Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a masterful film in many aspects but one I believe that stands out is its depiction and portrayal of the “anti-hero” character type that was so prevalent in the films of the 1970’s. The title characters played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie couldn’t be further from the classic Hollywood formula of having it’s two most beautiful megastars in a period love story.
When we first meet John McCabe we see him as a faceless rider on horseback, covered in a bear-skin coat, riding through the mountain wilderness, seemingly heading nowhere in particular. When he arrives in “Presbyterian Church”, the small Western town where he will eventually establish himself, we see that McCabe is someone who has charisma and wit which enables him to take over the townspeople who lack both of these important qualities. McCabe appears to have a goal in mind at the start of the film when he begins drawing up plans to open a saloon and brothel to which the men of the town quickly get on board and begin building his business for him. The first crack we see in McCabe’s personality is when “Mrs. Miller” arrives in town. It is obvious that she is a much more driven and successful person than McCabe with her intelligence and dominant personality. Although McCabe enjoys the fruits of his partnership with Mrs. Miller we also begin to see his content with the status quo of owning the saloon and brothel. At this point, I felt as though McCabe had gone further than he was capable of going which is why he had no idea how to handle the meeting with Sears and Hollander from the Mining company. Both McCabe and Mrs. Miller are both destroyed by their inability to handle the forces of authority that close in on them throughout the film. We both believe that their initial success and budding romance will be the main theme of the film but truly, what this film is about is “failure’ and how these two characters are drifters who will only go as far as their ambition will take them which in the case of McCabe, is not very far, and for Mrs. Miller, despite her brains and ambition, is only as far as any Woman could make it in the Wild West without succumbing to the will of a Man.
The structure of McCabe and Mrs. Miller is pretty typical, as we do have a clear beginning, middle, and end. McCabe arrives in town, takes over the saloon, has some success, falls in love with Mrs. Miller, and is then threatened and ultimately destroyed by the Mining company. As Thomas Elsasser states in his article, this story structure is classic Hollywood, and throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, you would most likely see John McCabe and Constance Miller fall in love, outsmart the Mining company, and ride off together into the sunset, rich and in love. Clearly this is a story structure that was shattered in the 1970’s. The altering of the story structure goes right along with the theme of the film which is McCabe is an “anti-hero”, another new invention of the 70’s cinema, drifting through his life until he brushes up against the authority figures and ultimately succumbs to their will. What I found fascinating about the film was the way in which it chose a different period of history to portray the issues and attitudes of the “anti-hero” of the 1960’s and 70’s. Films like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider are both “anti-hero” films dealing with the current events and climate of the time period they are taking place. For McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it was a brilliant decision by Robert Altman to tell the story through the eyes of a Western mining town at the turn of the century to show how the idea of the “anti-hero” has always existed.
The character of John McCabe is very similar to the character of Charlie in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Both men are charismatic guys who skirt the edges of a criminal world. They both find themselves with great opportunities thrust upon them yet they don’t have the intelligence or proper amount of ambition to act upon their opportunities. For McCabe, he is clearly smart and savvy enough to walk into a town and pretty much take it over and make it his own. Yet, when the possibility for more riches and success come his way in the form of the offer from the Mining company, he has no idea how to handle it as well as having no ambition to take his new riches and move onto something bigger and better. In the same way, Charlie owns a bar in Little Italy with his friends and is content being the “Man” at this establishment in the way we see him wander through the bar in slow motion, dancing and laughing with girls while the patrons clap and cheer for him. Charlie’s goal is to open his own restaurant and move “uptown” to escape the neighborhood of Little Italy and the stress of his cousin Johnny Boy. Charlie, mush like John McCabe, seems to understand that his goals are not only unsatisfactory but also unattainable as we see both men get gunned down at the end of the films. McCabe literally, and Charlie only gets wounded by the bullets meant for his cousin Johnny Boy. Keeping in line with the “Pathos of Failure” both of these characters, two likeable, charismatic men with “poetry inside of them” as John McCabe says, end up not very far from where they started the films. McCabe dies but Charlie lives. Either way, these two “anti-heroes”, although relatable to the audience, do not achieve any type of success or “happy ending” that was always guaranteed in the films that came before the 1970’s.