I received my introduction to the western at the age of seven, and it went so well that I nearly swore off the genre for good.
A little background is in order here: neither of my parents were “avid” moviegoers; ergo, most of what I learned about cinema at an early age was derived from simply watching whatever I could get my get before my eyes. In 1981, this was limited to Betamax tapes, random offerings on The Movie Channel and the odd jaunt to the one of the four theaters in Bowling Green, Ohio (none of which are still in operation), which means that my film education was hopelessly rooted in the present. In other words, aside from The Wizard of Oz and cartoons, if it wasn’t in color, I wasn’t bothering with it. As for newer movies, they were divvied up into two categories: “Not as good as Star Wars” and “Plug in the Atari” (Actually, as a devoted technological technological contrarian, my dad saw to it that we were an Intellivision household.) Basically, any film not set in space was at an immediate disadvantage – though I was at least open to the idea of liking a non-spacebound movie provided it a) featured cool special effects, b) starred a Saturday Night Live cast member, or c) bore the imprimatur of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.
In the summer of 1981, that latter criterion was critical to getting me and every other kid my age worked up over the idea of some Saturday morning serial throwback starring Han Solo. But our parents… man, they were all about the return of some masked goofball who rode a horse named Silver. And they were determined to shove it down our gullets.
Whereas Spielberg sought to contemporize vintage cliffhangers with Raiders of the Lost Ark, William A. Fraker’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger wanted only to stuff and mount an American pop cultural icon. The contrast in styles couldn’t be more pronounced: it was pure escapism versus unchecked nostalgia. Though both were inspired by that fervent desire to leave behind the 70s (and Vietnam, and Watergate, and the energy crisis, and so on), only one whisked you away from the get; the other put the entire audience to sleep with a sluggishly told origin tale that relied heavily on the power of iconography, catchphrases and the “William Tell Overture”.
This was all objectionable enough at the time (and in keeping with the exhaustingly worshipful tone of Superman: The Movie and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), but what I couldn’t know then was that The Legend of the Lone Ranger was an insidious, “Morning in America” attempt to reclaim the western from the revisionist/surrealist/inadvisably Italian likes of Sam Peckinpah, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sergio Leone – all of whom had done their oft-brilliant, always-lunatic part to broaden the vocabulary of that most American genre. It was a coup d’etat that, if successful, would’ve had us recalling the daring of True Grit and Rooster Cogburn by decade’s end. But it failed because it completely misunderstood the complexity of the genre’s rich history – which charted, more tangibly than comedy or horror, the development of American film from mere technological frivolity to the definitive art form of the Twentieth Century.
Of course, no one realized this until the 1950s, when those Cahiers du cinéma troublemakers began spreading the Good News of Andre Bazin – and, really, their writings didn’t gain traction in the States until the 1960s. Until then, all westerns were created equal; a John Wayne oater was just a John Wayne oater, be it directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway or George Sherman. Same goes for Randolph Scott, who appeared just as heroic in the films of Lesley Selander as he did in those shot by some fella named Budd Boetticher. As long as the narrative didn’t deviate too much from the “good guy catches/kills bad guy” formula, there was scarce reason to consider smuggled-in theme (when it was present). If a preference stated for one film over another, it generally came down an affinity for a certain star (Wayne vs. Stewart was just the more macho version of Astaire vs. Kelly).
Since I didn’t grow up in a film literate household, all I knew was that the western – on life support when The Duke passed in 1979 – up and died once special effects extravaganzas (which took their lead from Star Wars, which took its lead from The Hidden Fortress, which took its lead the westerns of John Ford) captured my generation’s imagination. After suffering through The Legend of the Lone Ranger, this pleased me. Greatly. At last, I was free to enjoy the high-tech, laser-laden, forward-thinking likes of Battle Beyond the Stars and Outland. “What’s that? Remakes of The Magnificent Seven and High Noon?” Hey, as long as no one’s getting misty-eyed at a interminable, ten-minute shot of a glistening, lit-by-László-Kovács silver bullet… steal what you please.”
