by Craig Phillips
Just as jazz is the one uniquely American music form, the Western may be the one truly American film genre and, as such, has appropriately reflected eleven decades of American moods. Westerns have always centered on the classic American story itself, that of taming the land (and, occasionally, the part where white people "conquered" natives), of overcoming hardships, of the frontier spirit. While many films from this canon are now best forgotten or serve only as dated curios, many more, from
Red River to Unforgiven, rank up there among the best of American cinema. No genre has survived as long the Western, only to re-emerge again and again, intact.
Some of the basic elements of this genre are generally:
Set in the American West, pre-20th century (possible exception: another country with a similar frontier history, Australia, has had its share of films that could be considered Westerns).
Loner male gunfighter character, sometimes with no identity or traceable past, often a man of few words.
This male character rarely assimilates into the codes of a community.
Typical plots include: Revenge (the lead character seeking to avenge an earlier death or wrongdoing); Revenge; and also, Revenge.
Often have an ambiguous ending.
Typical elements and icons: cowboys, horses, cattle, sweeping vistas, a girl, a bad girl (whorehouses often figure prominently in these movies), gunfight(s).
One element that changed from the early Westerns to those made more recently is that the line between good and evil that used to be very clearly delineated gradually grows much, much less so.
Interestingly, the first Western is also considered to be the first film to use a narrative structure to tell a story, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). You may recall the scene in 1983's The Grey Fox in which the
old gunfighter played by Richard Farnsworth finds the film so utterly real that, when a character in the movie fires at the audience, Farnsworth stands up and fires back at the screen.
The first real Western film star was former rodeo champ Tom Mix, who starred in roughly 200 films between 1911 and 1930. The advent of sound didn't specifically kill Mix's career - he still managed to carry over his charm and energy, despite a rather wooden delivery - but he saw the writing on the wall and retired in 1934.
Westerns have always centered on a hero who is a man of few words. Their dialogue kept lean, the
early films were free to focus on their action, and this has always been a major reason for their appeal. Some of the first "talkies" were action films and haven't dated as badly as their romantic and dramatic
counterparts. One of the best of these was The Virginian (1930), itself based on the first western novel, and which starred Gary Cooper - who would return to the genre again to great success.
But when audiences began growing tired of the form in the 1930s, the singing cowboy picture served as its temporary salvation. While Ken Maynard, better known previously (and probably more talented) as a stuntman, is generally credited with being the first of these, it was Gene Autry who became the first real singing cowboy star. He was already a popular regional singer, but it was in In Old Santa Fe that Autry became famous. Autry was followed by a host of similar crooning cowpokes in the 1930s, the most notable of which was a young musician-turned-actor named Leonard Slye, better known as Roy Rogers. Co-starring in many pictures with his wife Dale Evans and Gabby Hayes, the epitome of the sidekick (an archetype mocked many times in The Simpsons), Rogers's incredible popularity is reflected by the mere fact that people today still know his name.
But the most famous of all Western actors would first come into renown around the same time as Rogers. John Wayne starred in over 40 Westerns, ranging from classics (Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) to the dated and offensive (Chisum, The Alamo). Wayne got his start languishing in B-movie Westerns and serials in the 1930s, but really took off in the popular action drama Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford.
For better and worse, both Wayne and Ford would together define the cinematic Western in a way no one else would, working in and out of the genre for the next thirty years. (See list below). Many critics consider the best of their collaborations to be The Searchers, which features Wayne's most nuanced performance; it's inarguably a fascinating (and occasionally offensive) film about a man's obsessive quest to find his niece that leads him to kill the Indian who abducted her. The pathology of the film could easily be misinterpreted (especially given Wayne's conservative politics) but it's also one of the most important depictions of the vanished American frontier spirit, a poetical portrait of the West, and graced by an epiphany of sorts from Wayne's character at the end. Just don't expect complete
My favorite John Wayne Western, however, is Red River, in which Howard Hawks once again showed his incredible range as a director; from screwball comedy classics (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby) to rip-roaring adventures (Only Angels Have Wings), Hawks was among the best Hollywood genre directors. Red River, which features Wayne and Montgomery Clift on a cattle train, is a sheer delight that works on quite a few levels.
More recently, Clint Eastwood has had quite a bit of success in the action and suspense genres, but arguably his most memorable films have been Westerns. One of the few American stars able to continue working in the genre profitably over the years, Eastwood has also tried his hand at directing a few ( High Plains Drifter, the underrated The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider and perhaps most successfully, the recent Unforgiven). He's been in a wide variation of takes on the genre - from gothic romance ( The Beguiled) to a musical ( Paint Your Wagon) - but it was in a low-budget series of films directed by a then-obscure Italian that first made Eastwood, then best-known for starring in the TV series Rawhide, an international star.
