Appaloosa: Sourdough Biscuits

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons
(R, 108 min.)

"As soon as there is life there is danger." Ralph Waldo Emerson

The vast mountains are bigger than life; the liquid sunsets fill the screen. The actors, not so much. In fact, the pinched and imperfect humans featured here might even have a tough time taking up the wide screen in your living room. But for style and atmosphere alone, you can’t beat this gritty Western.

In fact, the flawed and very human specimens on screen are probably more like the rough survivors of the Old West than the epic heroes that are part of film tradition. Lawmen for hire Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are the buddy version of TV’s Have Gun - Will Travel, a series that centered on a chivalrous gunfighter who called himself Paladin. 

The two operate as flawlessly as their well-oiled firearms, down to the airtight contract for martial law that they exact for their services in addition to a tidy sum. They have even been together long enough to finish each other’s sentences, or at least Everett does for Virgil, who is prone to stumbling over the more technical words of his trade.

On tap for now is Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) a thoroughly evil rancher who kills a sheriff and his deputy in cold blood because they have the audacity to try and arrest two of his men for rape and murder. He’s short on help, you know, and can’t spare the two who manage to coax his cattle along when they aren’t defiling the local women. Irons is, in fact, bigger than life, an epic villain who never loses his sneering arrogance even when he is caught literally with his pants down, which he is in the very clever predawn ambush that Virgil and Everett arrange as they wait in hiding outside his outhouse.

With their guns to his head they foil his loyal band of Neanderthal ranch hands both on the range and back at the jail, where even Bragg does not doubt their threats to blast his brains out.

Rogues they can handle, but not the comely widow, Mrs. Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who, unfortunately, turns out to have several roguish elements of her own. Yes, she can play the piano well enough, fill out her well chosen wardrobe in the right places, and smile her foolish grin right into the easily smitten heart of Virgil, whose experience with the women has been limited to squaws and ladies of the evening. Allie, as she likes to be called, is neither, though she does lean toward the latter to a more and more alarming degree as the film progresses.

When the evidence of his own eyes tells Virgil that Allie will sleep with anything that “isn’t gelded,” as he so aptly puts it, he still refuses to forgo her. That in itself doesn’t spoil it, but his reasons do. “She chews her food good,” and is clean, so clean that she takes a bath every day. She knows how to cook and clean house, too, and talks nice. And don’t forget that piano playing. Sounds like an application for a mail order bride, a checklist of practicality leaving out that one intangible called love.

The film attempts to instill some character and depth into our two leads. Viggo Mortensen’s Everett tucks his pants into his boots and hides his face behind a strange mustache goatee combination guaranteed to eclipse his leading man looks, proving again, as he did in Eastern Promises, that he can lose himself entirely in a role. His voice over explanation for leaving the army is that it did not expand his soul - in the same way, we are led to wonder, as killing for hire does? I guess it’s the bureaucracy and not the actual job description that stifles him. 

Virgil, who can’t wrap his tongue around anything beyond two syllables, favors his Emerson, which he pours over while guarding the jailhouse. The author’s theme of self-reliance aside, the fit doesn’t seem quite natural and becomes a rather stilted attempt to inject some gravitas into Virgil’s character. That and the still waters run deep, let’s try for a High Noon Gary Cooper feel, guys, kind of thing.

Oh, and they trot out a few feminist era rationalizations for Allie’s opportunist bed hopping. She does it out of fear, fear that she won’t have a roof over her head or food on the table if she isn’t “interviewing” the next Mr. Wonderful while the current one waits for her at home.

And, sadly enough, instead of getting his friend as far away as possible from the sweet smelling tramp, Everett gives up his thread of integrity to purchase a glimmer of doomed happiness for him. Is that just realism, or is the stench of nihilism creeping into the cowboy heart, too? Maybe it was always there, but we preferred to pretend it away. I don’t know, but I enjoyed those old Westerns a lot more the way they used to be.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

She may only have a dollar to her name, but the stalwart Allison French isn’t meek about her desires. She wants a biscuit for breakfast even if the hotel waiter insists they don’t serve it. Virgil, who is drawn to her like a trout to a flashy lure, remedies the situation with a word, and almost at once, a thick sourdough biscuit appears before her, served on a china plate and complete with a delicious dollop of iridescent jam. 

Why not treat yourself to this morning comfort food, too.

Sourdough Biscuits

  • 3/4 cup sourdough starter
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 3 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbs. sugar
  • bacon grease

Advance Preparation: In a non-metal mixing bowl combine the starter, milk, and 1 1/2 cups of the flour; stir to mix well. Cover bowl with a cloth and let rest for 8-12 hours or leave out overnight for morning biscuits.

Turn sourdough mixture out onto a large cutting board or smooth countertop that has been floured with 1 1/4 cups of flour. In a separate bowl mix together remaining cup of flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Sprinkle flour mixture over sourdough mixture and then work into a soft dough, kneading lightly. Roll dough out to 1/2" thickness. Cut out biscuits with a 2" biscuit cutter by pressing cutter straight down into the dough and then lifting the cutter straight out. Dip biscuits in bacon grease then arrange in a lightly greased 14" Dutch oven leaving a 1/4" space between biscuits.

Place lid on oven and let biscuits raise for 30 minutes then bake using 10-12 briquettes bottom and 18-20 briquettes top (375° F.) for 25-30 minutes until biscuits are golden brown.

NOTE: For even browning make sure to turn the oven and lid 1/4 turn in opposite directions every 5-10 minutes.

Serve warm.

Yield: About 18 biscuits

Recipe Source: Byron’s Dutch Oven Recipes