With my consciousness all but enslaved by the Spielberg aesthetic, it was going to take someone with a Spielbergian sensibility to change my mind about westerns (Spielberg himself was too busy running away from 1941 to risk his commercial stature on another tough sell). As a screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan absolutely qualified. But as a director? Body Heat and The Big Chill were somewhat less enticing to this Amblinite than another two hours sacrificed to “Yar’s Revenge”. Perhaps if he had a rancher herding cattle on Native American burial grounds…
Though Kasdan’s Silverado failed to live up to Columbia Pictures’ “rebirth of the western” hype (critics were mixed, audiences preferred Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), I was still willing to give it a shot once it hit home video – largely because it co-starred John Cleese as a dimwitted sheriff. Once again, I was more bored than entertained (the film is still best viewed in chunks on cable), but those opening moments, particularly the mythic grandeur of Bruce Broughton’s main theme… I could sense that Kasdan was drawing on something elemental in the American psyche, and it was intoxicating. Unfortunately, since I was almost entirely ignorant of classic westerns (I was as unimpressed with True Grit then as I am now), this primal whatever was something to which I was not privy. But while I was curious, I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start, aside from “something starring John Wayne”. After consulting Leonard Maltin and realizing that Wayne starred in over ten million westerns, I suddenly remembered a friend of my brother’s raving over a western featuring the unlikely combination of Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. Rio… Bravo?
There’s only one western I’d consider “purer” in terms of character, incident and theme, and since I still had a minor aversion to black-and-white movies back in 1985, it’s a damn good thing I didn’t pop my cherry with Stagecoach. Though that videotape copy of a poorly-formatted Rio Bravo had been through the wars, I was hooked from the minute coin hit spittoon. Everything unfolded so cleanly. The staginess I’d normally associated with “old” movies was nowhere in sight; while some might call Hawks’s mise en scene “unfussy”, I prefer “purposeful” or, better yet, “perfect”. The dialogue was bang-on, too; every single exchange, even the lengthy exposition conveyed via weary conversation between old friends Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) and Pat Wheeler (the final big-screen bow from Ward Bond), crackled**. “Worthy of Empire Strikes Back,” I thought. (Not really, but it’s a shame Lucas was too stubborn/aloof to realize that Kasdan’s emulation of the Jules Furthman/Leigh Brackett model tethered his space saga to that most American of genres, and, as a result, elevated it to myth.) And, oh, the Walter Brennan!
The downside to starting with Rio Bravo is that no other western can match it in terms of sheer entertainment value; even Stagecoach, the epitome of narrative efficiency at ninety-six minutes, falls short. Poor Stagecoach. By the time most of us get around to checking out John Ford’s convention-setting classic of 1939, we know the beats and the action so thoroughly that there’s nothing to do but nod and think of all the interesting variations it inspired. Undoubtedly, it represents, per Bazin, “The ideal balance between social myth, historical reconstruction, psychological truth, and the traditional theme of the western mise en scene.” It’s also less thematically complex than Ford’s subsequent classics, and, quite frankly, a museum piece. Bazin again: “Stagecoach is like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position.” I remain in awe of Stagecoach, but I’ve never been in love with it.
My Darling Clementine, on the other hand, demands ardor. The tempestuous Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday friendship has been mythologized all out of proportion and demythologized at very great length (which is not automatically a debit; Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp is still the better of the dueling 90s throwbacks), but Ford and screenwriter Samuel G. Engel, by painting in smaller strokes, capture the real significance of this unlikely bond. My Darling Clementine isn’t an ambiguous picture; it is very plainly about the civilizing influence of law and education. And while Doc (Victor Mature) is a wrecked man given to often violent carousing, Earp (Henry Fonda) sees in him the last vestiges of decency; he’ll take a scoundrel with a first-rate mind over a murderous thug like Old Man Clanton. There’s reasoning with Doc. There is, buried under all the booze and heartbreak, a code. And, not to be overlooked, there is also a peerless gunfighter – one with the entirety of Hamlet’s Act III, Scene I soliloquy kicking around in his noggin. That’s some kind of ally.
There’s no arguing that The Searchers is a richer, more critical take on the taming of the west (John Wayne playing an unrepentantly racist protagonist will draw some heavy shadings of gray), but quintessential Ford is, to me, efficient Ford. Once he began examining his own myth-making, he got a little less elegant and a lot more on the nose (see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance); I liked him better when he was printing the legend and leaving it to the viewer to suss out the fact. That said, his self-conscious westerns are models of restraint compared the message-mongering likes of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, an impeccably crafted film that leaves no room for critical thought or personal interpretation (it’s the kind of movie that states its case bluntly, assumes you agree, and sends you out of the theater believing the fight is over – i.e. it was a Stanley Kramer production).
