Ben Johnson (1918-1996) started out as a stuntman and rodeo rider before making a whole bunch of Westerns with first John Ford and then Sam Peckinpah. It’s his work with the latter on The Wild Bunch, his Oscar-winning performance in The Last Picture Show and his role in the John Milius gangster pic Dillinger that interest me, and should interest you. Perhaps you are one of those poor unfortunate creatures that fail to understand Westerns or gangster movies, but few can resist the slow-burning poignancy of The Last Picture Show, its mournful Hank Williams soundtrack and luminous, monochrome photography.
But let’s start with The Wild Bunch. By the late 1960s, Johnson was a well-established stalwart of undemanding mainstream cowboy movies, appearing alongside John Wayne in films like Rio Ferdinand and The Man Who Walked Like He’d Crapped In His Pants, so agreeing to appear in maverick director Peckinpah’s ultra-violent Wild Bunch might have been seen as a bit of a gamble. In typically modest, self-effacing fashion, he plays fourth fiddle (as Tector Gorch) to the grizzled gang leader William Holden and the eye-rolling, scenery-chewing brilliance of Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates, the two of them vying to make The Wild Bunch their own in the way that Klaus Kinski staked an indisputable claim to Aguirre, Wrath of God. It doesn’t do Johnson any good taking the back seat though – he still gets shot to pieces in slow-motion along with the rest of them, in the film’s long, closing “ballet of violence”. Okay, let’s go….
After that, Ben must have needed to calm down a bit. He accepted an ostensibly backseat role in the film version of Larry McMurty’s The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. One can only assume that Bogdan was easier to work with than Peckinpah, in the sense that prima donnas are easier to work with than alcoholic sons of bitches. The Last Picture Show is set in small-town Texas, and Johnson plays the quiet, self-effacing Sam the Lion, a thinly veiled version of himself, owner of the diner, the pool hall and the cinema – the three social hubs of the community. Everyone takes Sam for granted, including the two young protagonists Duane and Sonny (played by Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms). Sam has the best lines in a film full of great lines, as in the scene below, where he gives the local youf a dressing-down for forcing the simple-minded Billy onto the town prostitute:
Sam is, in sum, the only decent man in a world of redneck idiots, although there are a number of decent, long-suffering women as well, one of whom (Ellen Burstyn) later confides in Duane that she enjoyed an extra-marital fling with Sam when they were younger.
Duane and Sonny take off for a weekend of drinking and whoring down in Mexico, where they run into the Wild Bunch (not really). On their return to Texas, they discover that Sam the Lion has died. Sam the Lion, their rock, the one constant in their life, the adult who welcomed them, however begrudgingly, who indulged them, guided them, and shared his roll-ups with them. They assumed he would always be there – as we do with people we love. From a relatively minor role, Sam becomes, in death, the moral heart of the film, the true star, something recognised by the Best Supporting Oscar Johnson scooped.
In John Milius’ Dillinger he again plays a supporting role, with Warren Oates taking centre stage, but at least he’s the upright good guy to Oates’ charismatic villain, and he gets his man in the end (shot dead outside a cinema). This is the joker in the pack, the under-rated gem (if you like 1970s gangster pics, and who in their right mind doesn’t?). Yes, it’s an unashamed rip-off of Bonnie & Clyde but – like Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama – it’s a good ‘un, with clever use of fake newsreel and an amusing turn from a young Richard Dreyfuss as “Baby-Face” Nelson.
After that, the quality control took a nose dive. Milius used Johnson again, in the execrable Red Dawn. I mean, I’ve got nothing against ultra-right-wing movies if they’re GOOD (think of Dirty Harry, a film which boasts fantastically quotable dialogue by none other than… John Milius) but Red Dawn is the pits. It has NO redeeming features, except for the bit at the end. You know, right after the credits, when the screen goes black. In fact, John Milius is generally the pits. Except for Dillinger. And the dialogue he contributed to Dirty Harry. And Apocalypse Now. But apart from that, what has John Milius ever done for us?
Ben Johnson went on to make millions, and appear in mediocre cult movies like Bite the Bullet and Breakheart Pass – the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino might champion in his more desperate moments. Then, in 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, he won the 100 metres, only to test positive for drugs and be stripped of his Oscar. Oh, sorry – wrong Ben Johnson. Nothing bad ever happened to the ACTOR Ben Johnson, except for Red Dawn and the films he made after that, or with John Wayne. By the time of his death, he was – through a combination of acting, horse-breeding and canny property speculation – worth around $100 million. Not bad for a cowboy. And he never crapped his pants either.
Dai the Llama’s verdict: Ben Johnson, rodeo rider, property magnate and minor actor. I mean, who cares? Did he ever ride a llama? Did he cross the Andes by frog? Is the Pope Argentinian? (note to self – must lay off the ayahuasca).