Tales of the American frontier have been a common theme in movie history but First Cow (2019) uses the background scenery and era to tell an unusual tale.
Cookie (John Magaro) is in charge of feeding a group of roughhouse fur traders in the Oregon wilderness. He stumbles upon a naked Chinese immigrant called King-Lu (Orion Lee), hiding from Russian fur traders, chasing him to avenge the killing of one of their own.
The kindness of the cook seems to have gone unrewarded as King-Lu stays the night, then swims a river to further his escape.
After settling up with his trader crew, buying new boots with his pay and moving on, Cookie again meets up with King-Lu in an area near a fortified part of the wilderness. It is the 1820-30s and, as in feudal European times, the commercial and living zones are within the fort while the natives make do just outside the gates.
So too the traders and frontiersmen and King-Lu invites Cookie to stay with him. The two make a good partnership. King-Lu, who came West for the soft gold, is the aspirational member of the two while Cookie seems content to continue drifting while using his excellent culinary skills to make dishes from food foraged in the wild.
He tells King-Lu of his baking knowledge and how he once saw a cow delivered – the first to inhabit the area – to the region’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones). With milk from the cow, he can make softer, more desirable biscuits and his partner encourages the idea. The partners will use milk taken secretly at night from the cow.
King-Lu: I think we should test the waters. Next batch, Cookie, we’ll take to market. I’ve heard a fortune is made on this.
Cookie: That seems dangerous.
King-Lu: So is anything worth doing.
All goes well and Cookie’s empathy for nature and humanity is shown to great effect with his gentle soothing of the cow as he milks her. He chats to her as if to a friend, reminding me of the Michael Nesmith song Joanne, which was about a cow.
With the promotional skills of King-Lu and the baking knowledge of Cookie, the product sells like hot cakes. However, when Chief Factor, enamoured with the biscuits and oblivious they are using his cow’s milk, wants to show off to a visiting military captain, the story turns. Chief wants
a clafoutis (a French dessert with a layer of fruit covered by batter and baked before being dusted with powdered sugar) to be made on contract. Soon the partners’ plans are uncovered and pursuit begins.
The slow burn of First Cow begins with a long shot of a modern-day freight vessel travelling down a river. The director is in no hurry to end the scene and the viewer may wonder what the hell it all means. It is a portent of the film’s pace.
The story is told in slow-lingering shots of men making their way. Director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt has a reputation for making no-rush films and the camera lingers longingly on characters and scenery. There is not much need for script in many of the scenes but her co-writer was Jon Raymond, from whose book The Half Life, the movie comes.
A woman foraging with her dog near the journey of the vessel, comes upon a skull and further – almost pathological – digging reveals two skeletons, lying very close together. Cookie is introduced into the next scene set in nineteenth century Oregon and his story follows to an ambiguous ending, perhaps linked to the skeletons.
First Cow is at times gritty yet warm; serious but with subtle humour; and to my mind a parable of American economic life.
One person with a talent and an idea is partnered with another who can see the possibilities of expansion and how to maximise price for the product. Through skill, entrepreneurship, a bending of the rules, life goes smoothly until an over-extension – perhaps of greed – leads to downfall and punishment.
For Cookie’s fate, running led to his end so let Nesmith have the last word from Joanne:
“….a most hopeless situation for Joanne and the man and the time that made them both run.
Joanne by Mike Nesmith and the First National Band
Orion Lee in some other TV and movie performances
History (Wikipedia) Explains Chief Factor and European/American Indian intermarriage
In the nineteenth century, the Oregon Country was a disputed region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from the Columbia River frequented by ships from all nations engaged in the maritime fur trade, most of these from the 1790s through 1810s being Boston-based.
In 1805, the American Lewis and Clark Expedition marked the first official American exploration of the area, creating the first temporary settlement of Euro-Americans in the area near the mouth of the Columbia River at Fort Clatsop. Two years later in 1807, David Thompson of the British-owned North West Company penetrated the Oregon Country from the north, via Athabasca Pass, near the headwaters of the Columbia River. From there he navigated nearly the full length of the river through to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1810, John Jacob Astor commissioned and began the construction of the American Pacific Fur Company fur-trading post at Fort Astoria just five miles from the site of Lewis and Clark’s former Fort Clatsop, completing construction of the first permanent Euro-American settlement in the area in 1811.
Thompson had set foot on and claimed for the British Crown, the lands in the vicinity of Fort Clatsop. During the War of 1812, Fort Astoria was captured by the British and sold to the North West Company. Under British control, Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George.
In 1821 when the North West Company was merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the British Parliament moved to impose the laws on the region and issued the authority to enforce those laws to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Chief Factor John McLoughlin was appointed manager of the district’s operations in 1824. He moved the regional company headquarters to Fort Vancouver in 1824. Fort Vancouver became the centre of a thriving colony of mixed origin, including Scottish Canadians and Scots, English, French Canadians, Hawaiians, Algonkians, and Iroquois, as well as the offspring of company employees who had intermarried with various local native populations.
King-Lu refers to San Francisco. However, this city was known as Yerba Buena until 1846.