Best of the West

Thanks to the success of Dances

With Wolves and Unforgiven, the western has saddled up

and is riding again, bringing studios a fist full of dollars, or,

at the very least, a few dollars more. Today’s moviemakers have

a rich legacy to emulate and draw inspiration from. Before it was

gunned down in the 1970s the Western had been the backbone of Hollywood

film production virtually since the industry was born.

The genre’s glory days were between 1939 and 1970

when under the guidance of imaginative directors and writers, westerns

became a versatile field for interpreting a variety of themes.

John Ford’s The Searchers has grown in stature

since its 1956 release, and is generally considered one of the greatest

films ever made. The search for two girls captured by Indians rises

to epic proportions as it spans several years and a variety of settings.

One of John Wayne’s best, performances, an outstanding supporting

cast, and the magnificent color of Utah’s Monument Valley still

make it a rewarding experience. Sometimes cited as the inspiration

for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it has been reworked several

time’s. Ford made a similar, but much more cynical and less successful

film in 1961 with James Stewart and Richard Widmark titled Two

Rode Together. A new video version of The Searchers includes

outtakes and background information on set construction and film

locations.

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon.

Sam Peekinpah’s The Wild Bunch is either loved

or loathed with equal passion. An exploration of morality, varying

degrees of evil, honor and relationships, it is also a technical

marvel and a masterpiece of editing. The action sequences have often

been copied, but never equaled. Its’ cast, headed by William Holden,

Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Edmond O’Brien was the perfect

teaming of outlaw gang and pursuers. Like the gang, whose time had

passed, the film represented the last great picture for many of

its stars. A 143 minute video version is the most complete available.

Avoid TV showings and shorter versions which usually reduce the

shootouts to incompre-hensible skeletons.

Although widely acclaimed but never commercially successful,

Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country offered a revisionist

look at the western hero thirty years before Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Some consider this story of two aging lawmen transporting a gold

shipment as Peckinpah’s finest film. The great script, complemented

by beautiful mountain scenery, made an outstanding picture for closing

out the careers of Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea.

High Noon earned an academy award for Gary

Cooper and made Grace Kelly a star. Producer Stanley Kramer, director

Fred Zinnemann, and writer Carl Foreman told the story of a sheriff

standing one against an outlaw gang by timing the story to the film’s

84 minute running time and cutting to ticking clocks to quicken

the pace and heighten the suspense. Much has been made of the fact

that Cooper was suffering from an ulcer during shooting, and that

the anxiety he evokes may have been real.

Rio Bravo is an enjoyable variation on High Noon with John Wayne and cronies Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter

Brennan standing firm in the face of a possible invasion from an

outlaw gang. It has become a cult favorite, and inspired several

other films. Director Howard Hawks reworked it with superior casts

but vastly inferior results in El Dorado and Rio Lobo.

Hawks’s Red River, made in 1948, marked a turning

point in John Wayne’s career from playing romantic leads to father

figures. Legend has it that the inspiration came from Mutiny

on the Bounty, that Wayne’s trail boss is really Captain Bligh,

and his son, Montgomery Clift, is a substitute Fletcher Christianson.

If so, the one who was inspired seems to have been writer Borden

Chase, rather than Hawks. The film is pretty much a literal translation

of Chase’s novel, Guns on The Chisholm Trail. Black and

white phtography underscored Wayne’s unsympathetic character and

the mood of uncertainty which hangs over the film. A recent video

release features a 133-minute director’s cut, which added seven

minutes to earlier versions.

George Stevens’s Shane was a landmark Western,

and still remains the best treatment of the cattlemen versus homesteaders

plot. Sensitively acted by Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, and Jean Arthur,

it is unique in that the story is told from the perspective of the

child, played by Brandon de Wilde. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Grand

Tetons provide magnificent backdrops, and Stevens’s slow dissolves

of seemingly endless mountain ranges emphasize the vastness of the

country.

