Brando. Nicholson. Penn. A Flop for the Ages.
You guys, I’m super sorry about neglecting this Project. First, there were the ActionFest posts (you read those, right?), and then it was finals at school, and then last Monday my computer’s hard drive gave up its soul and—hey, look! Marlon Brando dressed like an old prairie woman!
Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) moves in next to a wealthy rancher named Braxton and gets busy romancing Braxton’s daughter. Awkward enough, but complicated further because Logan is the head of a horse rustling gang and his new ranch is just a useful front to, I dunno, launder?, the horses they steal, including Braxton’s. Suspicious, Braxton hires Lee Clayton (Brando), a long-distance rifleman called a “regulator.” Clayton’s hunt for the truth about Logan escalates into a bloodbath, and the horse rustling gang is wiped out. Logan alone survives to seek revenge on Clayton and Braxton before leaving Braxton’s daughter behind and heading further West.
The Missouri Breaks began as an early screenplay effort from novelist Thomas McGuane, and pretty much everyone who read it agreed that it sucked. No, really. Penn, Nicholson, and Brando had each passed on the script, but all of those ‘no’s just sounded like an opportunity to one eager producer (probably either Elliott Kastner or Robert Sherman). Like a Hollywood shell game, this brass-balled salesman lured each player onto the project by claiming he could get the other two if they signed. Surprising even himself (probably), he soon had all three locked into a movie that literally none of them wanted to make. He then retired to a tiny, uncharted island where he convinced a group of natives that he was their white, golden god (probably.) With these huge names on board, what could go wrong?
See, the point of all of this was to get Brando and Nicholson on the screen together for the first time in their careers, a guaranteed box office event. Issues plagued the project from the beginning, however, most of them involving the still-totally-not-ready script. For one thing, the supposed mega-meeting between the decade’s biggest stars amounted to only one short scene. Rewrites appeared like blisters on the screenplay, adding more showdowns between Clayton and Logan, whether they damn well made sense or not, such as an infamous naked bathtub scene where Brando avoids being shot by showing his flabby ass back to Nicholson.
As the rewrites morphed the project a little bit each day, reports of tension on the set hit the papers. Reportedly, Brando’s erratic behavior caused problems for Nicholson, Penn, and everyone else, although it’s hard to know what to believe, because Brando’s biggest feud at the time was with the press, who delighted in manufacturing dirt on him as retaliation for his rampant camera-breaking and all-around dickery. For his part, Penn furiously denied any on-set problems with Brando, and his story never changed from 1976 until the day he died. Still, the story lives, fueled by Brando’s grotesquely bizarre performance as Clayton, which it’s assumed he must have just been doing, because nobody could possibly approve of it, right?
In the end, despite enormous hype and expectation, The Missouri Breaks flopped and flopped hard, which anybody who had read the script could have predicted months earlier. Penn’s film is one of the most notorious duds in cinema history, and although Brando and Nicholson went on with their careers, Penn never recovered. He didn’t direct another film until 1981’s Four Friends, and he spent the rest of his career struggling with marginal scripts and marginal results.
Penn described The Missouri Breaks as a movie about colonialism. In an ungoverned land, the men with the money are the ones who make the laws, and they need violent men (like Clayton) as enforcers. A subplot about Logan’s gang invading Canada for horses (the real-life Missouri Breaks are in Montana) and getting a shitstorm for their efforts is another play on the theme.
That’s a shot that speaks for itself, but if you need answers, it’s one of Clayton’s many personas. Brando and Penn saw Clayton as a character with no personality of his own, and so he just keeps taking on other personalities, like a hermit crab might change out shells. Brando played him differently in almost every scene, and this is his old woman scene.
If it seems like I’m just making fun of The Missouri Breaks, well, maybe I am. But honestly, I really admire this terrible, terrible movie because it falls into one of my three favorite categories:
- Movies that are really, really good.
- Movies that are really, really ambitious, but fail.
- Movies that are so weird, I’m amazed they fucking exist.
Even without Brando, there are so many bizarre decisions in this movie that you could point to any one of them and say “Yup, that’s why the 80s happened.” Trying to explain the 1970s’ auteur-driven system to today’s audience is like trying to describe Vitaphone—it’s an archaic, alien concept. For a few, short, glorious years, the big-budget blockbusters, the ones people lined up around the block to see, were driven by the artists. No studio accountants, no marketing teams. And it worked! But the artists lost control of their own processes, and for every Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now, the studios began to see more and more movies like this one.
This movie, with its major tone problems, where early scenes play like western comedy—an Apple Dumpling Gang cousin—and the final scenes are filled with bleak and terrifying murders.
This movie, with a romance based on dialogue like this:
Jane Braxton: Why are you being so mean to me?
Logan: People have been neglecting to tell you what a nasty little bitch you are, and I’m just having to make up for their negligence.
This movie, which builds to an epic battle between Logan and Clayton that never happens.
This movie, where Randy Quaid is the second craziest guy on the screen.
OK, I have to bring Brando back into this, not because he ruins the movie but because he nearly saves it. While Dead of Winter and even Target might be better films in their boring bones, The Missouri Breaks demands to be seen, precisely because of Brando’s batshit performance.
This scene, one of those additions demanded by the need to get Jack and Marlon together, says it all.
That’s Nicholson, one of the greatest American actors of all time and the biggest movie star on the planet in 1976, more or less standing back and giving Brando the road, and I think Penn did the same thing. In fact, I think everybody knew that the movie was either going to sink or swim based on Brando, and they were right. It both sinks and swims.
Posterity won’t rescue The Missouri Breaks. It’s a movie that wobbles from dull to delirious, and never finds its footing or even a reason to exist. But it’s a hell of an interesting mess, and a hugely important movie in the career of Arthur Penn. If you’re going to see any of Penn’s duds, why would you want to see anything else?
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)