Altman’s film McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film of cultural anxiety and masculine identity, tied more closely with the time of its production then to the era in which its artifice takes place. It will be important to examining the film to keep in mind that both Altman and Beatty were liberals in an America divided by both the Cold War and Vietnam.
Norman Mailer has called America “corporation land” in his masterpiece Armies Of The Night; and it is the corporation that strangles the ambition and dreams of McCabe. In that respect, McCabe is perhaps representative of the American liberal front, both pacifist (McCabe resists the threat of violence) and militant (McCabe in the film’s climax resorts to violence in preservation of his “dream”). The fact that McCabe is ineffective and thus dies alone in a snow dune speaks volumes to how Altman perceived the movement’s effectiveness against the “unjust war”. Likewise, whilst McCabe takes the stand that he is forced to take, Mrs. Miller reclines quietly in an opium den, surrendering to the inevitable take over of the corporation and the failure of McCabe’s resistance to it. To continue the allegory, perhaps we can assume Altman is indicting the lack of total commitment to the movement by the youth, which initially sparked it in Berkley’s free speech movement, who by the 70s were replaced by younger acid eating hippies. Thus, the movement resigned itself to the powers of government and corporation, leaving but a few active in the resistance. Chronologically, such historic events would not occur in the student movement till the mid seventies, and I suppose Altman fore saw these events, bitterly warning against such failures in the tragic comic narrative of his film.
But McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not exclusively a political metaphor or an anti-Vietnam film; it examines a turning point in the role of masculinity. It’s a theme prevalent in a handful of Warren Beatty’s films of the time, notably Shampoo and The Fortune directed by Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols respectively (Beatty developed many of these projects, working as producer before turning to directing with Heaven Can Wait, which was co-directed by Buck Henry). McCabe is the second in this echelon of failed masculine images, following Clyde Barrows. What makes McCabe the most cinematically compelling of this entourage is the genre, which he inhabits. The cowboy mystique, and more precisely the image of the dying west were popular in the films of New Hollywood, playing a major role in the films of Dennis Hopper and Monty Hellman. Where there use of such American iconography worked in a more political context, reflecting a transition from the sixties to the seventies, Altman’s McCabe is fixed within the western genre, not transporting its elements to contemporary American counter culture. Thus the allegory is doubly strong; McCabe is a dumb man, a big talker and gambler who is often incoherent in his pontifications. He exudes himself with the hard drinking life style associated with “real men”, yet cannot find sexual devotion, or financial success. What does propel him is solely the role Mrs. Miller plays in his life, leaving him ineffectual, weak, and finally timid when confronted with threats of violence. Altman painstakingly reveals the illusion of masculinity in Hollywood and Western legends; and unlike most heroes of both parties, McCabe dies alone, in vain, and only after finally being revealed to have no qualities of either genre’s masculine heroes whether it be Wyatt Earp or John Barrymore.
With such somber reflections and revelations Altman and Beatty ushered the Western film into the seventies, quietly letting the last breathe out of the lungs of Red River, The Sons Of Katie Elder and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.