Film Review of Paint Your Wagon: A Musical about Consensual Non-Monogamy in the Old West

Welcome To Hell, Parson. No Name City, Population: drunk.
-Ben Rumson

Years back, I saw the 1969 film paint your wagon, which, in case you didn’t know, has the unusual distinction of being not only a western staring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, but also a full out musical, with both actors singing. I remembered the film being referenced in a Simpson’s episode, in which Homer rents it and is disappointed that it is not the type of gunfighter or cut-throat story that Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin are generally associated with.

Needless to say, many younger people I talk to remember the movie entirely from the Simpsons’ episode or think the Simpsons’ writers made the whole thing up. The film was somewhat doomed to obscurity, because of inability to fill a clear niche. Big name musicals were well on their way out by 1969, and neither Eastwood nor Marvin is much of a singer in the first place. Additionally the film’s subversive subject matter probably also alienated the taste of the more traditional audiences that big budget musicals tended to go for.

In the film, Lee Marvin’s character Ben and his “Pardner” Clint Eastwood, become the founders of a gold rush boom town, with an all male population. The gender imbalance is corrected when a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints comes through with his two wives. The townsfolk are initially confused and curious, but come to the conclusion that it is unfair for the Mormon to have two wives when none of them have any. They convince him to auction off his younger and more rebellious wife to the highest bidder, which ends up being a drunken Ben. She  threatens to shoot Ben on their wedding night and refuses to be treated as mere property, but eventually, they find an arrangement that is suitable for both of them.

Eventually, the other townsfolk get jealous of Ben for having the only woman in town, so they develop a scheme to kidnap prostitutes from a nearby town. Ben leads the kidnapping effort, but while he is gone his nearly purchased wife falls in love with Pardner, and upon his return they all agree to enter a polyandrous relationship. Meanwhile the kidnapping is a great success and town starts a brothel, that is visited by men from all over, making it a local center of sin.

Eventually a traveling preacher hits town, and tries to get its population to repent out of fear that the place will be sucked into hell, and then it happens. Ben also, corrupts the preacher’s son leading to the exchange: “Pop… believe me, until you’ve had a good cigar and a shot of whiskey, you’re missing the second and third best things in life.” He later reveals that “physical education” with a local “floozy” is his number one best thing in life.

Despite, the forced marriage, human trafficking and kidnapping (which probably is not a completely inaccurate depiction of how women lived in the old west) this film features an overall feel that is light and some of the dialogue is pretty entertaining and the black and gray morality is interesting. Ben is clearly a scoundrel who does many immoral things in the film but he is depicted positively and makes things work for his wife and his “pardner”. It is also one of the few films I know that depicts a polyamorous relationship in a positive light. That said, the singing often comes off as a little awkward, but it features the song the “They Call the Wind Maria”, for which Mariah Carey was named.

The film came out at the height of the sexual revolution and much of it seems to be a challenge to the sexual norms of the old guard. This is not to mention that it portrays sex with prostitutes, consensual non-monogamy, heavy drinking and tobacco use, in fairly favorable terms, while the puritanical religious sorts definitely come off as prudish jerks. Needless to say, I like the film. I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, and I certainly recognize that it is a bit dated and a bit weird as a musical, but it is over all fun and I love to hear what some of the old guard thought of it when it came out.

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