The Harder They Fall

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

The Old West was a dangerous place. You could die a dozen ways before breakfast out there: A sudden blizzard. A hole in your canteen. A rattlesnake bite. Lead poisoning from a Colt Walker revolver.

But the deadliest of all dangers? Rufus Buck.

Some said he was more devil than man—a mountain of muscle topped with a black felt hat and cold, clear eyes. His gangs tore through the West like a 3-year-old through wrapping paper on Christmas morning. No one crossed Rufus Buck—not if you expected to live. Those who bucked the odds left their experience with Rufus forever marked. Sometimes literally.

Nat Love was one of them. Seems even Rufus stopped short of killing a 9-year-old boy. Nat’s dad—a good man, a preacher man—wasn’t so lucky. Neither was his mom. Both were shot down at the dinner table in front of Nat’s terrified eyes, just after the family said grace.

But Rufus didn’t walk away then. Not yet. He took a straight-edge razor and cut a cross in Nat’s young flesh—a brand on his forehead, deep and red. Then he left the boy, bleeding and alone.

Nat survived his first encounter with Rufus Buck and became a pretty tough fellow in his own right. He, like Buck, turned outlaw.

Still, Nat was more like an Old West Robin Hood. He’d rob, sure, but only from fellow robbers. He’d kill, sure, but only fellow killers. And just like Buck, he ran with some dangerous hombres: savvy Bill Pickett and deadly gun Jim Beckwourth. He sometimes consorted with a saloon owner, Stagecoach Mary.

But when Pickett and Beckwourth rob a chunk of the Red Hood Gang—an outfit with connections to Rufus and whose ill-gotten gains were earmarked for Rufus’ own coffers—Nat realizes that he’s destined to test his luck with Buck a second time.

And this time, Nat’s no boy. This time, Nat aims to be ready.

Positive Elements

With one exception, most everyone we get to know here is an outlaw. Naturally, we can only offer praise by degree.

Nat and his gang aren’t nearly as bad or bloodthirsty as Rufus and his collection of ruffians. You could even argue that Nat is as much bounty hunter as bad guy, taking down villains who (according to the law of the day) need it. But technically, he can’t collect those bounties because he’s got a price on his head himself. That makes him curiously generous (he tells a priest to cart a corpse into the authorities for the $5,000 reward), and he’s not needlessly violent. When he’s forced to rob a bank, he takes pride in doing so without killing anyone.

Compared to Nat—compared to almost anyone, really—Rufus Buck is a terrible, horrible human being. But even he reveals hints of a better person inside. He lets a person or two escape death during the film (one of them because of a former friendship they shared). And it seems he wants to build something with all his ill-gotten gains—an outpost for Blacks, who aren’t always welcome elsewhere in the West. It could be a “promised land.”

But as I mentioned, one character actually abides by the law … at least mostly. That’d be Bass Reeves, a U.S. Marshall who did the impossible and arrested Rufus Buck—and did so without a firearm, he says. When Buck is released/escapes (it’s complicated), he’s determined to see Rufus face justice. And if he bends the law a bit to make that happen … well, as we said, we’re dealing with some rather flawed folks here.

Spiritual Elements

The Harder They Fall features plenty of Christian imagery at first. Nat’s preacher father wears his clerical collar to the dinner table, and the small family says a prayer before they eat. As noted earlier, the family’s unexpected guest carves a Christian cross in Nat’s forehead, and an echo of that cross appears prominently in the opening credit sequence. (Crosses make appearances later on, too.)

We first meet an adult Nat inside the confines of a church, where he’s waiting for a priest. We see the altar (graced with a cross) and briefly meet another priest (who’s hiding for safety). A church stands prominently in Rufus Buck’s home outpost of Redwood City, too.

While that’s pretty much the extent of the film’s overt spirituality, The Harder They Fall is deeply interested in good and evil, redemption and justice. Rufus Buck is often called a “devil,” with some believing that he’s near supernatural. But at the end, we learn that the evil that lurks in every heart can be just as diabolical.

Sexual Content

Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary were clearly an item before most of the events in the movie, but the two also—quite clearly—had a falling out. That doesn’t prevent them from kissing and passionately making out in Mary’s room, though. We see a great deal of smooching and a bit of skin, and Nat runs his hand up Mary’s exposed thigh. (For what it’s worth, Nat holds a wedding ring in that hand that he’d very much like to give Mary; but in a later scene, Mary makes it clear she’s not interested.)

A woman who’s painted blue dances nearly naked in another saloon—her private parts covered only by what looks like wispy, stick-on gold embroidery. Her erotic dance is highly suggestive.

Another woman named Cuffee, who serves as the bouncer in Stagecoach Mary’s saloon, presents herself as a boy. She’s not, and everyone in Nat’s gang gets confirmation of that when circumstances force her to change into a dress. (We don’t see anything critical during the wardrobe change.) Though no one else is too surprised, one member is shocked but relieved; he’d been concerned that he found the “boy” Cuffee rather attractive.

