Land of the Empire Builders,
Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men,
Fairest and the best.
Onward and upward ever,
Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,
How our tiny hearts would pound singing “Oregon, My Oregon” the state song along with our classmates while dreaming of the settlers trudging intrepidly in covered wagons along the Oregon Trail. Just blocks away from our school we could catch a glimpse of the golden statue of the Oregon Pioneer atop the state capitol building. Oregon history was part of the fourth grade curriculum in the 1950s, and we were primed to answer any questions about those brave families and their journeys westward.
It was the pioneer women who impressed me most, stoic, uncomplaining wives and mothers who tossed their prize possessions one by one out of the wagons to lighten the load as they crossed the unforgiving plains. Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt captures all of this in her poignant film MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), a very quiet film in which there is no dialogue for the first ten minutes and very little after that. It’s the monotonous whine of the wagon wheels straining against their axles coupled with Jeff Grace’s haunting score that hint at a sense of upcoming doom. If you are looking for action, go elsewhere. Michelle Williams perfectly embodies the brave pioneer woman Emily Tetherow whose moral fortitude keeps the group together after being led astray by their braggart and blustery guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whom they had hired because he claimed he knew a shortcut to the Willamette Valley.
Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt didn’t sit through Oregon state history lessons growing up. She was born a decade later in a state as away from Oregon as could be: Florida; but she’s got this thing for Oregon. Reichardt has made five films in Oregon, two of which were featured at Filmfest Hamburg, MEEK’S CUTOFF and FIRST COW.
FIRST COW (2019) is her most recent film, a gentle gem, a noble western saga. Reichardt introduces the film with one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s a slow-paced tale about two men living on the scrappy edge of frontier society who meet and form an unlikely alliance and a deep friendship.
Cookie (John Magaro) is a soft-spoken, meek man who was born on the east coast, orphaned young, and became an indentured servant to a master cook. In a deep dark forest in the Oregon Territory (forests suffocated the western regions in the 1820s) while foraging at night for mushrooms he discovers a man on the run, King-Lu (Orion Lee), and helps him escape his Russian pursuers. Street smart if not jaded, King-Lu had fled from China as a youth and had been to all the world capitals before finding his way to the Oregon Territory. King-Lu is eloquent and wise; he has seen and done it all. His whole life he has been looking for a break, an angle, some way to earn his fortune. By contrast Cookie seems to be a man too good for this world. When he discovers a salamander on its back by the riverside, he gingerly picks it up to turn it over so it can survive. In a saloon at the settlement when all go outside to watch a brawl, he stays behind to coo an abandoned baby.
Cookie and King-Lu’s paths cross again at Fort Tillicum, a rough, muddy, and uncivilized place at the heart of the waning beaver trade. One man has certainly come out on top, Chief Factor (Toby Jones). He is a wealthy Englishman determined to live the life of a country gentleman in this primitive outpost. To fulfill that dream he sends away for three cows, however only one survives the long trip from California. She is the first cow to come to these parts, and she is a beauty. One of the most picturesque shots in the film is of the cow (Evie) riding along majestically on a small. raft-like ferry on her way to her new home.
King-Lu sees the cow and senses the opportunity to hit it rich. He convinces Cookie to sneak into Chief Factor’s pasture to milk the cow at night to make delectable oily cakes by day to sell to the local trappers. The law of supply and demand means they quickly accrue a small fortune which they shrewdly hide up high in a tree. Their dream is to escape their lives of degradation and poverty and buy a small hotel in San Francisco. As a filmgoer it’s impossible not to get emotionally snared in their risky scheme as they struggle against all odds for a better life.