Iconic Westerns

Until not too long ago my favourite film western of all time was Back to the Future III (1985). Recently John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) has taken over that mantle but as a budding film buff I still thought it was time to expand my Western viewing experience. The focus of this post is on some iconic films and figures of the genre. I think as a genre, the Western is a distinctively American one. As an outsider it is easy to get an appreciation of the cowboys and indians, gunfights and bar brawls. But the role and importance of the frontier in American history is something that is essentially lost in the Australian experience. I think that the best Westerns are able to capture the sense of the frontier and communicate it to a broad audience in their narratives. Whilst on the surface a simplistic genre, by including themes such as the frontier, and ones contemporary to the film’s making the best Western’s can rise above their generic conventions to deliver a satisfying experience. Lets see if these most iconic examples can achieve this.

Red River (1948) stars that most iconic of all Western stars, John Wayne. It was directed by Howard Hawks, one of the greatest directors of all time and according to the American Film Institute is the 5th greatest Western of all time. Personally though, I find little to recommend in this film.

It starts out relatively promising, with a real ‘frontier’ feel to it. John Wayne’s Tom Dunson leaves a wagon train to start his own cattle ranch, in the virgin Texas countryside. A brilliantly fast paced battle with the local Native Americans (of course referred to as Indians in the film) follows soon after. Hawks frenetic editing here is way ahead of its time and works a treat, ramping up the action. Following this a young boy walks out of the wilderness, the rest of his companions having already fallen victim to the Native Americans and joins Dunson and his offsider. The action then skips forward 14 years. And it’s an unfortunate skip, with the film losing the real frontier feel that was an asset to it early on. The young boy is now a grown man, Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, and Wayne’s Dunson has clearly spent the last 14 years getting suitably grizzled. As a result of the Civil War there is no money for beef in Texas, and as a result Dunson, Garth and their men have to transport their 10,000 head of cattle all the way to Missouri. It is this ride that takes up the remainder of the film’s narrative.

Red River abounds with Western cliché. That in itself is not a bad thing. A film like Stagecoach is essentially one long cliché, but it does it with a freshness that is sorely lacking from this film which is really quite tiresome. Even the interesting elements, the looming mutiny amongst the men and Dunson’s loss of control, are not handled in a way which draws the viewer in. Generally speaking the acting is melodramatic. The exception is Montgomery Clift who is fantastic and is one of the film’s saving graces. Wayne is average, even though this is supposedly on of his finest turns, to me it seems he is ‘phoning it in’ to use modern parlance. After the cracking start he makes with the opening showdown with the natives, Hawks errs often. Montages over the top of pages turning are weak. And a tendency to begin momentous moments with close-ups of all the men is distracting and uninteresting – when they first set out on the drive all the men get a close-up where they get to give the camera their best “YAHOO” in what is frankly a cringe-worthy moment. There are a number of times the narrative threatens to break out. Matt seizing control of the ride when Dunson goes too far – but all to quickly it reverts back into the blandness that dominates the film. There is no emotional investment in the characters, the late love interest section is almost laughable in it’s rendering for example. If you wrote the ‘high points’ of the storyline down it would look like you had a cracking tale on your hands, but it is the in-between bits that are just so utterly boring to sit through that is the issue. The film’s climax sort of summed this whole film up for me. I could see the idea, I could see what they were going for and could see that it should work. But it didn’t. It was hollow and just did not ring true.

This film escapes the dreaded ‘Schooner of Tooheys New’ rating for a couple of reasons. There are a few flashes of excellence. Most of the film is so mundanely paced that the sequences where it picks up really stand out. The initial confrontation with the Native Americans that I have already mentioned and a later stampede are really excellent action set-pieces that make you mourn for the rest of the film’s pedestrian-ness. The second half is somewhat better than the first. And Clift’s performance is also wonderful. But overall this was an intensely disappointing experience. If this is the 5th best Western in history, I am a bit worried about sitting through the rest of them (a fair amount) on the 1001 list.

Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught

After the decidedly average experience of watching Red River, the next film I turned to was Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winning Unforgiven (1992). Eastwood has directed some films I have really loved, Changeling (2008) and Gran Torino (2008) were both excellent (I definitely recommend you seek out the first one if you haven’t already seen it), and some which I thought were rubbish, Absolute Power (1997) for example. So let’s see where this acclaimed modern Western fits in.

