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Lawman (1971) was the first of two films that actor Burt Lancaster and director Michael Winner made together in the early seventies. At the time Lancaster was struggling to find projects suitable for a man his age with his unique physique. This period, which extends from roughly 1970 to 1976, sees Lancaster playing men of action who have suddenly found themselves in the midst of middle age. These characters, like Lancaster, have to deal with the existential dilemma of leaving their swashbuckling days of derring-do behind them.

Jared Maddox is as much a portrait of Lancaster as he is the product of a shift in the aesthetic and moral concerns of the American Western. By the time that Lawman was made, the Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone had already become well established in American popular culture. Films like The Wild Bunch (1969) were a direct reaction to the more cerebral, morally ambiguous and generally more adult Italian Westerns. This era of Revisionist Westerns produced dozens of characters like Jared Maddox who encapsulated the violent terror of American Imperialism as well as the populist resistance to that terror. Maddox is both “the man” and “the rebel” in equal measure; a paradoxical character defined by an individual sense of justice.

From the beginning of the film, a final showdown is inevitable and Winner paces Lawman to reflect that slow march towards death. Maddox is depicted as an unstoppable force slowly closing in on his prey. Maddox is justice, that one thing that, at times, both the political right and left can agree on. Townsfolk and cattle barons alike are helpless in the face of the impending doom promised by Maddox. Maddox is the romantic figure of Shane (1953) reimagined as a flawed and conflicted man of the Vietnam years.

Lawman consistently insists via the dialogue that the age for men like Maddox (and Shane) is quickly passing; that the West no longer needs these larger than life figures of violence and justice to maintain order. It is a call to move away from the Imperialist agenda behind Vietnam as much as it is an indictment of the naive patriotic idealism of the fifties. Yet, one can’t remove Burt Lancaster entirely from this predicament that Maddox faces. Lawman seems to ask if, in the seventies, is there even room for movie stars like Lancaster anymore?

The obvious bleakness of Lawman is reiterated in the visual compositions of the film. Winner shoots in predominantly barren, brown landscapes when he’s not filming in a town or on a ranch that feels utterly joyless. Civilization in Lawman is defined by structures of capitalism where there is never any sense of human spirit. The one hold out in this wasteland is the bad guy, Lee J. Cobb whom Maddox is obligated to kill.

Two years after Lawman Michael Winner and Burt Lancaster would attempt the same kind of genre revisionism and self-reflecting meditation in the spy thriller Scorpio (1973) with more mixed results. Lawman is the superior of the two largely because of Lancaster’s own affinity for the Western. Lancaster’s Westerns had often challenged the status quo of the genre and it was with Lawman that he began a string of truly remarkable Revisionist Western films that culminated with Ulzana’s Raid (1972).