Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976)


(director: Arthur Penn; screenwriter: Thomas McGuane; cinematographer: Michael C. Butler; editors: Dede Allen/Stephen A. Rotter/Jerry Greenberg; music: John Williams; cast: Marlon Brando (Lee Clayton), Jack Nicholson (Tom Logan), Kathleen Lloyd (Jane Braxton), Randy Quaid (Little Tod), Frederic Forrest (Cary), Harry Dean Stanton (Calvin), John McLiam (David Braxton), Hunter Von Leer (Sandy), Richard Bradford (Pete Marker); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Elliott Kastner/Robert M. Sherman; MGM/UA Home Video; 1976)
“Brando admittedly improvised quite a bit in his over-the-top role.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Arthur Penn directs this dark, hilarious and quirky Western, a one of a kind venture. Thomas McGuane provides the superbly playful screenplay. It’s set in the post-Civil War period in Montana, and tells a tale about a trio of Western types: Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is the ambitious young leader of a gang of cattle rustlers, David Braxton (John McLiam) is an elderly, arrogant and wealthy cattle baron, and Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) is an eccentric regulator (hired gun) with an Irish brogue.

The film opens as the Montana locals are celebrating the Fourth of July in the lush mountainous landscape. Suddenly three men on horseback ride by, the imperious Braxton and his foreman (Bradford) bring a rustler (Von Leer) back to town to hang — which Braxton claims will be good for his soul. Braxton’s attractive strong-willed single daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) is repelled by the hanging. The single-parent Braxton explains the need for the hanging by claiming he can’t afford economically or morally to let the rustlers get away with their crime and this will serve as a lesson to the others. In retaliation for one of their gang members being hanged, Tom’s gang hangs Braxton’s loyal foreman. Tom’s gang then robs a train and uses the money to buy a ranch/farm adjacent to Braxton’s property. The gang plans to use the spread as a relay station to better organize the rustling operation.

Warning: spoilers to follow in the next two paragraphs.

When Tom’s number one man Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton) takes Little Tod (Randy Quaid) and Cary (Frederic Forrest) with him across the border to Canada to rustle the horses of the Mounties, Tom stays at the ranch and starts a garden. Jane welcomes Tom’s sexual advances on the range and even becomes more aggressive when he falters, which leads to the two becoming lovers. Meanwhile Braxton’s campy hired gun, Clayton, makes his grand entrance hidden from behind his horse. Clayton’s reputation is to always complete the job. His M.O. is to kill by rifle from a great distance and use any means to get info about the rustlers–including torture. Upon the rustlers unsuccessful mission from Canada, Clayton drowns the uncooperative Little Tod who refuses to spill the beans about the rustling. The regulator uses unconventional methods to hunt down the others, including wearing a granny dress and a bonnet. Another unusual killing occurs when Clayton burns down Cal’s house and flings a harpoon into his forehead. In one bizarre scene the legalized killer dedicates a love song to the only girl he loved, who happens to be his horse.

The Western easily swings from comedy to bawdy romance to a truly dark murderous tone without missing a hoof beat. It’s a strange Western, with more talk than action, that in its leisurely pace shines its light on how the West was tamed to make way for civilization. But it doesn’t have the same romantic or warmhearted mythic tones a John Ford gave to his end of the frontier era Westerns. The loquacious Brando character is so sure of his ways and is so unwilling to change his bravado interpretation of the law, that he dies because he doesn’t know when his job is over. While the pious Braxton goes insane when his orderly life is threatened and dies defending the old ways. Only the Nicholson and Lloyd characters survive, as they see the need to change. Nicholson falls in love with the land and settles on being a farmer, while Lloyd has the courage to sell her ranch and move on to better things (more culture). The richness of the film is that Penn and McGuane have created such a beautiful trio of lively and unforgettable characters, while the story more or less remains secondary. It’s probably a more honest and less pretentious look at the West than most Westerns.

The film bombed at the box-office. This signaled the declining fortunes of the Western as a major film, and made it more difficult to bring a Western to the screen.

Brando admittedly improvised quite a bit in his over-the-top role, and his bizarrely pleasing performance is unfortunately overlooked by many because of the film’s unpopularity.

“The Missouri Breaks” was shot on location in Nevada City, Montana.