[The following contains spoilers for THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT.]
There’s a scene in TOMBSTONE where Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp, caught in a gunfight across a river, suddenly decides enough’s enough. He steps out from the safety of the tree line and begins marching directly to the men firing at him, bellowing “NO!” repeatedly, ending their lives one shotgun shell at a time, all while somehow escaping every single bullet fired at him. Now, did this really happen? Historians claim it did. They claim it went down exactly as depicted. But did it really? Or was it all just the stuff of legend — the exaggerated version of something less impressive but more indicative of reality?
BRAVEHEART burdens its dramatized character of William Wallace with a legend that grows so absurd that Mel Gibson’s character is lambasted for claiming to be him. Willingly, he mocks how outlandish his own legend has become: “[William Wallace] kills men by the hundreds. And if he were here, he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.”
Charles Bronson’s western-comedy FROM NOON TILL THREE psychoanalyzes the idea of the western — and really the old west in general — and cleverly spins it on its axis. The word “legend” seems to have been borne out of the west; the idea of one man, or woman — one gunslinger in a sea of hundreds — achieving infamy, and being remembered above all those other nameless, anonymous faces. When Bronson’s character of Graham Dorsey absently achieves legendary status, no one believes that it’s him. His legend grew so big that the real Dorsey, by comparison, couldn’t hold a candle.
And of course there’s probably the most famous line in John Carpenter’s apocalyptic Western ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, which is uttered by every character who meets Snake Plissken for the first time: “I thought you were dead” (which becomes “I thought you’d be taller” in ESCAPE FROM L.A.).
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT tells its own kind of legend. The title alone supports that approach. Its star, Sam Elliott, has done some of the best work of his career over just the last few years – and, not coincidentally, they were films in which Elliott was playing a character forced to reconcile the loss of his youth and the simmering threat of his irrelevance. First came a semi-meta drama about an aging western actor in THE HERO, and then his supporting role in the cinematic juggernaut A STAR IS BORN, which sees both his personal and business relationships with his much younger half-brother (Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine) falling apart. With THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT, Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a former military operative from World War II who – at least according to what the film shows us – really did kill Hitler. (“I killed the man, but not the monster,” he later sadly grumbles to a pair of shadowy government agents.) Of course, when you’re dealing with a plot as outlandish as this one, you have to constantly ask yourself, “Is this really happening?”
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT doesn’t drop any obvious hints that the more absurd events are figments of Calvin’s imagination – the only real hint regarding this reality is how completely unbelievable these events are. Just look at the plot: an old man who once killed Hitler is asked by the government to also kill Bigfoot because it carries the plague that has the power to destroy all of mankind, and oh, FYI, Elliott is immune to this plague. In a key scene, Elliott goes to visit his barber brother (a restrained Larry Miller), who cuts his hair as the two men catch up. At one point, Elliott gets lost in his memories and jerks his head, leaving his brother to admonish him, “I could’ve cut your ear off.” Later, during the climactic battle with the film’s titular monster, Calvin does lose an ear. Now sure, we can write that off as foreshadowing. Or we can accept that Calvin is writing his own life story – one that imagines him to be a legendary hero, and one so legendary that the world isn’t allowed to know. And it should be absolutely noted that if Calvin’s journeys are nothing more than fantasy, consider the implications he presents when he shows regret over successfully killing Hitler, but not the hateful philosophies still practiced in his name. Even in Calvin’s mind where he is the sole author, and can create any version of himself, he still takes such a wild concept and spins it into a failure, suggesting that he will never be as legendary as he wants to believe because he hasn’t earned it.
It should come as no surprise that Elliott is great, managing to take such a wild concept for a film and driving it toward some kind of poignancy. His monologue to the government agents about killing “the man but not the monster” and his subsequent escape from Germany is helplessly transfixing, and there are very few actors alive who could have delivered such a subtly emotional moment about something so ludicrous while also selling it to the audience. Whether or not he’s telling the truth, he believes it — that’s his truth – and THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT knows it can use Elliott to sell its audience almost anything. Elliott has always had that ability. Even his appearance in THE BIG LEBOWSKI plays on this, casting him as a mysterious cowboy who serves as the film’s de facto narrator – someone with an omniscient and objective view of the world. His Southern drawl makes him exotic. His career playing cowboys and tough guys has made him formidable. His intense voice and effortless swagger has made him cool. And his recent journey into geriatric drama has made him poignant. We believe in Calvin Barr because Elliott makes it so easy.
We’ve seen this kind of concept before in film – the sad, broken-down, isolated protagonist re-envisioning his or her own life as something far more impressive and implicative than their reality, from TAXI DRIVER to THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Perhaps THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT wants to do the very same, allowing its hero to make peace with a past that includes a doomed romance and a despondent relationship with his brother by creating a version of Calvin Barr who quite literally changed the world. Or, perhaps, everything the film presents to you happened in its own reality. On the merits of the film alone, we’ll never know, but we’ll wonder. We’ll dissect the narrative. We’ll divvy what was real, what was exaggerated, and what was completely fiction. Only then will it become legend.
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT is out now on Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment. Check out our interview with writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski!