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September 01, 2009

Don't Touch the White Woman

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Touche pas a la Femme Blanche
Marco Ferreri - 1974
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

While I am not going to the Telluride Film Festival this year, I thought it time to see again a film that played at Telluride in 1974. While I didn't feel any great wave of nostalgia for Don't Touch the White Woman, the version screened at Telluride was without subtitles. What little I understood had more to do with my familiarity regarding General Custer and Little Big Horn than what the characters were actually saying to each other. Seeing the film for the first time in thirty-five years, even with English subtitles, I wondered why I bothered.

Marco Ferreri's film was made after the more commercially successful La Grande Bouffe, the black comedy about a group of men who commit suicide by gorging on food until they've stuffed themselves to death. One of the several reasons why I am certain that Don't Touch the White Woman never received U.S. distribution is because its allegory was already dated by the time it was released in France in January 1974. Seeing the film again, my own feeling is that Ferreri was primarily addressing a smug audience that considered itself too intellectual to bother seeing an actual western, or even consider one of the more recently released revisionist westerns from Hollywood.

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Ferreri's version of Custer and Little Big Horn was to film it in the middle of then contemporary Paris, at Les Halles which was undergoing reconstruction and was essential a very large hole. The French and Italian actors are in 19th Century costume. While there is a brief mention of Algeria, Ferreri reminds the viewer repeatedly that he is comparing the U.S. governments treatment of Native Americans with U.S. military action in Viet-Nam with portraits of Richard Nixon visible whenever possible. Ferreri's own revision comes in the form of the famously blond Custer portrayed by the dark haired Marcello Mastroianni. Competition as America's top Indian fighter comes in the form of an equally vain and buffoonish Buffalo Bill, played by Michel Piccoli. Catherine Deneuve's role as the woman Custer falls in love with is mostly decorative. At the time that I saw Don't Touch the White Woman the first time, the draft had ended and U.S. troops had a reduced presence in Viet-Nam, and Richard Nixon had resigned less than a month ago. Ferreri's film might stand as a lesson on the fragility of making a film that depends on timeliness in making its points.

What bothers me about Don't Touch the White Woman thirty-five years later is how unnecessary it was in criticizing the U.S. government or Hollywood films. Using the "Garryowen" march seems like a cheap shot, particularly at John Ford, who once stated in an interview that, on film, he had killed more Indians than Chivington. Even Ford owned up to an often glossed over aspect of U.S. history, in part with The Searchers, and more directly with Cheyenne Autumn, especially in a scene where a soldier compares the rounding up of the Native Americans with the actions of the Cossacks in his native Poland. One didn't need to look to deeply into more recent films that could be read as allegories about the U.S. in Viet-Nam, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, and the more direct Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue. The My Lai massacre would have been fresh enough in the Fall of 1970 when Nelson and Penn has their films released. However avant garde Don't Touch the White Woman may have been when originally conceived, the message was dead even before the messenger.

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Posted by peter at September 1, 2009 01:33 PM