17 Jun 2006

The Western Movie

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Dave Kehr corrects some conventional critical misconceptions, drawing upon an admirable familiarity with the history of the cinema.

As a Western buff since my diaper days, I’ve been glad to see the burst of positive publicity that our much maligned and neglected national genre has been getting, thanks to the simultaneous appearance of Warner Home Video’s magnificent John Ford-John Wayne box set and the debut of the third, apparently final season of “Deadwood” on HBO.

But it has also been an occasion for passing along the critical clichés and historical misconceptions that have gathered around the Western since it passed from mass popularity in the early 1970s. Nancy Franklin, the fine television critic of “The New Yorker,” begins her piece on “Deadwood” in the June 12 issue with a list of what she believes to be the genre’s conventions: “It has been many years since the Westerns were essentially black-and-white, cut-and-dried stories of good versus evil: morality tales with lots of horses and guns and one of everything else — a sheriff, an outlaw, an embattled hero, a town drunk, a whore with a heart of gold, a honky-tonk piano, and a schoolteacher from Illinois, who found out shortly after arriving in town that, for worse and for better, there was more to life than book learnin’. Indians were, for the most part, the obstacle that had to be overcome — although sometimes there was a ‘good one.’”

I suspect this isn’t the list of someone who’s seen a lot of Westerns; it’s the list of someone who’s absorbed the high culture caricature of them that has emerged since the genre effectively passed away, fatally linked in the minds of most baby-boomers with the disaster of Vietnam. Franklin goes on to say, “Although Westerns have evolved, the conventions are still often glaring, making even Westerns that have gray, shadowy moral areas a tough sell to some people. There’s just too much dust, leather, whinnying, shooting, and mud — too much brown — and not enough talking, understanding, humor and complexity. The trappings of Westerns make them seem fake and message-y, even as they strain to be realistic.” Franklin finds “Deadwood” the great exception to this rule.

It has indeed been many years since Westerns were like what Franklin describes — I’d say, since about 1903 and “The Great Train Robbery.” Westerns have, in fact, been the primary means through which American filmmakers have expressed “the gray, shadowy moral areas” of American history and the American character. In my experience — which includes way too many hours watching the routine B movies Franklin presumably has in mind (little she says applies to the adult Westerns that emerged in the late 40s, and were developed by such outstanding artists as Ford, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Delmar Daves and quite a few others) — I’ve found the genre to be far less reactionary and rigid than consistently questioning and even progressive. There probably is a brutally racist, genocidal Western out there somewhere that advocates the extermination of the Indians, though I have never seen it or heard of one that fits that description. From the very beginnings of the genre on screen, Westerns frequently took the point of view of the Indian — romanticizing him and condescending to him, of course, but almost always following the Fennimore Cooper tradition of the “noble savage.”

D.W. Griffith, who could be as brutal a racist as anyone, made quite a number of Cooperesque odes to the “Vanishing American” (to borrow the title of a Zane Grey magazine serial of 1925, filmed that same year by George Seitz), including the exemplary 1909 “The Red Man’s View” (available on the “D.W. Griffith — Years of Discovery” DVD from Image Entertainment), a moving version of the “Trail of Tears” story about an Indian couple forced to separate when white settlers drive their tribe from their land. Another fine example is “The Invaders,” a 1912 production from Thomas Ince that may have been directed by Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother, and included in the “More Treasures from American Film Archives” box set from the National Film Preservation Foundation. This very accomplished work depicts an epic battle ignited when white surveyors trespass on Indian lands, using Lakota Sioux as actors, eighty years before the proudly revisionist “Dances with Wolves” made the genre briefly fashionable again in the early 90s.

In a comment on the same post, Larry Kart recommends a selection of “non-obvious Westertns.”

Excerpts from an e-mail exchange (obviously inspired by this thread) with a friend of about my age (64) who didn’t see many Westerns as a kid:

Some Westerns that I can personally recommend, not only because they’re good but also because (no less important) they really get under my skin (won’t list all the ones we’ve the previously mentioned by Anthony Mann [though you might miss, but shouldn’t, Mann’s “Man of the West” with Gary Cooper] Boetticher, etc. or John Ford or Hawks— order is what I can see, by director or otherwise, as I leaf through David Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary of Film”):

Andre de Toth: “Ramrod,” “Springfield Rifle,” “Man in the Saddle, “Carson City,” “The Stranger Wore a Gun,” “The Bounty Hunter,” “Riding Shotgun”). The latter bunch are B-movies with Randolph Scott and prefigure the Scott-Boetticher movies, though De Toth definitely has his own flavor. “Ramrod,” with De Toth’s then wife Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea, is a noir Western par excellence and not to be missed.

Allen Dwan: “Tennesse’s Partner,” with Ronald Reagan, based on a Brett Harte tale; “Montana Belle, with Jane Russell as Belle Starr, “Silver Lode.”

Fritz Lang: “The Return of Frank James,” “Rancho Notorious” with Marlene Dietrich — at least as out there as “Johnny Guitar” and made a year before it.

Rudolph Mate: “The Violent Men,” with Barbara Stanwyck. Glenn Ford, and Edward G. Robinson — another noir Western par excellence.

Robert Parrish: “The Wonderful Country,” with Mitchum in great form and a superb score by Elmer Bernstein.

Jacques Tourneur: “Wichita,” with J. McCrea as Wyatt Earp.

Raoul Walsh: “They Died with Their Boots On,” “Pursued” (with Mitchum, another extreme noir Western), “Colorado Territory” (a remake of “High Sierra”with J. McCrea in the Bogart part).

I notice that the list is shorter than I thought it would be (even having ruled out the movies that seemed obvious) and that Joel McCrea pops up fairly often. Also, I’m fairly sure that the air went out of the genre about the same time the air went out of science fiction (at least for me) and probably for related reasons. Also, again, it’s worth taking a look at some of the epic De Mille Westerns from the ’30s with Gary Cooper or McCrea (“The Plainsman,” “Union Pacific,” Northwest Mounted Police”) — the myths are there in potent, garish, unfiltered form. You may laugh at times, but you’ll be gripped too, I think, almost against your taste and will — which is a potentially useful state to be in.

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Hat tip to James Wolcott.
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