Sidewinder’s View: “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971)

From A Taste Of Cinema’s list of “The 30 Greatest Westerns”:

27. McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)

“Robert Altman’s unusual Western stars Warren Beatty as a gambler who owns a brothel with Madam Julie Christie. The snowy backdrop is beautifully photographed and the film is a critique of big business and capitalism. A sorrowful, quite melancholy film.”


The reviewer, for the most part, gets it right. It’s the subtle dig at capitalism where he takes the analysis a bridge too far.

The title characters run a small business venture together, having built it from the ground up. Things are going along just swell until an outside corporate entity– big business interests operating above the law– decides the smaller business stands in its way.

After a failed effort to buy McCabe out, the big business interests– or, to use more contemporary terms, corporatists/crony capitalists– dispatch gunmen to get rid of him. The smaller businessman’s appeals to due process and property rights fall on deaf ears.

So, according to the reviewer, I guess we’re not supposed to root for either of the title characters, because they are, after all, capitalists. They’re not running a charity; it’s a business, intended to make money.

The reviewer’s correct in asserting the movie’s a critique of Big Business, but it’s hardly anti-capitalist. That’s a reviewer painting with a pretty broad brush.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller‘s investment/development/expansion of their business, in order to provide customers with goods and services, in order to, yes, earn a profit, is seen in a positive light by the filmmaker.

Altman’s not trashing McCabe or Mrs. Miller, or providing us with a negative lesson about the evils of capitalism and free markets. The director clearly intends for audiences to sympathize with these two, a self-made, small businessman and his determined, go-getter junior partner after whom the film is titled.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller are the underdogs in the story. Their small, independent business endeavor is depicted as something worthy of admiration (even if it is a gambling saloon/brothel), because they built it up from nothing, triumphed over adversity and found a brief moment of success…

…until the crony capitalists, with bought-and-paid-for law on their side, showed up and started pushing people around.

It’s not McCabe’s endeavors as a capitalist which lead to his downfall. It was a combination of bad luck, McCabe’s naivete, and, particularly, his pride, which caused him to misread and underestimate his opponents.

Instead of waiting for McCabe’s irrational obstinence– which he’s using as a negotiating tactic– to run its course, the big business corporatists run out of patience and resort to violent means. The fact that they’re so cavalier about employing gunmen for this purpose suggests the corporatists are in bed with the government, operating above the law without fear of consequence.

That’s how cronyism works, made possible through the buying and selling of legal and political influence. That is not, however, how a free market works.

Ever the realist, and far more aware of the corporatists’ tactics and nature than McCabe is, Mrs. Miller immediately realizes he’s doomed as he boasts about having shot down their most recent offer in the hopes of securing a larger deal.

McCabe’s a tragic figure. Mrs. Miller’s a survivor. Both are capitalists. Both are viewed as sympathetic figures. How those characterizations play into a supposed ‘anti-capitalist’ message, I’m not sure.

In terms of its characterizations and its themes, McCabe & Mrs Miller is not as easy to pin down as the Taste Of Cinema reviewer might believe. If anything, it’s a Big Business versus Small Business, Corporatist versus Independent, Cronyism versus Free Markets story, i.e. a 1971 Western variation on the old David and Goliath story.

When it comes to my all-time favorite movies, it irritates me when a reviewer deems a film worthy because he believes it compliments/validates his own political beliefs, particularly when, as is the case with this film, it actually offers up something a bit more detailed and complex.

With this film in particular– where the capitalist title characters and their capitalist endeavors are viewed sympathetically– it’s almost as if the reviewer didn’t really watch the film, leaving him unable to give it much of an appraisal beyond the details of its surface.

When I first read the reviewer’s thumbnail description of the film, I thought, “A critique of capitalism? Not really, but, if it were, why would that be worth a mention? Particularly if the reviewer’s chosen to not mention that all involved in the making and selling of this supposed anti-capitalist commodity are capitalists themselves?”

Make no mistake: Beatty, Christie, Altman, the studio execs, etc, all got paid to create this product in the hopes of attracting the $$$ of the ticket-buying public. The studio from whom I purchased a copy this film– on VHS, then LaserDisc, then DVD– made it available to consumers like me in the hopes of earning a profit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

If the film were truly anti-capitalist (and it’s not) shouldn’t the reviewer have also called out its creators and profiteers for their hypocrisy in peddling a message on film which their real-world behavior seems to repudiate?

For nearly 20 years now, McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘s been one of my Top 10 favorite motion pictures. I’ve purchased it in three separate home video formats and I look forward to purchasing a potential Blu-ray if it ever gets released.

Personally, I hope Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and anybody else involved in creating this beautiful film have made, or continue to make, a boatload of money because of it.