Until the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, Red

River was often cited as the definitive traildrive movie. The original Lonesome Dove has been the only outstanding TV western, and

has rightly been compared with the best Westerns. The six-hour mini-series

is truly an epic as its story sweeps from Texas to Montana and back,

and incorporates both the coming-of-age and end-of-an-era subplots.

Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Huston top a cast of

memorable performances.

The Oxbow Incident is one of the very few few

films that have explored the consequences of vigilante justice and

mob violence. Directed by William Wellman, it remains a powerful

film with excellent performances by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.

Broken Arrow is often cited as the film which

changed Hollywood’s treatment of Indians. Based loosely on a true

incident, director Delmer Daves offers a sympathetic portrayal of

Cochise by Jeff Chandler. It also marked a transition for James

Stewart, who had hitherto enjoyed major stardom in comedies as the

common man. One of them was 1939’s Destry Rides Again, in

which he plays a shy, naive sheriff opposite Marlene Dietrich’s

tough saloon gal. The action-filled western satire is considered

a classic and has been remade several times.

After Broken Arrow, Stewart made a number of

Westerns in which his character was often a cynical, selfish loner.

Most were directed by Anthony Mann and all featured strong stories,

outstanding supporting actors, and beautiful location scenery. The

Naked Spur with Robert Ryan, and The Man From Laramie and Bend of the River with Arthur Kennedy are among the best.

Hollywood has turned out countless films on western

lawmen and outlaws. Walter Hill’s The Long Riders is one

of the best and most accurate depictions of the James/Younger gang.

Although known primarily for the novelty of casting real brother

teams, it is also notable for lyrical camera work heavily influenced

by Peckinpah. James and Stacy Keach are the James brothers; David,

Keith and Robert Carridine brothers play the Youngers. Randy and

Dennis Quaid are the Millers, and Nicolas and Christopher Guest

portray the Ford Brothers.

When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was

released, one wag remarked that it was essentially a lighthearted

version for those who couldn’t stomach the violence of The Wild

Bunch. Paul Newman and Robert Redford made a likeable, but not-too-bright

pair of outlaws. George Roy Hill directed with flair and the stylish

photography keeps it fresh.

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is generally

considered the best version of the Wyatt Earp legend and the gunfight

at the OK Corral. Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the participants,

the incident, and an appreciation for Ford’s best work is likely

to wonder why. According to one biographer, Ford directed it to

fulfill a final commitment to 20th Century Fox. Darrel Zanuck saddled

him with a cast that he would not have chosen and a script which

invented incidents and killed off characters who lived well beyond

the gunfight. Ford reportedly threw out several pages of exposition,

filmed the rest and edited his version, which Zanuck then cut and

re-edited. While many regard Henry Fonda’s portrayal as the definitive

Wyatt Earp, it comes closer to myth than reality. Physically, Victor

Mature is about as far removed from Doc Holliday as it is possible

to get.

John Sturges’s Gunfight At The OK Corral offers

a streamlined version of the incidents that motivated the actual

gunfight. It never pretends to be more than a straight-ahead action

film, and is enhanced by the casting of Burt Lancaster as Earp and

Kirk Douglas as Holliday. Sturges’s Hour of The Gun, which

dealt with the aftermath of the OK Corral incident, was less successful

though more historically accurate. Jason Robards made a fine, cynical

Doc Holliday, but James Garner was never believable as the vengeance-driven

Earp.

Sturges also translated Akira Kurosawa’s Seven

Samurai into The Magnificent Seven. According to some

accounts, there was tremendous rivalry between Yul Brynner and stars-to-be

Steve McQueen, Charles bronson, and James Coburn. Unfortunately,

it shows on the screen, where every character is a specialist with

a piece of not-always-entertaining business. Elmer Bernstein’s score

is considered a classic. The film spawned three mediocre sequels

which were essentially remakes.

Sergio Leone used Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as the basis

for A Fistful of Dollars. The film made Clint Eastwood a

star and together with For A Few Dollars More and The

Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, influenced future Westerns by introducing

amoral heroes and graphic violence while enhancing the myth of the

invincible gunman.

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