PRIEST BUTTE is a bluff, really, but more than that. It looks over Freezeout Lake which hosts African-scale migratory bird flocks twice a year, it is a landmark along the Old North Trail which is now highway 89 so that traffic goes right past it, and because of three crosses on top, it has acquired a mythic history.
The debunkers say the crosses actually were erected by an enterprising church youth group as an Easter project, but stories still weave themselves around the trope of Crucifixion: three priests martyred by Indians or sometimes three Indians martyred by priests. Works both ways.
“Three Priests” is a movie that adds another layer to the location. A 2008 “Western,” the cast includes two surprises: Wes Studi as the sheriff and Olivia Hussey as the patriarch’s wife. (Yes, Juliet!! Maybe the best one ever! And she seems to have aged well, though I have no idea what she’s been doing since she was fifteen.) Julia Jones is what’s at stake in the Cain and Abel plot. (She’s also in “Winter in the Blood,” the movie of Jim Welch’s famous novel, not released yet.) The gimmick is that the father, Michael Parks, had in the past also been Cain, so the idea is history repeating itself. Or fate that cannot be escaped. The "ground" of this story is Tarantino/vampire movies, but it is shot in sepia as though an old Western photo. A low budget Indie movie, it cleverly takes advantage of real forest fires raging along the East Slope of the Rockies but ignores the huge flights of geese. (The Canadian book/film “Wild Geese” uses the idea of the geese as metaphor for the flight of young people from their original nest.) Maybe Americans give a higher priority to the individual than groups.
This movie is too murky to watch on a small screen, but those of us who know this area will fill in what we can’t see directly. At the very least this is an useful text for exploring myth versus reality on the high prairie. The film company has brought a Fifties California world view of dystopia and family failure to a place that now likes to present itself as transcendently pristine, a good location for upscale folks. But my favorite upscale family, who brought with them an excellent bookstore (homed in a two-story log cabin) of first edition books about the West, and who tried to ranch fine organic cattle up one of the historic canyons, was soon driven out by locals obsessed by the need to control and the fear that outsiders might know more. I’d like to watch this movie sitting alongside A.B. Guthrie, Jr. -- who fought this same fight -- or maybe even Olga Monkman, local historian. Both are gone now.
Most of the movies about the present that are supposed to be located around here are about leaving -- notably “Cut Bank,” another unreleased movie which begins thirty miles north of here, where the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t quite like the tone taken. The alternative is to locate the movie in the past, which is where many Montana small town people live or hope to return to. They still think of movies in terms of studio productions with big stars and a cheery vibe centered on heroism and romantic love. They assume fame and fortune will follow.
I never did figure out which three characters in “Three Priests” were the actual priests, but I’m not sure it matters. In a class I would tackle this plot in terms of domination/submission or just bullying. There’s no doubt at all that the West was settled and is now maintained in a system of domination/submission at every level. (A broader term than the narrowly sexual S/M dyad.) Bullying here is a blood sport. (Ask Indians.) Nor is there any doubt that some families are run that way. The questions then become motivation and how the system works, what the community will tolerate. Big brothers are entitled to crush little brothers.
Bar fights are fine. Competitively shooting gophers and rabbits is fine, though around here it seems to me most people prefer poisoning. The sheriff walks that fine line between doing his job and protecting his friends. The women are disempowered, always pleading, very beautiful and cherished. But the real underlying force is the one that plagues Hollywood actors: economics. A bully with something worthy to do is far less likely to take it out on his little brother. These brothers have nothing in particular to do, no way to succeed honorably.
Some historians propose that the real conflict between Cain and Abel was NOT over sexual jealousy -- that’s a Hollywood trope. The “real” problem was the shift from a hunter/gatherer culture to farming grain. It’s clearer in the story of Esau and Jacob. who argued over who pleased the father most and whose altar sacrifices pleased God more: a holocaust of wild game, or a sacrificial domestic lamb. (This gets tweaked in the New Testament, of course: Jesus as lamb.) It’s interesting that the two fathers in the story are pretty dense about what goes on and seem to have no power to intervene. Maybe that’s the way we see the Patriarchal version of God these days.
There’s no question that when an economy shifts away, violence goes up. Nor is it remarkable that where there are guns handy, there is death, though it’s interesting that the crucial death uses the rifle present throughout the story as a killing club, not with a bullet. The cliff adds to the damage. The fire, of course, might make a holocaust of the whole outfit -- we don’t know for sure at the end. The fire is not a huge emergency that makes everything exciting and then resolved by crisis -- it is a smoldering presence throughout and we are often reminded in the dialogue that the danger depends on which way the wind blows.
If I were thinking like Alvina Krause and trying to evaluate this film, I would be happy that they didn’t fall into the cliché controversies that fan the flames of racism and religion -- easy to do with Priest Butte in the title. But I would also suggest that the symphonic through-line and rhythms of the action were there but not clarified enough. It’s surprising because these guys are musicians (country blues), but maybe too focused on riffs to take care of the melody. One of the dangers in camera acting is that everyone gets so much submerged into the life of making the film that they lose focus and clarity in terms of the product. Most of the shape comes out on the editing deck anyway, so it’s hard to blame the cast.
I suggest that the editors are unconsciously dominated by West coast Values and country blues themes. "Murky" is a plus for them. Religious tradition doesn’t exist. Indians are a category of actors. Romance is always dangerous. Everyone dies, but before that, the real tragedy is that they age and their kids leave. They come to a place like the East Slope of the Rockies because they associate it with heroism and grand themes, but all they see is their own world, the inside of a bar. That would be fine if they really grabbed it by the throat and dominated THAT story. But maybe the neon-lit murk and smoke is what they’re portraying.
This is a painting of Priest Butte by Jason Waskey who is from Seattle but often paints in the area. Prints are available at his website: