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Lawman
IMDB Rating: 7.0/10 from 2,458 votes
Release: 4 August 1971 (USA) /

Lawman

Genre: Action, Western
Director: Michael Winner,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: While passing through the town of Bannock, a bunch of drunken, trail-weary cattlemen go overboard with their celebrating and accidentally kill an old man with a stray shot. They return home to Sabbath unaware of his death. Bannock lawman Jered Maddox later arrives there to arrest everyone involved on a charge of murder. Sabbath is run by land baron Vince Bronson, a benevolent despot, who, upon hearing of the death, offers restitution for the incident. Maddox, however, will not compromise even though small ranchers like Vern Adams are not in a position to desert their responsibilities for a long and protracted trial. Sabbath's marshal, Cotton Ryan, is an aging lawman whose tough reputation rests on a single incident that occurred years before. Ryan admits to being only a shadow of what he once was and incapable of stopping Maddox. Maddox confides to Ryan that Bannock's judicial system is weak and corrupt, and while he's doubtful that anyone he brings back will suffer more than the ... Written by [email protected]

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Critic Reviews


Director Michael Winner is a controversial figure, at least in his native Britain, partly because of his political opinions, but chiefly on account of the `Death Wish' movies, which were widely seen as advocating wild-west style vigilante justice in a modern urban setting. I was therefore interested to learn that, before making these films, Winner was also responsible for `Lawman', a traditional Western that takes a more subtle, nuanced view of law and order.

Burt Lancaster plays Jered Maddox, the Sheriff of the small Western town of Bannock. Maddox has travelled to another small town, Sabbath, to arrest the cowboys who were responsible for the death of a man in Bannock. The local people of Sabbath, however, are not willing to help him, and the local Sheriff, Cotton Ryan, is a coward whose motto is `anything for a quiet life'. Despite this lack of cooperation, Maddox remains determined to do his duty, come what may.

The above summary might suggest that this is a story of right versus wrong along the lines of `High Noon', with Maddox standing as the lone representative of truth and justice against the forces of evil and cowardice. Things, however, are not so simple. It appears that the death was not deliberate murder, but an accidental shooting resulting from drunken gunplay. The cowboys' employer, a wealthy rancher named Vincent Bronson, is a popular figure in the town. Maddox himself admits that, even if he succeeds in bringing the men back to Bannock, they are unlikely to receive condign punishment, as the local Judge is notoriously corrupt and could easily be bought by a man of Bronson's wealth.

At first Maddox does seem to be a heroic figure, and he certainly shows great physical courage in facing his adversaries. Fearlessness alone, however, is not enough to make a man a true hero, and as the film progresses we begin to question whether he really is doing the right thing. Although the cowboys are likely to be acquitted if tried, and to receive a lenient sentence if convicted, their false pride and obsession with honour means that they cannot bring themselves to surrender without a fight. One by one, unafraid of his reputation as a lethal gunfighter, they challenge Maddox and are shot down. As the death toll mounts, we begin to see that he too is guilty of false pride and an obsession with upholding an abstract idea of justice, no matter what the human cost. `Fiat justitia, ruat caelum', said the Romans- let justice be done, though the heavens fall. When Maddox takes this idea to its absolute limits, the result is tragedy.

There are a number of good performances. Lee J Cobb gives a poignant performance as Bronson; cattle bosses are usually shown as villainous figures in Westerns (Bruce Cabot's character in `Dodge City' being a classic example), but Bronson is a decent man, regarded as a generous benefactor by the people of Sabbath. His tragedy stems from the conflict between his sense of personal honour and a growing realisation that violence is not the answer to life's problems. Robert Ryan is also good as Sheriff Ryan, a once-brave lawman whose character has been corrupted by years of compromise, as are Sheree North as Maddox's love interest and Richard Jordan as a young gunfighter out to make a name for himself. The real star, however, is Burt Lancaster as the steely, inflexible Maddox. This is a role which combines the two distinct sides of Lancaster's talent as an actor. On the one hand, he could play a swashbuckling action hero in Westerns and other films such as `The Crimson Pirate'. On the other, he was also the thoughtful, star of intelligent films like `Birdman of Alcatraz', `The Train' or `The Swimmer'. Maddox is a fearless gunfighter, but he is also a man whose actions give rise to philosophical questions about law enforcement, the nature of justice, and the nature of honour. One could therefore almost say that it is a role that Lancaster was born to play, and he does so brilliantly. The result is a complex film that asks difficult questions without providing easy answers. It is unfortunate that Winner did not make more films like this; none of his other films that I have seen come close to it in quality. 8/10

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