All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.
– Pilar Cruz, LONE STAR
The US-Mexico border has long been used in American cinema as a convenient shorthand for the USA’s relationship with the outside world as a whole, and the lurking threat of the “Other”. With the spectre of colonialism hanging overhead, films such as LONE STAR (1996) took advantage of its melting pot of cultures and politics. The war on drugs often features heavily, as in Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000), and this being the place where the violent histories of two nations collide leads to depictions of the banks of the Rio Grande as being a kind of a lawless, uncharted no-man’s land, as in Tommy Lee Jones’ superlative modern Western THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005).
1. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
In a run-down border town a murder organised on the Mexican side of town is committed on the American side. The famous 3 minute 20 second opening tracking shot follows our characters as they cross into the US. The myth of the untameable outpost of the border country has lent itself especially well to two genres: the Western and the film noir. Welles’ murky crime thriller focuses on two policemen, one from each side of the line, the geographic border also serving as a metaphor for the line long ago crossed by Welles’ corrupt detective Hank Quinlan.
“A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, captain. Who’s the boss – the cop or the law?”
2. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
Peckinpah became fascinated by the Mexican revolution at an early age. The country had endured a long succession of conquerors – the Aztecs, the Spanish, the French, the Americans followed by its own authoritarian Federales, but for a few short years it looked as thought the chain of tyranny might be broken. The dichotomy between the simple pastoral dreams of Pancho Villa and the bloody violence of the uprising lies behind all Peckinpah’s films for which the country is a major backdrop: MAJOR DUNDEE (1965), BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) and THE WILD BUNCH. THE WILD BUNCH shares a basic structure with many Westerns set in this part of the world, such as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960): cynical American mercenaries become involved in the struggles of local villagers to overthrow their oppressors and eventually pay the ultimate price. The opening shot of the children torturing a scorpion puts us in the same unforgiving climate as Welles’seedy tracking shot through the bars and whore houses of his border town, but in all Peckinpah’s Mexican films his protagonists come to find a kind of redemption through the country’s people and its landscape.
3. THE BORDER (1982)
Tony Richardson’s film had its origins in a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times on people smuggling. Jack Nicholson plays a Texas border patrol guard who reluctantly begins to accept payoffs to bring illegal immigrants across the border. In doing so he crosses a border of his own into a world of kidnappings and murder. A strangely overlooked gem, with a terrifically understated performance from Nicholson, it also features Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates and a great soundtrack by Ry Cooder.
4. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)
A film where the very act of crossing the border launches us from an American Tarantino-esque getaway crime caper into a frenzied vampire splatter movie once we’re inside the Mexican bar. I went to a bar in Mexico once. They had a Michael Jackson impersonator on. In 2011. Terrifying.
5. RIO LOBO (1970)
Howard Hawks’ final Texas Western, and his weakest. Legend has it that when Hawks called John Wayne to offer to send him the script, Wayne replied “Why bother? I’ve already made the movie twice.” And indeed they had, in 1958 (RIO BRAVO) and again in 1967 (EL DORADO). At least the latter added Robert Mitchum into the mix, enough of an excuse to remake any film in my book, but this time the production has to make do with Mitchum’s son Christopher and a lacklustre supporting cast. Hawks and Wayne are just sleepwalking thoughout.