The Dream Western: On McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971)
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Nobody has ever made a good movie.”
—Robert Altman


In 1970, at the height of the revisionist era, two American filmmakers each embarked on a years-long, genre-hopping campaign that resulted, by decade’s end, in a run of films as unlike one another as two bodies of work could be. Peter Bogdanovich, perhaps because he’d spent so much time organizing retrospectives, writing monographs, and sitting at the feet of his filmmaking heroes—Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Huston—cast himself in the role of perennial apprentice. He made homages, like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, two films shot in black and white, “set well before the Vietnam War” and “directed as if it never happened” (as Tad Friend wrote in a 2002 New Yorker profile). Though gifted, and temperamentally contrarian (he readily identified himself as New Hollywood), he was artistically conservative, and spent his career paying tribute. 

Robert Altman was not so reverential. His declaration above, that nobody has ever made a good movie, was recorded by a New York Times reporter who visited the Vancouver set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman’s 1971 anti-Western, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as the eponymous John McCabe and Constance Miller.1

With M*A*S*H, his 1970 breakthrough, Altman dispensed with war film tropes—there are no battles or patriotism, little heroism. It’s a caustically irreverent film set during the Korean War, though, significantly, as Altman told an interviewer, “all the political attitudes in the film were about Nixon and the Vietnam War.” 

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which he made the following year, is set in 1902, which makes it a generation removed from the era of most Westerns. As with M*A*S*H, its point of telling is squarely the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. But, while Altman was sensitive to the shifting cultural tides, he didn’t assume his perch was an exalted one; he didn’t knock the naïve or benighted past. Rather, he took advantage of being able to look back at the turn of the 20th century—a time when faith in the Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, progress, and order were cresting—and consider it against the chaotic decades that followed. By 1970, high rationalism and expert opinion had given us the Vietnam War; progress and capitalism had brought about environmental degradation; historians were beginning to recognize and describe the actions taken against indigenous cultures of the Americas as state-sponsored genocide. These facts are crucial as backdrop. But they are not the film’s subject. Instead, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Altman’s meditation on the dreams and emotions the past stirs within us, and on the distance between 1902 and 1970. The film defies the binaries of tradition and revision, instead drifting into a “thirdspace,” a concept developed by political geographer Edward Soja—a liminal realm between the real and imagined. 

*

Unlike other genres, the Western is rooted in a specific time and place—west of the Mississippi, between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Progressive Era, a thirty-year stretch that long served as a source of nostalgic sustenance. Fritz Lang, the Austrian-American director of Metropolis, once said in an interview (with Bogdanovich) that the Western is “not only the history of this country—it is what the Saga of the Nibelungen is for the European.”

“Ford gave us something to look up to,” John Wayne said in The American West of John Ford, a television special that aired in 1971. The Western, Wayne continued, “is the way we keep in touch with our past.” But the genre had been taken for granted and was under threat. Wayne asked the viewer to consider a world without Westerns. (Can you imagine?) “There’d be no cowboys or Indians or homesteaders or gunfighters. No covered wagons or stagecoaches. No villains, no heroes. It’d be like not having a soul.”

Upon its release that same year, Wayne called McCabe & Mrs. Miller “corrupt.”

*

“As a Western, it rather seems to have been made by someone, a sensitive and ambitious artist, who never saw a Western before,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his New York Times review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Altman had seen Westerns, of course—he’d even directed several episodes of Bonanza in the late ‘50s)—but he couldn’t abide most of them, for reasons both aesthetic and philosophic. He later qualified his comment that no one had ever made a good movie for Dick Cavett: “The medium of film has not yet really been explored,” he said. It was a newer art form, one that borrowed heavily from theatrical and literary traditions and was still an extension of those mediums. Eventually, Altman suggested, someone would make a work of pure cinema.

Altman also felt, like many of his contemporaries, that the Western’s myths had ossified. They’d become “imitated to the point where they become like granite, and they’re not interesting. I just want to say, ‘Suppose it could have happened this way.’”

“I think what happens,” Altman said in another interview, “is that I research these subjects and discover so much bullshit.”

