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
|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
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
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
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
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