While Westerns started to become a rarer occurrence in America by the late 1950s, in Europe, they were exceedingly popular, particularly in one country that has always been fascinated by the American West's mythology and, by association, the Western. It was in Italy in the 60's that director Sergio Leone tried his hand at the genre. Dubbed "spaghetti westerns" for obvious reasons (no pasta was eaten in any of the shots), Leone's Dollars trilogy of films are among the most fun and subversive of all Westerns. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in particular was striking for its cynical view of Civil War America and for its ruthless violence and narcissism, but what makes these films (A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are the others) still popular today is Leone's over-the-top filmmaking style (lots of zooms and deep focus), the black comedy, the parody of the genre's conventions, and Ennio Morricone's unforgettable scores. Django, and its many illegitimate offspring, was another memorable entrant into the spaghetti sub-genre.
Variations on the Genre
The prototypical Western scene is of the cowboy riding off into the sunset, usually with the girl - but Westerns have often not ended happily. George Stevens's beautiful (if now slightly overrated) Shane is in some ways the classic mythic Western, with the heroic stranger on horseback coming in to save a good-hearted family from the men in black hats (most notably Jack Palance, one of the all-time great movie villains), but its overall solemnity and downbeat ending showed that even in the "happy" 1950s films were reflecting a worry. It's interesting, too, to compare the way Westerns reacted to each other - even films that were classic in their own right, such as Fred Zinneman's High Noon and Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo. Both films had similar concepts - a lone man is depended upon to be the only one to fight evil and save a (cowardly) community. But in High Noon, the Gary Cooper character decides he can't help a town that can't help itself, while in the later film, Rio Bravo, John Wayne saves the town all by himself.
The Western has been used as a re-staging area for plots from other classic movies, a famous example being The Magnificent Seven, a reworking of The
Seven Samurai. It was actor Yul Brynner (The King and I) who purportedly first thought of acquiring the rights to Akira Kurosawa's classic epic, and it was Brynner who clashed repeatedly with co-star Steve McQueen - but if anything, this tension only added to their performances. The basic story - a village hires seven armed men to protect them from a gang of marauders - remained intact, but in the hands of director John Sturges, it became an elegy for the old West. And the spaghetti Western Fistful of Dollars also looked East to Kurosawa for inspiration, remaking his Yojimbo.
No Western director used the Western genre as a framework to expose audiences to some dark realities of contemporary American life better than Sam Peckinpah. Like Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch's depiction of violence shocked moviegoers who, for the first time, saw how bullets really hit the human body, how blood spurts, how, in general, violence isn't pretty or neat. This certainly made some traditionalists want to run to John Wayne or Tom Mix, but for many in the country, and the world, at the time, it reflected a turning point towards both cynicism and realism.
Some of the bigger-budget Westerns became notorious for flopping critically at the box office, but with the passage of time and the changing of perspective, at least two of these - Heaven's Gate, and The Missouri Breaks - have gotten a critical re-evaluation of sorts. But other, less artistically striving films, like Wild, Wild West, are destined to never receive any such reappraisal.
A recent upsurge in the production of Westerns, led by the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, seems to have cooled off a bit - due more, perhaps, to the spotty quality and overt commercialism of many of the films (Young Guns was popular but did we need Young Guns II? American Outlaws?), than to the fickle nature of today's audiences. But like a phoenix, the form seems to keep rising from its own ashes; don't be surprised if the Western rides again.
Tumbleweeds (1925): William S. Hart made a slew of popular silents; this is one of his best.
Stagecoach (1939): Perhaps the first "great" Western, and one of the few oldies currently available on DVD.
Destry Rides Again (1939): Jimmy Stewart as a sheriff and Marlene Dietrich as a singing barkeep in this very entertaining satirical Western.
Pursued (1947): Robert Mitchum starred in this gritty and exciting little Western sleeper by prolific, underrated director-for-hire Raoul Walsh.
Red River (1948)
High Noon (1952): Takes place in "real time" for maximum suspense. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of the loner sheriff, as did Dimitri Tiomkin for his memorable score. And to top it off, Grace Kelly...
My Darling Clementine (1946): My favorite John Ford Western is this perfectly made story of the Earps versus the Clantons.
Vera Cruz (1954): Another underrated veteran studio director, Robert Aldrich, directed this action-packed film starring two greats, Cooper and Burt Lancaster.