One might then expect Altman to have constructed a film as clear-eyed and hard-nosed as a kitchen sink drama. I often see McCabe & Mrs. Miller characterized this way—as a corrective, an unvarnished representation of the gritty reality of frontier life. What this misses is that McCabe & Mrs. Miller plays like a dream. First, there’s the way it’s shot. Altman told his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that he wanted it to feel “like antique photography and faded-out pictures.” (To prevent the studio from meddling with his intentions, Altman and Zsigmond flashed the negatives.) “I was doing everything I could to destroy the clarity of the film, including using a heavy number three fog filter,” Altman said. “I wanted it to have that antique, historical look.”

The film historian Robert Kolker calls the film “an elegy.” But unlike Ford, Altman “has no stake…in the western mythos.” Rather, he “sees the western … not as healing and bonding lies—which is the way Ford saw the western—but merely as lies.” Ford was responding to “the needs of the present,” whatever he judged those needs to be. His was a restoration project. Altman’s, on the other hand, is reflective.

The distinction I’m making here, between restorative and reflective nostalgia, was made by the late cultural theorist Svetlana Boym. In Boym’s conception, restorative nostalgia seeks to build monuments to the past, while reflective nostalgia contemplates ruins and voids; it considers the distance between ideality and reality. Boym wrote in The Future of Nostalgia:

“Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth…Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.”

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, appearing when it did (1971 has been called the “annus mirabilis of the counterculture”), made by an uncompromising nonconformist, is often seen as an exemplar of the era’s revisionist films. This is not inaccurate. Anti-establishment ideas prevailed, and, in this context, the Western was particularly exposed—even someone not as revisionist-minded as Altman would have been hard-pressed not to subject the genre’s conventions to serious scrutiny. The idea that those who settled the West made it safe for democracy had long been viewed as a canard—capitalism was the flag under which people were traversing the continent, of course it was. And there was, thanks in part to mid-century philosophers of technology, increased understanding about the tendency to render all of reality as a standing reserve. Everything—trees, land, animals, even humans—was viewed as raw material to be harvested, extracted from, and disposed of, losing along the way any moral standing. 

But Altman’s film isn’t a full-throated endorsement or uncritical advancement of countercultural ideas, which were themselves clouded by a kind of gauzy romanticism. Altman, looking back on the nearly seven decades that separated the year in which McCabe & Mrs. Miller is set from the year it was shot, was alert to the ways in which the 20th century had both revealed the limits of Enlightenment realism and, at the same time, shown the dangers of Romantic excess.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is stripped of patriotism and unstamped by the past’s charisma; it responds to the films that precede it, yes, but Altman was a filmmaker unburdened by an attachment to old myths; he was, conversely, free of the compulsion to make a film that comported with contemporary values—he felt neither the need to pay loving homage, nor to issue a strident corrective. He didn’t attempt to root the past in his conception of the present. Instead of insisting on continuity, he stressed loss. He took up a series of questions: What do progress and industrial capitalism do to the individual? What potential vistas, under different conditions and circumstances, without the pressure of a specific set of forces, might have opened up for John McCabe and Constance Miller? 

The film begins with a kind of false homecoming—McCabe rides on horseback into the emerging outpost of Presbyterian Church, Washington, as Leonard Cohen, never more plaintive than he is here, sings “he was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” McCabe is a drifting gambler whose reputation as a gunfighter quickly spreads—rumor has it, says Patrick Sheehan (René Auberjonois), that here is the same John “Pudgy” McCabe who killed Bill Roundtree (whoever that is; we never find out). McCabe posts up and runs a card game at Sheehan’s Saloon and Hotel, quickly establishing himself. He negotiates for the sale of three sex workers in nearby Bearpaw, and brings them back to Presbyterian Church, where he sets up a brothel. Some time later, a Case steam tractor, bearing Constance Miller, lurches into town. Mrs. Miller, a British madam who sounds like Eliza Doolittle, proposes a partnership to McCabe. We know, per McCabe, that “partners is what I come up here to get away from,” but Miller makes quick work of revealing to McCabe the extent to which he’s out of his depth. They go into business. 

Pauline Kael felt that both McCabe and Miller were equally “lost in their separate dreams.” But, throughout the film, we get the feeling that, unlike the congenital dreamer McCabe, Miller never fully gives herself over to the fantasy. She understands what’s coming. She recognizes the value of an escape hatch—opium, in her case, to which she is addicted. Altman invites us to imagine, before the inevitable conclusion, a counterfactual. It is McCabe and Miller’s unrealized dreams that the film takes as the object of its nostalgia. 

