Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alvarez Kelly

Alvarez Kelly posterAlvarez Kelly (1966) tells of a cattleman whose herd becomes the object of a tug-of-war between Union and Confederate forces during the food-scarce days of the American Civil War. The tale would be unremarkable if not for its eponymous hero, also known as the Irish Señor. In contrast to the other characters, who provide single-minded and unquestioning service to their side of the Civil War, Kelly has a complex and critical relationship to the United States.

Alvarez Kelly is a suave cigar-smoking cowboy who has just finished three months of herding his beef cattle across the prairies to deliver them to Union colonel Albert Steadman. To his dismay, Steadman informs him that he is now to take them by rail to Richmond, Virginia. The men argue, but Steadman points to his contractual obligations to deliver the cattle to the area deemed most urgent. Kelly concedes and takes the steers east, making it clear that he does not give a damn who wins the war, he just wants to collect his pay. We learn that he is making a hefty sum from war profiteering, buying cattle for $2 a head and selling them for $20. But Kelly is not merely a money-grubbing renegade. His intelligent manner of speaking, peppered with sardonic remarks, hint that his motivations are more complex than they appear.

Kelly and Steadman bring the herd to the homestead of the ironically named Southern belle Charity Warwick; ironic because while Steadman praises her for allowing the cattle to graze in the northern pasture, Kelly shrewdly points out that this pasture is the one most in need of fertilizer, proving his conviction that there is a selfish streak in every righteous act. Confederate raiders, abetted by Warwick, rob and kidnap Kelly. However, it is not just his money they want, but his expertise to herd the cattle around the Union lines encircling Richmond to feed hungry Confederate soldiers, expertise that Kelly is loathe to give. Their leader, the mean Tom Rossigner, locks Kelly in jail and even shoots a finger off until Kelly resigns to training his rag-tag Confederate cavalrymen. Eventually the Confederates acquire basic herding skills and the Unionists, though nervous that Kelly will help Rossigner to steal the precious cattle, are confident that their army has Richmond on lockdown.

One day at dawn the Confederates swarm Warwick’s property and, thanks to her tip-offs, deftly round up the Unionists. However, Steadman escapes and is granted a three-hundred strong regiment from the general, which he stations at the only bridge where the cattle-thieves could cross. Rossigner is resigned to defeat, and intends to drown the cattle rather than forfeit them to the Union, until Kelly steps in with a plan to storm the bridge with the massive herd and slip by the Unionists in the ensuing chaos. The plan works, and in the midst of stamping hooves and cannon fire the Confederates reach the other side of the gunpowder-rigged bridge, including Kelly who stalls to rescue a fallen man then dives from the exploding bridge. This final selfless act earns Rossigner’s respect and the men bid each other farewell. Kelly rides off with no cattle, no money, a missing ring finger and a bad reputation with the Union, but the broad smile on his face indicates that he is happy with the outcome.

Alvarez Kelly is a wandering cowboy whose life has been defined by the fracturing of nation-states, both Mexican and American. He already had a hyphenated identity, with Irish heritage and Mexican nationality, but this was further complicated by his violent displacement by the Mexican-American War twenty years ago. Kelly relates that his father was killed defending their Texas home "in the 'Mexican War' I think you call it. We had other names for it: 'Theft of a piece of our country.'" This strong indictment of American foreign policy comes as a surprise in this Civil War action film. Kelly goes on to reveal the roots of his indifference to the Civil War; he sees the soldiers that dismembered Mexico as the same ones that are now divided down Civil War lines, “So I say Alvarez Kelly, take what you can from either side. Small return for your birthright.” In light of this statement, one can see the hypocrisy of the American characters constantly berating Kelly for making a profit on their war; the United States robbed him almost half of his country.

Kelly has a nihilistic approach to life, no doubt attributable to the shifting borders during his youth and the injustice of his loss. At one point he groans: “God deliver me from dedicated men.” For Kelly, the causes that people dedicate themselves to are often self-serving and of limited use. He is not a man who is moved by causes, but rather by instincts. The filmmakers seem to share in this view, portraying neither the Confederacy nor the Union as more righteous, and casting a negative light on those who go to great extremes for personal or political gain. Only an outsider, a Mexican man with no faith in ideology, could serve as such an effective counterpoint to these dedicated generals, scheming damsels, and fanatical colonels.

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