When westerns got too allegorical and/or too bloated (How the West Was Won representing the nadir), the genre had nowhere to go but Italian by way of Kurosawa. But while Sergio Leone was building up to his twin triumphs, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, an unheralded artist named Budd Boetticher was quietly closing out the greatest uninterrupted run of westerns churned out by any single filmmaker: Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station (there’s another film called Westbound wedged in there; I’ve never seen it, nor have I read much about it, but I can’t imagine it’s bereft of merit). What’s frustrating about the critically beloved, but still under-appreciated Boetticher is that there was time for the studios to figure out the rights issues and get his Randolph Scott films released to DVD before he died in 2001. Thankfully, critics such as Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum loudly advocated for his stark, unsentimental classics throughout the 1990s, which forced repertory houses in big cities to screen his widely unavailable pictures. Due to their efforts, we now have one of those movies, Seven Men from Now, available on DVD. Re. Joice.
If Ford was “efficient”, Boetticher was viciously terse. A precise visual storyteller, Boetticher’s westerns flatter the audience by eschewing expository dialogue and the drawn-out drinking-in of scenery. They assume a certain familiarity with the genre’s conventions and expect that the viewer is sharp enough to read each line and each action as supremely revelatory of each character’s essence. Clint Eastwood’s superb, “revisionist” Unforgiven comes off a little self-important and timid when compared to a film like Seven Men from Now, which lays out a mean tale of vengeance without getting caught up rumination. Randolph Scott’s sheriff may not know the route, but he damn well knows the destination: the seven bank robbers responsible for the murder of his wife will die by his hands.
Anthony Mann worked in a warmer and more classical framework than Boetticher, but he knew how to build to a shattering climax. Rather than spoil the final scene between Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh in The Naked Spur (a film with which I’ve been obsessed since it hit DVD a few years ago), I’ll just politely demand that those of you who’ve yet to partake remedy that at your nearest convenience (i.e. now); if Hitchcock wins the Perversion of Jimmy Stewart Award, Mann deserves some kind of runner-up trophy for what he gets out of Stewart at the close of that magnificent, disquieting masterpiece (insert obligatory “Robert Ryan is a God” comment here).
In trying to hit upon the uniqueness of The Naked Spur, particularly as it stands apart from Ford, I found this comment from Mann himself, which I’ll quote in its entirety rather than clunkily re-word:
If you really want to be blindsided by a western, skip the collected works of Segio Corbucci – which should be considered inessential until you mow down the best of Ford, Hawks, Boetticher and Mann – and strap on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Sterling Hayden plays the titular gunfighter who reenters the life of tough-talking saloon proprietor, Vienna (Joan Crawford), right when she needs him most. But make no mistake: the pistol-hot, forty-eight-year-old Crawford is running the show here. Though the film is terribly upfront with its gender reversal hook, it ceases to be a novelty the minute Crawford faces off with the acid-tongued Mercedes McCambridge. That this still seems revolutionary in 2008 is a tribute to Ray’s, um, ballsiness.
Though I’d love nothing more than to hit you with another several paragraphs on the operatic glory of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, I’d rather leave you with links to my DVD Journal reviews for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West – not because I’m lazy, but because I haven’t seen either film since. The same goes for J.W. Coop, a quiet character study of a recently paroled rodeo cowboy from Cliff Robertson that caught me completely off-guard when I threw it on several years ago (it’d actually make a nice double feature with Sam Peckinpah’s solid Junior Bonner).
The below isn’t hierarchical (one film per director), but there isn’t a movie on that list that I wouldn’t gladly watch right now. I find myself wishing I could sneak Forty Guns in there. Or The Long Riders. Or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not Young Guns, though. Not even Young Guns II. Maybe Rustler’s Rhapsody.
1. Rio Bravo (d. Howard Hawks)
2. My Darling Clementine (d. John Ford)
3. The Naked Spur (d. Anthony Mann)
4. Seven Men from Now (d. Budd Boetticher)
5. Johnny Guitar (d. Nicholas Ray)
6. Once Upon a Time in the West (d. Sergio Leone)
7. J.W. Coop (d. Cliff Robertson)
8. The Wild Bunch (d. Sam Peckinpah)
9. Destry Rides Again (d. George Marshall)
10. Dead Man (d. Jim Jarmusch)
*Wholly unrelated to this article, but can you believe that Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans and History of the World Part I came out on the same day? I miss the old way of doing things – even if those latter two movies stink to high heaven.
Wheeler: A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?
Chance: That’s what I’ve got.