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The Celluloid West


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My love of film and writing about film finds me looking for opportunities to wax poetic, or my clumsy approximation of such, about cinema. An example is this story from a few years ago about a Turner Classic Movies Western film festival.  I am a big fan of the Western.  When I was a film programmer I organized two major Western film fests, and so when I caught wind of the TCM series, I finagled an assignment from my editor at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to write this preview piece.  Although the TCM fest long ago aired, the channel regularly screens many of the great Westerns I mention in the article.

This blog also contains articles about two of the best John Ford-John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The blog also contains dozens of other stories about cinema classics, stars, and filmmakers.  Check them out.

The Celluloid West

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

On select nights in November Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to the Western with a lineup TCM bills as “ALL the greatest Westerns ever made, except for Shane,” — the omission of the George Stevens’ classic probably owing to a rights issue.

At first glance, the Western may seem a rather dry form, but to this film buff’s thinking, anyway, it may just be the richest of all genres. The best Westerns, like the best dramas, speak to universal passions. They explore the human quest for power, freedom, independence and wealth and they examine the conflicts that arise when these desires collide with the equally strong needs for home, family, community and civilization. They reveal the struggle of men and women at odds with not only the natural elements but their own human nature as well. Because of all that it encompasses — from the settling of the West to empire building to the genocide of native peoples — the Western covers a landscape that is at once epic, mythic, historical, political, sociological, psychological and geographic.

If there is one Western that is the nexus of the genre, it is John Ford’s cinematic tone poem, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a memory saga about how what is known about the past is a function of what is told us and what we wish to believe. Near the end of the film a sardonic newspaperman, upon hearing how a celebrated taming of the West episode came down very differently from the way stories purported it to be, utters an aphorism — “This is the West, sir — when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — that neatly explains how the mechanisms of popular culture make even outlandish lore the gospel truth.

In this same way, Hollywood Westerns through the mid-1950s were like dime novels in their avoidance of historical accuracy for heroic depictions of a fabulous frontier where hard men delivered justice, vengeance and temperance. All the conventions of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era and the first three decades of the talkies only served to reinforce its constructs: the lone rider finding trouble in some town; the corrupt cattle baron protecting his interests with hired guns; the golden-hearted “saloon girl” aiding the Westerner; and Indians laying siege to homesteads and army outposts.

For most of us, our mental picture of the Old West is derived from the images Hollywood has provided of its epochal events — range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, cavalry campaigns — and its infamous legends — Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid. All most of us know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what the movies tell us.

Early Westerns were simplistic, but occasionally a picture surfaced, like Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, that both defined and transcended the genre or, as in the case of William Wyler’s 1940The Westerner, that took delight in sending it up. Some Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ Red River and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), are practically Shakespearean in the scale and scope of their conflict and intrigue.

The Western milieu often has been used as a forum for examining social issues, from William Wellman’s 1943 The Oxbow Incident, which condemned intolerance with its attack on lynching, to the Fred Zinneman directed and Carl Foreman scripted High Noon (1951), which championed integrity in a thinly veiled reference to the ‘50s’ witch hunts, blacklists and informants. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar are a carnival of Freudian symbols writ large. Anthony Mann’s The Furies is a Greek Tragedy on the prairie.

By the time Ford, the great interpreter of the Western, completed his early cavalry cycle (Rio GrandeFort ApacheShe Wore A Yellow Ribbon) and got around to The Searchers, filmmakers were reinterpreting their vision of the West. In The Searchers the Western protagonist — John Wayne as Confederate veteran and Indian killer Ethan Edwards — is presented as an anti–hero whose society-building impulses have been usurped by baser instincts and blinded by racist feelings.

In Wayne, Ford found the icon for the latter-day Westerner. Estranged from society, but not averse to aiding it — for a price — he is a stabilizing force who adheres to a personal code of conduct that allows him to straddle either side of the law when it suits him. At the end of the trail, the Westerner dies or rides off alone, unwilling or unable to bend to community strictures. He is the original American rebel.

This same anti-heroic thread runs through two key series of Westerns in the ‘50s, each pairing an inspired director with a perfectly matched star. Much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his suspense films with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann explored the darker more cynical side of Stewart in Winchester 73Bend of the RiverThe Naked SpurThe Far Country and The Man from Laramie.

Similarly, Budd Boetticher found, in Randolph Scott, the embodiment of the laconic drifter in The Tall TBuchanan Rides AloneRide Lonesome and Comanche Station. By the 1960s, the Westerner was forever recast as an enigmatic, alienated and even anachronistic figure — a man of fierce independence and great competence whose temper and skill have been forged by years as a mercenary in the service of top dollar.

Not surprisingly, the Westerner is the precursor of today’s action hero — a rough-hewn rogue possessing extraordinary skills of horsemanship, gunplay and physical combat. He is strong, smart, brave and over-the-edge. The Westerns of Howard Hawks made a great point of portraying the Westerner as a professional called on by ordinary citizens to help rid them of some menace. The role of the professional is the theme of his late trilogy — Rio BravoEl Dorado and Rio Lobo. Taking this theme even farther was director John Sturges, who transposed the samurai warrior philosophy to the professional gunslinger code by drawing on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the inspiration for his hugely popular Western The Magnificent Seven.

The great purveyors of the newer, harsher, de-romanticized Western were neoclassical filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High CountryMajor DundeeThe Wild BunchThe Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars MoreThe Good the Bad and the UglyOnce Upon a Time in the West).

Peckinpah, who despite the later violence in his films was a storyteller from the old school, seemed to invest the anxiety, anger and alienation of the ‘60s into his work. He developed a lyrical, folkloric, yet ironic approach that subverted many old conventions and exposed the hypocritical forces operating in the West. Leone was also a visual poet, but on a grander, more stylized scale. He staged the Western as if it were an opera, building elaborate sets, scenes and sequences that heightened the Western motifs and then undercut those very same motifs through such obvious but gorgeous artifice that his gaze on the Western landscape became at once reverential and winking.

Leone gave birth to a character, The Man with No Name, and to the actor who portrayed him, Clint Eastwood, that became identified with the revisionist Westerns of the late ‘60s through today. Eastwood’s Westerner is a remote and bitter figure who casts a jaundiced eye on everyone and everything around him. In much the same way John Wayne’s later characterizations were informed by his five-decade body of work and revealed the nuances of an older, grizzled, embittered and, finally in The Shootist, dying gunman unable to escape his past, Eastwood draws on his cinema legacy to create, in Unforgiven, a figure haunted by his violent legacy.

To fully appreciate the richness of the Western, one must be steeped in a wide range of examples of the genre from different eras. For what it’s worth, here is one film buff’s partial must-see inventory, listed roughly chronologically, of  essential Westerns:

Stagecoach (Ford’s 1939 version, not the dreadful 1966 remake); The Oxbow IncidentMy Darling ClementineRed RiverThe GunfighterHigh NoonShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon;WagonmasterWinchester 73The Naked SpurShaneThe SearchersForty GunsThe Tin StarThe Unforgiven (the 1960 John Huston classic, not the Eastwood film); Rio BravoThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceLonely are the BraveRide the High Country; One-Eyed JacksThe Wild BunchButch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Ballad of Cable HogueWill PennyThe Cheyenne Social ClubThe Stalking MoonMcCabe and Mrs MillerUlzana’s RaidThe CowboysThe ShootistBarbarosa; and The Grey Fox.

Enjoy ‘em, pardners.

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