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Friday, November 9, 2007

Swan Songs, Part 1 (originally published 8/00)

I'm not one of those effete literati who blanch at every new turn of phrase or cluck disapprovingly every time an old word or phrase acquires a new meaning. Even so, it does bother me to see a useful phrase move away from its original meaning when no other words exist to fill the semantic vacuum that it leaves behind.

I thought about one such phrase as I was watching a trailer for the recently released "Space Cowboys." This tale of four over-the-hill pilots being given an eleventh hour shot at the glory that had eluded them in their youth is a textbook example of a narrative device with a long and venerable pedigree. It is the story of a swan song.

Unfortunately, the phrase "swan song" is not widely understood to mean what it once did, so I'll have to explain. Nowadays, that phrase is likely to be applied to a person's last effort in a given endeavor regardless of circumstance. If, for example, you've been writing a video column every week for nine years and then one day you publish your final column, someone might well call that last column a "swan song." Originally, however, the phrase referred to something more meaningful than that. The swan, you see, is in fact a songless bird. But, according to legend, a swan on the point of death breaks his lifelong silence to sing a beautiful song just before expiring. Thus, the phrase "swan song" was used to refer to the actions of a person who achieved something grand late in life and following a period of decline. If you give up your column in disgust because you don't have anything worthwhile to say anymore, and then, many years later, you write a brilliant and definitive book on the subject, filled with inspiring new insights, that's a swan song. And that's what "Space Cowboys" is about. If you want to see how earlier filmmakers have told similar stories, look for these titles on home video.

"Ride the High Country" (1962). This remarkable Western wasn't director Sam Peckinpah's first film, but it was the one that announced to the world that a striking new voice in American cinema had arrived. To portray two aging lawmen long past their prime, Peckinpah chose two icons of the Hollywood Western, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. For the two old-timers a routine assignment carrying a gold shipment turns into a desperate struggle to save a persecuted young woman from the outlaws who are pursuing her. It's the kind of rescue that would have come easily to the two lawmen in their prime, but remembering their duty and seeing it through turns out to be more difficult than either of them might have expected.

"True Grit" (1969). John Wayne spent most of his career playing larger than life men, heroic figures who set the standard for masculine virtue. It is therefore interesting to note that Wayne received his only Academy Award for his performance in this film as an over-the-hill, overweight, one-eyed, boozing reprobate of a lawman. Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, when we meet him, is a burned out ember of the man he once was. Into his life comes Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), looking for a man with "grit" to aid her in tracking down the man who killed her father. Spurred by her plucky spirit, Rooster takes the job, only to find that it leads him to a final confrontation with an old adversary.

"The Grey Fox" (1982). A swan song is not always an act of virtue, however. In this low budget independent production, Richard Farnsworth stars as Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who went to jail at the height of the old West and emerges 33 years later, in 1901, to cope with a new and baffling century. He tries the life of a working stiff, but soon realizes that he's not cut out for it. Stagecoach robbing is his true calling, but stagecoaches have become obsolete. Inspired by a screening of the groundbreaking 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery," he makes up his mind to become a train robber.

The poignance of the passing of the old West makes for a natural setting for this kind of story, but the Western genre doesn't have an exclusive patent on swan songs. Next week we'll look at a wider range of swan songs on the screen.

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