There are only a few Western comedies that I like: I enjoy Mel Brooks Blazzing Saddles (1987) with Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little and Paleface (1955) with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.
However, neither of these have an authentic Western feel to them. Which is one of the reasons why Goin’ South (1988) with Jack Nicholson and Mary Steenburgen has been added to my personal Best List. This movie has all the standard elements that is in a Western Hollywood movie: cowboys, outlaws, a posse, bar room fights, saloon gals, shoot outs, rail road building, bank foreclosures, Mexicans and Indians, romance, jealous suitors, love for a horse ( named Speed), etc…. Even with all the Hollywood fanfare, Goin’ South has more.
This movie has some historical content within its sense of time and place. The time is during the late 1860s – 1870s and the place is a Texan town, near Mexican border. One of the reasons that it seems so realistic is due to the filming location. Along with some film history, the location used was in Durango, Mexico. This was John Wayne’s favorite filming location. The town is basically the same set Wayne used for the movie Chisum (1970). They only changed some colors and signs.
Another aspect of the authenticity of this film is the historical background of the character, Henry Moon. He once rode with the infamous Quantrill’s Raiders who became an embarrassment to the Confederate government during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). The Raiders followed the command of William Quantrill who basically did what ever he wanted to do. Under his command, they perfected the use of guerilla warfare successfully against Northern Union troops. However, when Quantrill led a retaliation raid against Northern sympathizers, and massacred 180 civilian men and boys, the Confederate government decommissioned Quantrill (1863). Eventually, Quantrill loses control of his men (known as Bushwhackers); and, they split up into smaller bands of outlaws.
From one of these groups, a smaller group of outlaw gangs emerges. It is the infamous gang is known as the James – Younger Gang (Jesse and Frank James’ gang). To many Southern people, these outlaws were heroes still fighting the war against the corrupted North and their carpetbaggers ( unscrupulous opportunists). This is one of the reasons they were able to elude the law. Many southern home welcomed these outlaws and hid them too.
Henry Moon wanted to ride with the Younger Gang; but they didn’t think Moon was cunning enough to keep up with their criminal standards. They were probably right. Henry decided to start his own outlaw gang of thieves, the Moon Gang. Hollywood has given these Raiders much attention over the years. Here are just a few, who rode with Quantrill on film.
Another historical bit of authenticity in this movie, is the town ordinance. It is now estimated that over 750,000 men were killed during the Civil War. In the 11 Southern states that fought the war, it created a shortage of eligible marrying men. To help the womenfolks and the procreation of the Southern population, some towns had a special ordinance to save a man (not for a murder) from execution. Some people might have preferred the rope when compared to the idea of marrying. Henry Moon was not one of those people.
Nicholson Directs and Stars
This is Jack Nicholson’s second film as Director and his first, of two films, with him as a leading man and director. This project was not planned this way. Nicholson only wanted to Direct this film. Fortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. I cannot imagine anyone else playing the role of Henry Lloyd Moon (horse thief) as brilliantly as Nicholson. This performance is pure Jack, TNT. There is a lot of manic energy and fun when Moon makes himself act a fool just for the fun of it. He can also be crass and appalling while at the same time make you laugh so hard that tears appear in the corner of your eyes. Nicholson’s performance comes across like a shot of whisky: a bit strong at first, then soothes to a delightful perfection.
One the best decisions Nicholson made as a director is making sure that Mary Steenburgen received the female lead in his film. As a working waitress and trying to break into show business, she auditioned for the part of Julia Tate. While waiting in the casting office, she briefly met Nicholson. He gave her one page to read. That page grew to many pages of reading; until, three hours later, she was hired. This film is her debut appearance in a major motion picture.
Henry Moon is a criminal about to be hanged as a horse thief. In the old west, there was nothing as low as a horse thief. As a matter of fact, some people thought hanging was too good for them. However, after the Civil War (1860 – 1864), there is shortage of men. In some western towns, there was a town Ordinance that allowed a property-owning woman to save a man from being hanged provided they got married. Once married, the redeemed man was required to stay on probation for the rest of his natural life. Meaning, he must never break the law. This includes no alcohol consumption, no beating his wife, no gambling, or running away. For some, this would probably be a true test to their character. For Henry Moon, this was “down right” impossible.
The movie begins with a posse chasing Moon on his trusty steed, Speed. They race over a dusty Texan terrain. Moon is trying to reach the Rio Grande; so, he can cross over into Mexico. Texan law men cannot arrest him there. Moon is barely ahead of them as he and Speed continue to swim/walk/run across a small section of the river. Once on the other side, Speed exhaustively falls down. Moon is excitedly jumps around and screams like a maniac: We made it. You can’t touch me. The law men continue their pursuit and ride through the river. They promptly rope the running Henry Moon to the ground and arrest him and his horse.
While awaiting his execution, Moon isn’t aware of the town ordnance for saving a condemned man (as long as he is not a murderer). So, when groups of ladies come in to “get a gander” of him, Moon is verbally abusive to them. He said he felt like a caged animal on display. Besides being on exhibit, Henry only visitors is his outlaw gang. He was hoping for them to break him out of jail. Sadly, they were not up to saving poor old Moon. They just came to say goodbye and see if he had anything that he wanted to give to them before he left this earth. Moon’s gang is composed of one woman, Hermine, (Victoria Cartwright) and three men: Hog (Danny DeVito), Big Abe (Jeff Morris) and Coogan (Tracey Walter). DeVito would later direct Nicholson in Hoffa (1992).