Though Altman claimed he wasn’t trying to make a grand statement, McCabe & Mrs. Miller says as much about American capitalism as any film in the second half of the twentieth century.

Capitalism, with its accompanying suite of techniques, defines its ends from the outset, and therefore narrows potential by marshaling and guiding everything toward desired outcomes. Its deterministic agenda and force is the subtext beneath the film—from the minute McCabe rides into town in the film’s opening frames, the die is cast. If the false promise of American democracy is that anyone can go it alone and make it big, the unspoken condition of capitalism is that victory always comes at the expense of others and that the house always wins.

Though Altman claimed he wasn’t trying to make a grand statement (“I’m just reflecting what I see and feel”), McCabe & Mrs. Miller says as much about American capitalism as any film in the second half of the twentieth century. It was not small farmers or cowboys who made the West—eastern capital flowed freely, industrialization set the pace, and large corporations set the terms. Two hundred and fifty years of slave labor was responsible for much of the wealth in this country; immigrant labor built the railroads, worked the mines, and harvested and processed the raw materials that were transformed into the objects that surround us; sex work and the alcohol trade developed as an escape. Presbyterian Church is composed of Irish, English, German, Mexican, and Chinese men and women who are subject to the forces that drove them from their homes and into this work. 

The film, as all films must be, is about people, not ideas. Or, rather, it’s about those on whose toil the rise of modern capitalism depended—those whose labor subsidizes our modern lives. The emergence of cultural studies and systems theory, the sway of ordinary language philosophy in the postwar years, these things re-shaped our understanding of how we exist in the world. It was possible, in a way it hadn’t been a few decades earlier, to tell a story of people who were circumscribed by their social and economic contexts, of individuals caught in “the grip of ideas” and tossed like corks on history’s waves. Altman understood this—Michael Dempsey correctly notes that the filmmaker had a “preoccupation with the destruction of humanity’s most vulnerable members.”2

*

McCabe abides by his own tempo and rhythm. He rambles, shambles, digresses, meanders. (The prostitutes and migrant laborers, always on the clock, whose time is not their own, have already lost this capacity.) But industrial time is bearing down on him. Its intrusion is first marked with the arrival of the steam engine that bears Mrs. Miller. This is followed by the arrival of Misters Sears and Hollander (“Sears and Roebuck,” McCabe calls them) from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company interested in buying up the town. (Presbyterian Church sits atop valuable zinc deposits.)

Sears and Hollander try to cut a deal with McCabe, who rebuffs and haggles, thinking they’ve come to negotiate. He doesn’t take measure of the violence he’s confronting—and, at first, neither do we. Sears and Hollander, in suits and ties, give off the whiff of respectability, practicality, equanimity. The tone here is easygoing; McCabe is out of his depth, sure, but the stakes feel pretty low—McCabe will get less than he’s owed, perhaps he’ll be screwed out of his holdings. The viewer, like McCabe, greatly overestimates the available latitude. It’s chilling to re-watch this scene and realize, not quite midway through the film, the ends to which he’s being condemned here, how completely his fate is sealed.  

*

There follows a succession of scenes that sit on the film’s axis—McCabe’s failed negotiations with Sears and Hollander, then Bert Remsen’s Bart Coyle is accidentally killed during a fight; at Bart’s funeral, Ida, his newly arrived mail-order bride, locks eyes with Mrs. Miller, in whose employ she’ll shortly end up. A dopey young cowboy, played by Keith Carradine, meanders into town, looking for action. We view these scenes through a window, always at a remove, witnesses rather than participants. 

The subsequent scene at first feels like shelter. A handful of townspeople are gathered on the frozen river in front of Sheehan’s Saloon, dancing to fiddle music, passing time. This is intercut with Miller setting up Ida in her new position. It’s among the film’s most tender and affecting scenes: the revelry on the river, Miller working to persuade Ida of her agency, reframing the shift from mail-order bride to sex worker as liberating. One sees here the flicker of community, and can imagine for a moment that Presbyterian Church might be a place that deserves to be called home. 

