The Battle Hymn of the Republic


The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Il Mio West, 1998).

Whether to clear his head or to do his part for low-budget cinema, Bowie acted in three movies, almost back to back, in the spring and summer of 1998. First he went to the Isle of Man and Liverpool for Everybody Loves Sunshine with Goldie. Then he flew to Tuscany in June (reason enough to do the film) to shoot a neo-spaghetti Western with Harvey Keitel.

This was Il Mio West, directed by Giovanni Veronesi. Bowie was to play the villain, a “psychopath” (the people of this 19th Century Western town diagnose Bowie with a just-coined term from German therapeutic circles; “you need medical help!” one yells at Bowie before the climactic gunfight)* named Jack Sikora. Bowie wore shades and delivered his lines in a squirrel’s soup of an accent: sounding alternately (or at once) like an Australian, a Hollywood cowboy and a British comedian lampooning Yanks. Followed around by a photographer for most of the picture, Sikora’s mainly in it for the headlines (“I’m gonna suck the fame outta you!” he hisses at Keitel).

It’s a testament to Bowie’s screen charisma that the first 45 minutes of the film, which mainly entail a neutered Keitel reuniting with his family of dreadful actors, feel like place-setting. When Bowie finally arrives, with his crew of albino, Rastafarian and fashion plate gunfighters, the film becomes entertaining at least (first Bowie line: “Well now this place stinks worse’n a mule’s ass…and somebody’s already shittin’ their pants!“), if it soon indulges in cheap sadism and misogyny. But it’s mainly just dismal: the final fight between Keitel and Bowie is so poorly shot, scripted and blocked that it can be read as an intentional deflation of the Western myth, if said myth hadn’t been intentionally deflated dozens of times before.

One of its only good scenes is, not surprisingly, when Bowie sings. In homage to (and ripping off) The Night of the Hunter, Bowie and his crew surround Keitel’s house at night, and Bowie rasps out a serenade. Where Robert Mitchum in Hunter had sung “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bowie sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”** and caps off his performance by breaking his guitar over the head of the village idiot.

Recorded in Garfagnana, Tuscany, during the filming of Il Mio West, June 1998. The film was released in Italy in December 1998 and, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a US DVD in 2005.

* It’s a very hip Western backwater: the telegraph operator also has a film projector in his office.

** As Nicholas Pegg noted, as Bowie’s just singing the chorus of the song, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body.” But as he seems to be wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union’s marching song (but perhaps he’s doing so ironically). And with this footnote, I have thought more on this subject than anyone involved in the film did.

Top: Bowie as Method gunslinger, Il Mio West (Veronesi, 1998) (from Teenage Wildlife, which has a host of fan and official photos from the film).

15 Responses to The Battle Hymn of the Republic

  1. MC says:

    Wow, I just saw this movie on DVD. I wondered if DB’s rendition of Battle Hymn would be included on PAOTD, and here it is. Sir, I admire your thoroughness. (and this marks the beginning of the period when DB’s appearance in a movie ceased to be any sort of event).

    • postpunkmonk says:

      MC – I thought Bowie’s cinematic excursions ceased to be any sort of event by the time of 1991’s “The Linguini Incident.” I was wrong! At least Richard Shepard knows how to make a good movie, even if that one was slight. This sounds dreadful. Then again, there was always “Labyrinith.” That erased a ton of goodwill with me.

    • s.t. says:

      I don’t know, Bowie’s never been much of a cinematic event, even at his best. In his larger roles, he was mainly just a pretty face (Hunger, Merry Xmas Mr. Lawrence) a ham (Labyrinth, Basquiat, Last Temptation) or both (Man Who Fell to Earth). Usually, though, he would just have a bit cameo role and goof it up, just like he does here. This isn’t too far from what he gave as Phillip Jeffries in Fire Walk With Me. The main difference is that, while the Jeffries scene was a pleasant surprise within an impressive film, Bowie’s goofing up here is likely the highlight of Il Mio West.

      Speaking of films, though, we getting close to a new stage of Bowie’s soundtrack career, going from respectable but unnoticed to somewhat embarrassing if noticed (“Stigmata!”).

  2. James says:

    this is dismal.

  3. Maj says:

    “And with this footnote, I have thought more on this subject than anyone involved in the film did.” Hahahahaha.

    Well, I haven’t watched this yet. Probably never will. Thanks for the clip. What did I take away from it? That Bowie should maybe wear hats more often…

  4. Anonymous says:

    He really was all over the place at this point. No wonder hours… came next.

  5. AB says:

    “Well now this place stinks worse’n a mule’s ass…and somebody’s already shittin’ their pants!“

    Why would you write a line like this and then cast DAVID BOWIE to deliever it?

