While the Western is primarily known as an American cinematic institution, this has not stopped other countries from enthusiastically embracing the genre, the most notable being Italy with the ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns, with films such as A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, Sergio Leone, 1964) and Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966). However, there are Westerns from other countries and unexpected locales, such as A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, a ‘Red’ Western from the Soviet Union, which seems directly inspired by the madcap genre bending spirit of Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), the controversial comedy classic that upended the Hollywood movie myths of the Old West. Aside from the novelty of a quintessentially American type of film being produced in the Soviet Union, A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines is also a rare instance of a Western being directed by a woman. Perhaps inspired by the elegiac feel of Sam Peckinpah’s films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), director Alla Surikova’s film appears to be set in the fading days of the Old West, with the onset of the 20th century and emergent technologies forever changing the frontier way of life.
Starting with a robbery by a group of outlaws called the Black Jack Gang, in a sequence that references Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines is a film steeped in American cinema history, while also alluding to the creation of that history, a spirit embodied by Johnny First (Andrey Mironov), one of the coach passengers. Johnny is the only traveller that does not have a firearm, but he remains calm under pressure, even showing Black Jack (Mikhail Boyarskiy), the leader of the gang, his book on the history of cinema, and suggesting to the outlaw that there are pages still to be written, including Jack’s story. After the robbery, the coach and its passengers arrive in Santa Carolina, a town where time seems to have stopped, with the Old West preserved in amber and the inhabitants pickled with alcohol. The drunkenness of the townsfolk affords the opportunity for a series of inventive sight gags, with spilt drinks in a saloon soon replaced by swinging fists, which causes flying bodies that results in property destruction. This epic opening saloon brawl is eventually stopped by Harry (Oleg Tabakov), the saloon owner, with the establishment then hastily repaired by the patrons. Surikova starts the film with action scenes familiar from countless Westerns, maintaining a frenetic pace and cartoonish absurdity during these opening scenes, but then slowing the pace once Johnny introduces the patrons to the cinematograph.
Johnny, the cultured cinema buff, soon befriends Billy King (Nikolay Karachentsov), the rugged cowboy, and both they and the other saloon patrons watch a chorus line perform a dance number led by Ms Diana Little (Aleksandra Asmaye). After this, Johnny gets his cinematograph from the coach, along with a white sheet supplied by Ms Little, and starts up his projector, with the first film being L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière, 1896). The assembled patrons run from the oncoming on screen locomotive, while some fire their guns at the image on the sheet, which is both a nod to the apocryphal reactions of early audiences to this film, and an amusing reversal of – and reference to – the famous gunshot fired at the camera by Justus D. Barnes in The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903). Next, the delighted patrons watch more films, including L’Arroseur arrosé (Louis Lumière, 1895), famous for showing a boy (Benoît Duval) stepping on a hosepipe of a gardener (François Clerc), and then releasing his foot from the hosepipe so that the gardener is blasted in the face with water. This film unites the patrons in laughter and is a gag played for real later in the town, showing that the photographic reality and the comedic fiction in the film have influenced people’s behaviour in the real world.
Johnny confesses to Harry that, after going to the Lumiere theatre in the Boulevard des Capucines, he felt the cinematograph suggested a way to make a dark world better, and so he wants to exhibit films for the patrons in the saloon for no payment with the aim of achieving this ambitious goal. Johnny has a captive audience and it appears that his films seem to have a positive effect on the populace: the rowdy cowboys revert to small boys, drinking milk rather than alcohol, while both the cowboys and chorus girls behave more chastely, a result of seeing a depiction of a film of formal courtship on screen. Johnny later claims that cinema is “the cure for the sick and the opium for the people”, and the patrons indeed appear inspired to adopt more civilised behaviour as a result of the images they see.
Later, an attack by Comanches is not what it initially seems, as it is turns out they just want to attend a screening in the popular Saloon Cinema. When one of the townsfolk objects to sitting with “Injuns” in the cinema, Johnny responds with, “cinema doesn’t have borders and races. Everyone’s equal facing the screen”. In the midst of an irreverent musical comedy film, Johnny’s claim about the virtues of cinema is delivered unironically. While Blazing Saddles starkly showed the bigotry of the Old West, A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines suggests that cinema is for everybody and can break down barriers between people. However, there is trouble in this cinematic paradise: since the introduction of the cinematograph to the saloon, Harry’s profits have tumbled, while the local Pastor (Igor Kvasha) is jealous of the love that blossoms between Johnny and Diana. The cinematograph also threatens to usurp the influence that Harry and the Pastor have on the town, resulting in both men resorting to dirty tricks in an attempt to thwart Johnny’s aims and put a stop to the cinema screenings.
While A Man From the Boulevard des Capucines mocks some aspects of the Old West, it does not tear them down in the style of Blazing Saddles (such as the moment where Brooks reveals the Western ‘town’ to be a construction on a studio backlot). Surokova’s film does not criticise the cinematic representations of the West, but instead uses both the framework of the genre and the turn of the century setting to ruefully muse on the power of the image, the unifying potential inherent in the communal experience of cinema, and how the film industry can be corrupted by those with purely mercenary motives. She also suggests that figures like Johnny, while admirable in their pursuit of a utopian vision and well-intentioned in their beliefs, are perhaps also foolishly optimistic or hopelessly naïve. While there are serious points made, Surikova avoids sermonising. She acknowledges the simple pleasures of the medium, as shown in the films Johnny exhibits in the saloon and in her own use of slapstick comedy in the opening scenes. However, she also acknowledges that there is a hypnotising effect offered by these easy pleasures, and that there is the potential for films to be better. A Man From the Boulevard des Capucines also reminds us that it was the ‘outlaw’ film figures that took risks in the early days of cinema (be they fictional film loving exhibitors like Johnny or real world cinematic geniuses like Charlie Chaplin, briefly glimpsed on screen), bravely fighting the good fight for the future of cinema.
A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987 Soviet Union 93/99 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Scr: Eduard Akopov Dir: Alla Surikova Phot: Grigori Belenky Ed: Inessa Brozhovskaya Prod Des: Yevgeni Markovich Mus: Gennadiy Gladkov Cast: Andrei Mironov, Aleksandra Yakovleva, Nikolai Karachentsov, Oleg Tabakov, Mikhail Boyarsky, Igor Kvasha