the motif of the destruction of the village by bad men goes back to William S. Hart's Hell's Hinges (1916); the horse-breaking scenes mirror similar sequences featuring Gregory Peck in The Big Country; Goode is like Shane and Frank Griffin is clearly modeled on the terrifying Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: in one scene after committing a rape and terrorizing some Norwegian immigrants, he delivers a lengthy speech about how the West is "godless" that is, "the paradise of the locust" -- this stuff feels like pseudo-Melville outtakes from McCarthy's visionary novel. A train crash in the opening episode is gratuitously spectacular -- it seems devised to compete with our memories of the climactic train crash in How the West was Won. Even the show's premise, which critics think novel, the little Western town ruled by women seems derived from movies like William Wellman's 1951 Westward the Women. None of these borrowings is disturbing -- the Western is a self-referential genre; Western films operate by setting up archetypal scenes and confrontations and, then, making tiny incremental changes to them. Indeed, much of the pleasure in a Western is "ticking off" homages to earlier movies in the genre -- at one point, Roy Goode is shown on horseback dragging a coffin behind him. This Tarantino-like scene, in fact, alludes to the hyper-violent Spaghetti-Western, Django (1966) in which the hero drags a casket containing a Gatling gun into a little hamlet in the desert. In fact, the spirit of the spaghetti-Western hovers over the film -- spaghetti-Westerns always evinced a competitive spirit with respect to their source material: Sergo Leone's Once upon a Time in the West is supposed to be the ultimate Western, the film that dwarfs its predecessors to the extent of even appropriating, some might say misappropriating, the canonical figure of Henry Fonda. Franks' Godless shows the same hubris -- this is evidenced by a scene in which Griffin's army of villains fords a river. Scenes of grouped horsemen crossing a river are integral to the Western -- John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, in particular, luxuriated in this imagery. Frank shows the horseman splashing across the stream, riding in great, glistening nimbuses of backlit spray -- it's fantastically beautiful, but, also, one must admit, somewhat "overdone"; the scene goes on too long and, although its a glorious image, it also suggests a degree of grandiosity that might, ultimately, unravel the film. (That said, I thought that the quietest and least violent episode in the series, "the Wisdom of Horses", the third show in the series was the most moving and best so far -- in other word, Frank knows how to withdraw from the abyss of excess, at least so far...)