Missouri Breaks

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Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in a western? : The Missouri Breaks!

Jun 14, 2001
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Pros:A more realistic view of the old west, chilling scenes, failures.

Cons:A little slow at times, but life wasn't exactly grand central station then!

The Bottom Line: An upside down and realistic view of the old west, and one of the weirdest movies you will see.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

1976 saw the promise of a blockbuster western revival,with a pairing up of two academy award winners, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, in the release of "The Missouri Breaks", an Arthur Penn film production. Unfortunately, it didn't stand up to critical or popular review, but I believe the film does have some merit indeed. Not, by far, the best western you will see, it is probably one of the more realistic westerns you will see, with a very good story line, an unlikely hero, a scary villain, and a bit of a love story thrown in for good measure. The reality of it comes in with the many failures, the harshness of pioneer life, and the harshness of pioneer justice, exemplified by the hangings and the use of the "regulator". What follows is a table of information about the movie, cast, and production, and a synopsis/review.

Information about "The Missouri Breaks".

Production Company: MGM/United Artists
Viewing Format: VHS
Cost: $12.99-16.99
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
Director: Arthur Penn
Producer: Elliot Kastner
Writing Credits: Thomas McGuaine
Musical Score: John Williams


Marlon Brando--Robert E. Lee Clayton
Jack Nicholson--Tom Logan
Randy Quaid--Little Tod
Harry Dean Stanton--Calvin
Kathleen Lloyd--Jane Braxton
Frederic Forrest--Cary
John Mclian--Mr. Braxton
John P. Ryan-- Sigh
Sam Gilman--Hank Rate
Steve Franken--The Lonesome Kid
Richard Bradford--Pete Marker
James Greene--Hellsgate Rancher
Laura Anders--Ranchers Wife


This movie is set in the hills of Montana, in the 1880s. The movie begins with a hanging. Mr. Braxton, a sophisticated landowner and rancher, dressed in a suit, "looking like God", escorts the accused rustler to the hanging, and quite a crowd of spectators and locals showed up for the show. Mr. Braxton is very concerned with his "7% losses" per annum to rustlers, and is determined to fight back against the horse thieves, even if it means hangings without a trial.

We then move on to the next scene where Tom Logan, played by Jack Nicholson, returns to the cabin where his "gang" of outlaws is "holed up". He discovers that Sandy is missing, and has been caught and hanged(or hung, as it were). One member of the gang says that they should rob a train or a bank, rather than continue to rustle horses. Logan points out that they need to have a "relay ranch", where they can take the stolen horses, modify the brands, and then "relay" them from there for sale. They agree to put this ranch in Braxton's back yard! In the meantime, Logan wants to take a few of the boys out to rob a train.

The "great train robbery" this isn't! They manage to uncouple the mail car, and open the safe and get the money out. Nelson, the mail carrier who is in charge of guarding the money, is rather a comical figure himself. Nicholson tells Nelson that he is "Jesse James". Things begin to go wrong right away. When Logan goes to exit the boxcar, he almost falls down a railroad trestle! The money goes everywhere(it is all one dollar bills and tens), and they have to scramble to collect it up, even as the main train comes back for the missing mail car. The boys make good their escape.

An imposter, a "greenhorn" calling himself the "Lonesome Kid", takes credit for the train robbery, and is sentenced to two weeks in jail, and everyone has a good laugh. The movie continues on to the scene where John Logan meets Braxton, and inquires as to purchasing a ranch next to him, "for luck". Braxton sells him a piece of land, and the boys move in. On their way back, Braxton discovers that his "ramrod" has been hanged in retaliation to his hanging of the rustler.

Nicholson ends up having to stay at the ranch while the rest of the boys undertake a bold adventure: to steal horses from the Canadian Mounted Police on Sunday, when they are all in church singing their hymns. They succeed in rounding up the whole herd, only to have them taken back after they recross the Missouri Breaks in Montana. The group gets dispersed, and they end up back at the relay ranch.

In the mean time, Braxton has decided to hire a "regulator", named Robert E. Lee Clayton, played by Marlon Brando. He rides in during the funeral for the ramrod, unseen, as he is hiding behind his horse. A strange man, this Clayton is, he is extremely eccentric and a bit mad. Clayton comes in to the funeral, and chastises the whole crowd for allowing the ramrod to be killed, and in a strange gesture to emphasize the point, he lifts the corpse out of the coffin, and then lets him drop back on the ice, his head breaking a bottle of champagne! After this weird expose', Clayton announces that the only thing not on his diet is the green top of the carrot, and okra, and that he must be excused because he is under a "severe attack from a tooth". The group then makes fun of Clayton, with his white fringe leather jacket, his "lavender" and perfumed locks of hair, and his "creedmore rifle", and dismiss him as a "drygulcher".