The movie may, incidentally, suggest that Cuffee and Mary were in a relationship with each other at one point in time. (The two kiss on the cheeks in farewell and exchange a rather intense look.) Cuffee may have fallen for a male member of the gang as well.

Nat goes shirtless in a scene. Stagecoach Mary performs on stage in a busty, shoulder-baring outfit.

Violent Content

An alternate title for The Harder They Fall might have been The Good, The Bad and the Bloody. The film embraces hyper-stylized, Tarantino-esque violence. I’m pretty sure that the number of casualties we see here would fill more than one Boot Hill Cemetery. Dozens and dozens of people die here, and many spew lots of blood as they fall. Sometimes it can look as if guns aren’t shooting bullets but water balloons filled with blood.

Most casualties take a lead slug to the head or chest, of course. One man loses part of his head due to a gunshot wound, and we see the gory remains. Explosions kill others, and someone’s arm lies in the street after one such blast. A man is shot in the neck, and the blood spurts out as if the wound was a garden fountain. A man literally empties his gun into another guy’s chest, long after the victim had expired. (A horse gets shot in the head, on screen, too.)

Non-lethal encounters can feel just as gruesome, if not moreso in some cases. Rufus gets into a fistfight with another man. And after he’s punched in the face (and his mouth is bloodied), Rufus treats the other guy’s head as if it was a pound of hamburger. He punches and pistol-whips him mercilessly until the dirt around the victim’s head is strewn with teeth. Another man is slashed in the legs swiftly and repeatedly with a knife; he eventually collapses from the wounds. A woman is smashed in the head with a shovel after a vicious fight. Another is nearly strangled. And, of course, Nat suffers that horrific scar on his forehead (though the cutting itself takes place off camera). He and others are beaten as a form of torture.

We hear plenty of hair-curling stories about other acts of violence, too. The most disturbing might involve a little girl who bullied someone and, for her cruelty, was cruelly killed via a knife to the throat. Another man talks about how his father beat him and his mother horrifically, eventually killing the latter. Bass, the sheriff, talks about how many people he’s killed. We learn that an army unit slaughtered everyone in an “entire town,” including women and children. (The commander and his soldiers are soon, um, punished themselves.)

Crude or Profane Language

At least 25 f-words—though after the second scene, you’d think there’d be 10 times that number. We also hear about 15 s-words and plenty of other profanities, including “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “g-dd–n” (about six uses of the latter).

Drug and Alcohol Content

Booze aplenty flows here, and several scenes take place in saloons. Two characters drink whiskey together. We hear that one man was bedeviled by alcohol but eventually put away the booze and cleaned himself up.

Other Negative Elements

Do people lie here? Yes. Cheat? You bet. Steal? There’s barely anyone in the entire film who isn’t some sort of thief. We won’t detail every instance here. Instead, let’s just say that the entire movie is pretty much a dissertation on how not to follow the Ten Commandments.

Conclusion

Nat Love? He was a real historical character. Rufus Buck? He was real, too. Stagecoach Mary? Bass Smith? Cherokee Bill? Yep, all names and characters pulled straight out of the Old West. I knew about one character—Bill Pickett—from my days working at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He invented the rodeo skill of bulldogging, or steer wrestling, and he was one of the first inductees to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

That didn’t make it into this movie, of course. For one thing, there’s too much shooting for anyone to have much chance to wrestle steers. For another, few people we meet in The Harder They Fall seem to have much similarity to the historical folks they take their names from. This isn’t history: It’s pure Old West fantasy. A Black Western League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Strangely fitting. After all, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock and Billy the Kid were all real people, too. But the reason we know about them today? Not so much because of what they actually did, but because of their highly fictionalized adventures brought to life in dime novels gobbled up by Eastern urbanites longing for a taste of the Wild West.

Likewise The Harder They Fall isn’t meant to be taken as true. But it is a reminder that the Wild West was more diverse, more colorful than the John Wayne pics might tell us.

Unfortunately, the colors we see in this film are often red and blue: Red blood and blue language.

The Harder They Fall is a freewheeling carnival ride on one level that takes a hard turn toward Greek tragedy in the end. But man, the content we see here would make even Bat Masterson blush. The violence can be gleefully unremitting. The f-words can fly as fast as the bullets. And the nearly naked blue lady dancing in a Redwood City saloon? Yeah, pretty sure that’s not historical.

The fact that the film is on Netflix adds another problematic carrot to this Old West stew. All an 8-year-old kid needs to watch this flick is a screen, a Netflix account and parents who aren’t that familiar with the service’s parental controls. (If you want to make sure that’s not you, check out our Netflix tutorial on the matter.)

The Harder They Fall is not, aesthetically, a bad movie. But it does have plenty of bad behavior and oodles of bad content in it. And the fact that the film is pretty decent can make it all the harder to dislodge it from your noggin.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.