Sheriff Andrew Kyle (Richard Bradford), lets Moon know it is time for him to go and proceeds to explain the town ordinance to him too. Moon realizes too late that is the reason all those women coming in to have a look at him. After all the insults the town’s women endured by Moon, most of them wanted to see him hang.
The first time Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen) sees Henry Moon, he is standing on a Scaffold with a thick rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. He is begging for any women to take him and save his life. Two saloon girls, sitting in chairs are watching the hanging event from the end of the street. One remarks to the other one: This one is pretty stupid. He is sure to hang.
There is one fragile, elderly widow, Frances, who is moved by Henry’s pleas. She claims him for her own. The Sheriff reminds her that she is a “mite elderly” to be a bride. Frances does care because “he was a veteran of the war; and, he deserved a second chance.” Henry is so elated that after the rope is removed from around his neck, he jumps down and gives her a cuddle. She is so overwhelmed; her heart stops beating; and, she kneels over dead.
Video clip of elderly Florence savings Moon from a hanging
As they are dragging poor old disappointed Moon back up to the scaffold, soft-spoken, Julia claims him for marriage. Everyone is in shock. The Sheriff asks her several times if she drunk. Deputy Sheriff Towfield (Christopher Lloyd) is in unbelief because he has begged Julia to go out with him for a date; and she refuses. Don’t worry about Lloyd getting the girl because he does later in the film Back to the Future III (1990) as the Professor falls in love with the schoolmarm (Steenburgen).
Mary Steenburgen’s is totally convincing as the shy, refined and secretive Julia. Julia Tate is a young lady who sees her marriage to Moon as a marriage of convenience for a business transaction, only. She is no more attracted to Moon than she was to the Deputy Sheriff Towfield. In other words, the marriage is a sham, not real.
Once the couple is married, Julia wastes no time in letting Henry know why she married him. She needed him as a laborer to work her secret mine. They only had 30 days before the bank foreclosed on her property. At the same time, the government was taking her land under Eminent Domain law; since, they needed to build a railroad through the property too. So, she had to put up with a noisy land surveyor from the railroads while she was trying to keep her gold mine a secret.
As Julia is explaining all of this to Henry, he knows all too well how all of this is going to work out. He asks her if her recently deceased father believed there was gold in this secret mine. Julia tells him that her father did not “believe enough.” Henry says, “Sounds like he was the brains in the family.”
As if the two don’t have enough problems, the neighbors come over to welcome Henry and to advise the newly weds on what married people do best. Little do they know that this newlywed couple have no plans to consummate their marriage. One lady even goes as far as telling Julia if she is uncomfortable during copulation: Just think of canning peaches. Moon is very disappointed when he finds out Julia does not want to can peaches with him. To add more stress to Henry’s unfulfilled desires about his bride, he discovers that she was a virgin too. Not since the African Queen (1951), has there been such an unlikely romantic pairing as Henry Moon and Julia Tate.
So, as they work the mine, hating each other and sometimes, really liking each other, they discover gold. Now, this is a business partnership Moon can really get behind. They work as fast as they can and decide to take some of the gold to town to lock up in a box at the bank. Just like vultures who smell dead meat so does Moon’s old gang smell gold. They make a surprise visit bringing gifts of alcohol. Non-drinking Julia gets drunk and lets it slip about the gold. Henry, being Henry, makes a deal to betray Julia behind her back. But, he soon realizes he has fallen in love. The question is does she love him? And for that, I hope you watch the movie for yourself to find out.
Christopher Lloyd is his usual quirky, funny self. Unfortunately, John Belushi is not. I hate to say it because I really like Belushi’ s work.; but, his talents were wasted in this movie. His character was underdeveloped; and, he used a stereotypical Mexican accent which is not funny to me. He had just completed Animal House the same year as this movie. Although he was a well-known comedian on television’s Saturday Night Live (1975) he was not a film star yet. Goin’ South was he second movie; and, it was released after Animal House was released.
Some Behind the Scenes Drama
Apparently, Nicholson and Belushi constantly clash on set. It must have been difficult for both of them. When Belushi was asked how he liked working with Nicholson the Director, he said: In the end, Jack treated me like shit on Goin’ South. I hate him. When Nicholson was asked what he thought of the director, he said: The Director of this film is one selfish demanding egomaniac. And the leading man isn’t much better.
In truth, Nicolson treated his cast as extended family on set. According to the producers of the movie, Belushi had a “short fuse” and was constantly fighting with them. When they did not give in to his petty demands, he sulked. The more his sulked; the less his role became. This is unfortunate because it would have been interesting to see what his totally engaged talents would have done in the final outcome of this movie.
When Christopher Lloyd was attended a Back to The Future Convention in 2016, he was asked which movie did he have the most fun making. He said, Goin’ South; and, he wished more people knew about it. That is “one fun little movie.” I couldn’t agree more Mr. Lloyd.
Happy 80th Birthday Mr. Nicholson, this April 22, 2017. This is part of a Jack’s 80th Birthday Blogathon hosed by Gill at Realweegiemidget. Thank you Gill for such a lovely invite to your Blogathon. I hope you, the reader, will want to read more posts about other Nicholson films. I almost did this blog on “The Last Detail” (1973) which is my number one Nicholson movie. So, I am really looking forward to reading the blogs at this site. Just click on the link below to find more about this amazingly, gifted actor and Director and his work.