FIB Review: The Harder They Fall

Representation and diversity are at the forefront of things to consider in film making at the moment. From superhero cinema to romantic comedies, there have been strides in virtually every genre – except the Western. The Harder They Fall aims to change that.

Credit: Vanity Fair

During the pandemic, one of my favourite podcasts was Zaron Burnett’s Black Cowboys. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. As someone who has learnt most of what he knows of the old west by cinematic means, some of the facts Burnett presents are staggering. Like the fact one in four cowboys were black. Burnett tells the tales of legendary figures of the time – Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary, Cherokee Bill, Bill Pickett, and the lawman Bass Reeves.

Genre Representation 

These people embodied the spirit of the old West: tough, no-nonsense, making a name for themselves by their deeds and not their words. For example, Reeves arrested 3,000 criminals in his long career. And killed more than a dozen of them. This number eclipsed by far any of his white counterparts.

Unfortunately, for all this rich history, the representation of these figures in media has been fairly small. As an audience, we associate the West with figures like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood. Of course, Westerns are a product of their time, but the characters I mentioned above, and their compelling, often thrilling stories, deserve to be seen and heard by a wider audience.

Taking these figures, director Jeymes Samuel imagines a story where they all interact. Mining one of the most well-known veins of Western storytelling – revenge – Samuel sets Nat Love on a path to hunt down Rufus Buck, a criminal feared throughout the land. In a striking opening sequence, he murders his mother and father in front of his eyes.

Along with Bill Pickett, Jim Beckworth and Stagecoach Mary, he forms a gang (although comparatively they’re portrayed as a “good” gang, taking their scores from other criminals after the fact). After going off solo to kill who he thinks is the “last one” of the men who were there the day his parents were killed (except Buck, who we learn is in prison) Love returns to Mary’s saloon. And she is not happy to see him. He manages to calm her and together they discuss his plans for a world where his revenge is complete. That is, until they learn of Buck’s escape.

Poetic License in the Old West

Credit: LA Times

Samuel plays fast and loose with historical accuracy in this original story. While these figures were only perennially involved with each other in reality, he puts them all in a story together – with entertaining results. Some fare better than others. After his intriguing cameo in Loki, Johnathan Majors continues to impress as Love – in fact after watching this I felt he had cemented his status as an up-and-comer to watch.

Elba plays Buck with a ruthless cool. Although it is the kind of role he could almost play in his sleep. Stanfield harnesses some of the laconic energy from his turn in Fargo, making Cherokee Bill one of the most eloquent mass murderers seen on screen this year. Perhaps my favourite supporting turn though is Lindo as Bass Reeves. He plays the marshal as a man who could go either way, reluctantly helping Love and his gang. But one has the impression that he could just as easily turn around and arrest his allies.

The action is staged and executed brilliantly. Highlights include a slow-motion train sequence, a canyon ambush. And of course the final set-piece where the inevitable confrontation between the two gangs is played out to brutal and bloody effect. The way Samuel choreographs and films these scenes is a standout, as it can be difficult for filmmakers to make these sequences stand out, they’re approached in a manner that draws the eye and engages the audience.

I really enjoyed The Harder They Fall as a piece of cinema. And as an important piece of representation for some unsung heroes of the old West. Hopefully, this can push others to discover the full, historical accounts of these figures. And discover that their real-life exploits are in some ways even more entertaining than the fiction we’re presented with.

Check out Zaron Burnett’s podcast here. 

The Harder They Fall is streaming on Netflix now.

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