  6. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    So what was the third film? I once saw a DVD ( for the life of me, I can’t remember the title)in which Bowie played a suburbanite who befriends a lonely little boy, and kind of inspires the kid. Bowie eventually succumbs to cancer or something, and the boy turns up teary-eyed at his wake. Can you help me identify this film Chris, and when it was made?

    • col1234 says:

      that’s the one. filmed in 98, released in 2000? Like all the DB turkeys of this period, it had several names, either “Mr Rice’s Secret” or “Exhuming Mr. Rice.” I probably will mention it in some entry, but it’s a footnote

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Cheers. Yes , all three of these films mentioned were pretty forgettable efforts. As was another one whose name also eludes me, where Bowie had a cameo as a Wall Street big-wig who destroys some small player whose company was going under in the wake of the ’09 stock market crash.
        However, of his more modern films I did enjoy his roles as Andy Warhol in “Basquiat” (oxidation art indeed!) and Nicolai Tesla in “The Prestige”.

      • Maj says:

        Mr. Rice was forgettable, yes, but I don’t, ummm, remember it being awful either. Just an unremarkable kids film, really. I actually don’t think Bowie was in it as much as I thought he’d be. But it’s been ages since I watched it. I have it somewhere on an actual DVD though. For some reason.

        I hope he never actually got offered to be in a good film, during this period, and turned it down. That would sadden me. He’s rated pretty high by film buff non fans, it always seemed to me (or at least the Czech ones), among fellow acting musicians. But we rarely got a chance to see him in something well written, well directed and with a stellar cast to be entirely sure if he’d actually make a great actor.

        (The Prestige, btw, is my fave Nolan film. With or without Bowie.)

  7. sidthecat says:

    Here’s my theory: he was thinking “Hey…Bob Dylan was so cool in “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid”…I should do a Western”. The mistake was neglecting to make the movie with Sam Peckinpah.

  8. rufus oculus says:

    He was electrifying as Tesla. Pun intended. He was very good as Baal and by all accounts excellent as the Elephant Man. Hi

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      Yeah, he was very good as Tesla, to be fair to him.

      I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth recently for the first time in about 20 years. Previously I had thought it was not proper acting, but now I think that it probably is proper acting after all.

      And it seemed a much better film than I had previously thought it was.

  9. Momus says:

    1. At the beginning of Cracked Actor there’s a scene where Mr Bowie tells a highly mistrustful American news interviewer that, far from being outrageous, he’s actually “very old-fashioned… I like moving from one area of writing or performing to another to keep me interested and keep other people interested as well”.

    2. However, Mr Bowie has an advantage over most of his fans when it comes to staying interested: cocaine. It means that he’s probably bored a lot more quickly than we are. It explains the fidgety and hyperactive flitting. We as fans don’t demand these things. In fact, we might well demand something quite different: clarity, elegance, integrity.

    3. This is an aesthetic or moral demand from fans. But it’s also a marketing requirement of labels. Chris mentions somewhere the concern of EMI executives in the mid-80s that Mr Bowie was frittering any mystique or charisma away by appearing in too many movies.

    4. You can see the execs’ problem. All those different promotion companies working on product Bowie is involved in, the albums that look like film soundtracks and sometimes are, sometimes aren’t (Let’s Dance, that was a film, right? And Absolute Beginners, that was an album?), the sense that artwork and arrangement are out of Mr Bowie’s hands… All this starts to erode an artist’s brand image.

    5. But why films? So cocaine has made you into Jiminy Cricket. Why then sign up for a job which involves sitting for weeks on end in a trailer waiting for you scene?

    6. What’s the opposite of full-spectrum dominance? Full-spectrum insignificance? Mr Bowie has achieved both at different moments. The interesting thing is that the “throw mud at wall, some will stick” thing goes right back to his beginnings; even in the 1960s he was trying everything, apparently unafraid of making public mistakes.

    7. Although Mr Bowie is in many ways the epitome of cool, he has said (Rolling Stone, 1983) that he’s “seen so much cool it’s left me cold”.

    8. I would define “cool” as a kind of chivalric code, an instinctive etiquette: you do this, you don’t do that; you dig this, but that’s infra-dig; I’m okay, you’re so-so. The cumulative effect of a thousand such decisions is one’s image, brand, or status.

    9. Mr Bowie has always expressed ambivalence about this. The song Fashion critiques it, the video for Blue Jean dynamites any charisma left over from the Berlin period, the Just A Gigolo film is “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one”.

    10. That last quote is revealing: Elvis could still be a huge star, despite appearing in awful schlock. Mr Bowie is tap-dancing towards the final curtain with a similarly high status, and we could perhaps say that this is what distinguishes high reckless cool from your average careful sort: to be able to do incredibly uncool things — and in public! — and somehow make it look like exactly the kind of indifference to cool (“not trying too hard”) that the highest, most reckless cool requires.

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