Winchester '73 (1953) and The Man From Laramie (1955): Just two of the many solid Anthony Mann-directed Westerns featuring Jimmy Stewart.
Ride the High Country (1962): An early Sam Peckinpah classic, more traditional and not as violent as The Wild Bunch, but sharing the same sense of self-aware nostalgia. Offers one of the few really sympathetic female characters in a Peckinpah film, played by a young Mariette Hartley.
The Searchers (1956)
3:10 to Yuma (1957): Classic adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, centers on a farmer (Van Heflin) desperate for money who agrees to escort a notorious outlaw (Glenn Ford) to the state pen. Pretty talky as Westerns go, but the tension builds to a nerve-wracking degree.
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): John Ford's melancholy next-to-last Western seemed to serve as a swan song for the genre itself, and as an elegy to the gunman.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: A perfect film save for one forgivably dated lapse (the treacly "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence), on which William Goldman cemented his reputation as one of the better screenwriters. Features one of his, and American cinema's, most famous "moment of truth" scene, involving a high cliff, a river, and someone's inability to swim.
High Plains Drifter (1972): Eastwood's first attempt at directing a Western was mildly successful variation on the "man with no name gets revenge" scenario.
The Outlaw Josey Wales: Made a few years later, and with a lot more depth, here Eastwood shows us the old West as the ruthless place it really was. Severely underrated upon initial release.
A Fistful of Dollars.
For a Few Dollars More (1965).
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): I consider this to be Sergio Leone's best, an epic masterpiece that has finally been given the full DVD treatment it deserves.
Django (1966): Directed by Italian Sergio Corbucci, starring Belgian Franco Nero as the title gunslinger with a vendetta, and set in Mexico, this cartoonish Western was a big hit in Europe.
Four of the Apocalypse: Violent, sadistic and memorable - and banned in many countries in the 70s.
Keoma: Leone meets Peckinpah in this stylish addition to the oeuvre.
The "New" West:
As with anything once it becomes established, eventually deviations will arise, deconstructions, new mediations on the genre, or just plain spoofs.
"Anti-Westerns," Elegies and Meditations
The Wild Bunch (1968): Peckinpah at his best (and, next to Straw Dogs, his most violent).
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): Robert Altman tried his hand at the Western as only Altman could. Unforgettable, nearly wordless finale serves as a great capper to a downbeat, brilliant film.
Dead Man: Jim Jarmusch's slow-moving darkly comical Western is certainly meditative. It's also astoundingly beautiful (B&W cinematography by Robbie Muller) and full of unforgettable moments.
Unforgiven (1992): In some ways a summation - and a response to - Clint Eastwood's entire Western filmography, and a brilliant meditation on the meaning of violence and killing, this Oscar-winning Western is probably the best of the last twenty years.
Dances With Wolves (1992): Easy to scoff at Kevin Costner now but this Oscar-winning epic ushered in, along with Unforgiven, a new era in the Western canon. Overlong, but rarely boring, and has its silly spots, but the respect the film showed for Native American history (not to mention utilizing a host of great Native actors) is substantial, and it still works as an adventurous, exciting piece of cinema.
Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter: James Garner, who starred in the comic western TV series Maverick, starred in these two hilarious Western features. His bemused, sly style is perfectly suited to the material, which wonderfully trips up every Western cliché in the books.
Blazing Saddles: Mel Brooks pulled out all the stops in this
gut-busting satire. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, you'll never look at a campfire the same way again.
Little Big Man: Based on the life of a man who saw a lot in his 100 years, Arthur Penn's witty film does an excellent job demythologizing the Old West while providing a rare sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans.
Silverado: Lawrence Kasdan's star-studded saga was considered a flop first time around but quickly developed a following. A lot of fun.
Other important Westerns not yet available on DVD:
Sadly, a great number of early Westerns remain held up from DVD release by stubborn studios. This means no Tom Mix Western is currently available, alas, nor are many silent treasures like The Covered Wagon (1923) and The Iron Horse (1924).
The Gunfighter (1950)
Rancho Notorious (1952)
Johnny Guitar (1954): Any Western featuring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge is going to be weird, and this Nicholas Ray film certainly is. It's also great, and a shame that it's not out on DVD.
Ride Lonesome (1959)
Cheyenne Autumn: John Ford's final, underrated Western.
Recommended further reading online:
DVD Savant: The Spaghetti Western Genre.
Thoughts? Comments? Reactions? Suggestions? Discuss!