But it’s short-lived, the idyll, and it’s broken by the arrival of three men on horseback, the severest of which has a blunderbuss hanging off his belt. He is Butler (Hugh Millais), the enforcer for Harrison Shaughnessy, the mining company to whom McCabe refused to sell his holdings.

*

“You don’t even know where the wealth of this town is,” Butler says days after he’s arrived in town. (The people of Presbyterian Church, who sit and listen, seem to have warmed to him.) “Up in Canada, right now, they’re blasting tunnel under $10 a foot, all done with the pigtail…They give it to Johnny Chinaman, send him in, down comes 45-50 tons of rock, and one dead Chinaman. But you sir, do you know what the fine is for killing a Chinaman? $50 maximum. The inspector’s working for the company. Four times out of five it’s an accident. You could do this right here with your own zinc.”

This is the calculus of efficiency, where time is money and people are secondary and subordinate to the clock. It “clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes; it does in the domain of the abstract what the machine did in the domain of labor,” Jacques Ellul wrote in his 1954 work, The Technological Society

The people of Presbyterian Church will either adopt such measures and persist, or eschew them and wither. They will adapt or die. Capitalism is especially good at hiding brutality under a polished veneer. (The harshest reality is visited upon Presbyterian Church in the form of Sears and Hollander, the two most buttoned-up looking characters in the film.) Relationships are commodified, time is quantified; people are reconceived as economic units; subjectivity and intuition fall out of the picture, replaced by objects, modes, quantities, and results; nature is taxonomized, systemized, schematized, tabulated.

Butler’s speech was lifted from something Altman read that had shocked him. “The whole idea was that in 1901, in the north-west territory, you would find in the law books that the maximum fine for first-degree murder of a [Chinese laborer] was $50!” the director told an interviewer. “If you were tried and convicted, of course. It was considered the same as if you were shooting a dog.” 

The first sight of Butler shocks the townspeople from their idyll, sends them scrambling. But soon they’re hearing him out. 

“We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1959.

*

Here I hit pause, because I feel I’m missing something crucial. McCabe & Mrs. Miller means so much to me, yet I’m failing it. It’s as though the film’s quiddity remains elusive to me.  

I tell a friend that I’m laboring over this essay, and he asks if I’d like him to reach out to Warren Beatty—a friend of his. I dumbly say thanks but no thanks. As excited as I am by the prospect, I worry that a conversation with the man who played John McCabe would open up for me new possibilities that I wouldn’t have time to work in, or that it would reveal to me the errors of my thinking. My wife tells me I’m nuts and urges me to reconsider. So I tell my friend that I’ve changed my mind, that I’d love to talk with Warren Beatty, of course I would.

We schedule a call. And then I get COVID, a bad bout. I lose both my voice and, thanks to the brain fog, my capacity for abstract thought. I stare blankly at my computer screen, trying to conceive of a single question to ask Warren. Eventually, I come up with something: McCabe mutters at one point “I have poetry in me.” This to me says so much about his character. It’s maybe the most revealing line in the film. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is.

Do you remember this line? What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean?

I have my own explanation ready. To me it suggests someone who has, within himself, modes of expression to which he no longer has access. Saul Bellow once wrote that prevailing ideologies and dominant systems of thought distract and disorient us, that they disfigure our “first soul”—obscure from us what Tolstoy and Proust called our “true impressions”—and I think that’s very close to what’s being said here. McCabe is gesturing at depths, but he’s being forced to harmonize with a dominant system that reduces and disfigures. He’s expressing here, for the first and only time in the film, his frustration at such disfigurement.

I say all this to Warren, over the phone. I start to add something along the lines of, “McCabe has been characterized as a poseur and fool…” but then I feel like I’m being insulting, so I stop myself. I explain that I’m just recovering from COVID, and that I feel I’m operating at a cognitive deficit. (I want to make sure that the person John Huston once described as having a “well-furnished apartment upstairs” feels that I, too, have a well-furnished apartment upstairs.)

There’s a pause.

“I think a film speaks for itself, that’s the point of it,” he says. “To go on about it after…I wouldn’t call it fruitless, but particularly when a collaborator has passed away, I don’t like the idea of taking the liberty of speaking for the film. That film was made in a very collaborative way, and I’d be much more inclined to speak about it if Bob Altman were alive.”