Similarly in the meantime, Nicholson has a bit of a fling with Braxton's daughter, but it is a bit rough at first. He also meets Clayton for the first time.

As the movie progresses, Lee Clayton manages to kill, one by one, the rustler gang, in a series of evil, chilling, and wicked murders related to his profession. Jack Nicholson falls in love with Braxton's daughter as well. He has a chance to kill Clayton, but loses his nerve. This is a big mistake, as Clayton finally kills off his best friend, Cal. Finally, Nicholson goes on the offensive, and finally sneaks up on Clayton, and slits his throat("you have just been awaken by the sound of your own throat being cut"). The movies ends with Braxton, who has had a stroke, shooting Nicholson, because of his affair with his daughter. Nicholson manages to fatally shoot Braxton, and the movie ends with Nicholson going his own way, and Braxton's daughter going her own way, with the possibility they will hook up in the future.

I like this movie for several reasons. This movie doesn't show the utterly fantastic and unrealistic things that are usually shown in a "typical" western. The heroes and villains are not "typical" as well, and the story line and plot are atypical as well. The dialogue is also rather unusual, as is the action plot scenes.

Firstly, the things portrayed are so much more real, and believable than in a "typical" western. For instance, the train robbery doesn't go off without a hitch. It is almost a complete failure, and they manage to escape just barely with a few dollars, not a big heist by any measure. The rustling of the horses of the Canadian mounties isn't a success either. Also, the entire gang, all but one, is killed one by one, by Lee Clayton!

Secondly, the hero and villain are totally unlikely, particulary the villain. Jack Nicholson is a laid back kind of guy, and his best friend, Cal, played by Harry Dean Stanton, are the "good guys", so to speak, and are rustlers. Had this been a John Wayne movie, John Wayne would be Braxton, who gets revenge on the "bad guys", or the rustlers. Lee Clayton and Braxton are the bad guys here, justly protecting their property. So, this movie turns the traditional roles of good and bad on their head, and I like that very much. Lee Clayton is a scary eccentric indeed. Not only does he use lots of perfume, and keep primmed up on the frontier, he also is an avid birdwatcher, and in addition, he loves his horses, I mean he "loves" his horses!
And, he is very effecient at what he does, that is, killing or "regulating", whom he is hired to "regulate". Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson are very likeable characters, and I think I like Harry Dean Stanton's performance as much as Jack Nicholsons character.

Thirdly, the dialogue is really cool in this film. For example, Nicholson has an exchange with Braxton's daughter about sex. "You came following me up here, what do you have in mind, sexual intercourse?....Do you want me?....Who told you to do all this? Well, if you are going to cry, I'm just going to go on home and shovel steer manure onto pansies!" Another exchange between Cal and Logan about his background: "I had this dog for amusement, and one day, the dog was killed by my boss for putting his tongue on a pad of butter, so I killed his seed bull, rustled his herd, and came within an inch of sending his sorry hide to kingdom come, I mean, I came this close to shooting that sorry bastard in the brain pan!". "So watch out Tom, or that dog is going to put his tongue on the butter...". Another exchange is between one of the rustlers and a farmer to whom he is selling his horses: "I will quote Thomas Jefferson here, My father was a farmer, so I could be a politician, so my son could be a poet.....Who was Thomas Jefferson? Oh, some guy back east." Not high dialogue, to be sure, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Lastly, the action scenes that back up the plot are really good. For instance, the murder scenes whereby Lee Clayton stalks and singles out and murders the gang one by one are chilling. "Little Tod", played by Randy Quaid, is killed by Clayton after he chases him, befriends him, eats supper with him, and shares a camp with him. Then they go to cross the Missouri River, and Clayton pulls him off his horse, and drowns him! Another guy is killed by Clayton as he is in the outhouse. Still another is killed as he is about to have a "quickie" with a farmers wife. Lastly, the most chilling murder is Cal. He is in the cabin, sleeping, and Clayton, dressed as a woman, sends a Molotov cocktail down a wire towards the cabin, and blasts it, engulfing the cabin in flames. Cal comes out, badly burned, and Clayton kills him with a wicked looking knife-edged weapon, thrown right in between his eyes!

All in all, I liked this movie so much I purchased a copy! I think if you like either a) westerns, b) Jack Nicholson or Marlon Brando, or c), and unusual movie, you will like this film. It is just such a weird movie, and it shouldn't be missed!

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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