I tell him I agree—that it speaks for itself. I tell him that McCabe & Mrs. Miller holds a special place for me, but that I’ve struggled to get these feelings onto the page. I’ve realized, in the process, the challenge of describing in prose what is essentially an emotional or aesthetic feeling. I tell him that, no matter how much I write, I feel I’m being reductive, that I’m getting it wrong.

“I don’t think you should worry about that,” he says. “You felt what you felt. And I don’t want to interfere with that.”

This, to me, is not a dodge. It’s deceptively profound. It reminds me of something Altman said in 1972:

“Ideally an audience can look at a film, emotionally get the whole thing and not necessarily be able to explain it to someone else. You get an impression, and you know what it means but you can’t articulate it.”

*

“It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1999. “Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will never ever come.”

Where do John McCabe and Constance Miller come from? McCabe, like so many Western heroes before him, arrives on horseback at the film’s outset, from parts unknown. Those rumors about him are never verified or falsified. His stay in Presbyterian Church is coterminous with the film’s span. We know, given her accent, that Mrs. Miller has crossed an ocean and a continent. But whatever forces, decisions, and turns brought her to Presbyterian Church remain beyond the film’s narrative scope. We know this: she must have first dreamed of another life.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller are both itinerants who “share solitude and dreams, not roots.” In an unromantic film, this is a deeply romantic idea—two “internal immigrants…longing for a fellow nostalgic.” As regards that phrase,“internal immigrants”—Boym relates this to the dislocation people felt when time was sliced, quantified, and commodified. For Boym, nostalgia is a “rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress,” a reaction to the spatiotemporal disruptions of modernity. Laying at the foundation of Presbyterian Church’s economy is a base metal used in the manufacture of telegraph cables, those harbingers of instantaneous communication.3 Those who mined it were, wittingly or not, facilitating the proliferation of a tool that was steadily obliterating space and time, accelerating and intensifying the discontinuity and nostalgia of which Boym speaks.

So “internal immigrants” (whatever the awkwardness of the phrase) refers to those who’ve been exiled from their own biological rhythms, their own lived experience of time, and are now subject to the clock. “The representation of time itself changed,” Boym writes. “It moved away from allegorical human figures: an old man, a blind youth holding an hour-glass, a woman with bared breasts representing Fate to the impersonal language of numbers: railroad schedules, the bottom line of industrial progress. Time was no longer shifting sand; time was money.”

Industrial capitalism has overseen all manner of dislocations—of place, social connections, spatial experience. It has wrenched people from the countryside and into cities, factories and mines. It instrumentalizes people and their relationships. 

John McCabe and Constance Miller find, like so many before and after them, that they are playthings to larger forces. But within the film, despite the inevitable unhappy ending, there exists for a time the potential for Miller to break free, to find success in business, and for McCabe to retain his holdings. McCabe’s death is, on the face of it, meaningless. No one notices and it changes exactly nothing—he kills those three men who came for him, but Harrison Shaughnessy will have their way. But despite this, the film, Robert Self writes, “narrates emotional possibility against rational inevitability.”

John McCabe and Contance Miller’s fate may be governed by capitalism’s imperatives, but for a while, they’re permitted to dream of an alternative. 

  1. “People have asked me throughout the years which directors have influenced me,” Altman said another time. “I don’t know their names, because I was mostly influenced when I’d see a film and think, ‘Man, I want to be sure to never do anything like that.”
  2. “The insistence that technologies of this sort are value-neutral is shown up for the speciousness it is once the cost of their production becomes clear,” Will Self wrote in a 2021 Harper’s essay. “That we live in affluent societies, in bubbles of safety and comfort underwritten by the labor of machines and people banished from our purview, is a realization everywhere repressed: these are the steely wheels slicing away beneath the most vulnerable portions of our bodies, as we swipe left and the train of progress chunters on into the night. The light of reason shines the way.”
  3. In 1902, zinc was primarily used in the production of the outermost layers of telegraph wires and cables. Those mining zinc—those in Presbyterian Church—were among generations of laborers whose time and toil was being put in the service of wiring and networking of the globe.