The film has a simple, but fine central storyline. An enraged cowboy viciously slashes the face of a prostitute after she giggles at the size of his “pecker”. The other whores put a $1,000 bounty on the attacker’s head, and that of his offsider. A young man keen on the cash enlists grizzled, retired gunslinger Bill Munny played by Eastwood to claim the bounty. Bill, now a reformed single father begrudgingly agrees because he desperately needs the cash. However he remains steadfast in his determination to honour his deceased wife who reformed him, and not revert to his former life of boozing and killing. Along the way two becomes three when Bill’s former partner Ned Logan played by Morgan Freeman joins the fray. Our odd threesome ride into the town of Little Whisky looking for the cowboys with the bounty on their heads. The town is patrolled by sheriff Little Bill played by Gene Hackman who runs the show with an iron-fist, not allowing guns in his town and enforcing this ordinance violently.

Some of the character establishment in the film is somewhat questionable. The over the top attempts to depict Eastwood’s Bill as a klutz are laboured and fail. Scenes of Eastwood repeatedly falling in the mud when mustering his pigs, and comically time and again trying to get on his horse are silly, and don’t work as well as the simpler scene of him practicing with his gun for the first time in what must be a while. These comic flourishes, which are a semi-regular occurrence through the film’s first half, are merely distracting from a strong, serious narrative. The young hothead, The Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett is likewise a little forced initially – we get that he is meant to be young and impetuous but the point is laboured. Once this is established, the character gets more interesting, at times it seems his motives have developed further than money into a care for his older companions, then this is quickly shut down as well. I think the most interesting character in the film is Gene Hackman’s Little Bill. He is not the arch, evil presence often seen in a Western. I guess he is the bad guy, but a lot of what he does is simply attempting to maintain law and order on his beat of Little Whisky. A lot of the time he is enforcing the law, albeit in an extremely violent manner, aiming to make an example of anyone who dares to sully the atmosphere of his town. Not to say he’s a good guy, but definitely a more nuanced bad dude than the norm. I think the characters (and by extension the film) work best when avoiding humour or self-awareness. The latter is embodied by the superfluous character of English Bob and his biographer. The biographer hangs around even after Bob is run out of town by Little Bill. To me, the whole ploy of having the biographer follow Bill around, idolising him smacks of revisionist self-awareness that is neither humorous nor did it add anything to the film. It seems a half-cocked attempt to update the straightforward Western story that is really unnecessary. Others may disagree, and in reality it is not a major part of the film, but a gripe nonetheless.

The occasionally meandering first half/two-thirds of the film gives way to a crackerjack second part where the tempo picks up in a good way. There is a wonderful siege sequence when the three men have tracked the first of their targets and are attempting to shoot him, which takes place amongst some unforgiving rocky formations. Ned is crushed when he realises he has lost his nerve and no longer has it in him to pull the trigger, that he is no longer the man he once was who revelled in that lifestyle. Even the moments we know are coming (the revelation that the kid has never shot anyone, Bill reverting to drink once again) are handled well, and importantly add something to the story above and beyond cliché. I was really excited when Bill started hoeing into the Whisky because you knew the final confrontation was coming, and it had been built very well by the film up until this point. And the final sequences are excellent, balancing delivering what the audience wants with a genuine uncertainty around how things are going to end. The film’s latter stages reveal an obsession with the theme of death. As Bill says to Schofield “We all have it comin’ kid”, and this obsession is nicely handled being both prominent but not overwhelming.

This is a film that really rises above its flaws. It definitely restored my desire to check out more Westerns. As I think I have made pretty clear the second half especially is a fine fine piece of work, avoiding the aspects that grated for me in the film’s first. It may not have claimed its place as my favourite Western, but it’s up there.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

The Great Train Robbery (1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter is generally regarded as the very first of all Westerns. Porter is one of the great innovators of film history, especially in regards film length, narrative construction and editing. But in reality he was more of a technician than a filmmaker in a contemporary sense. He did not direct too many films before leaving the creative side of the industry to focus on the technical side of things. The Great Train Robbery remains his most famous film and the most famous Western of the silent era. Some have countered the claim that this was the first Western arguing either that there were Westerns before it, or that the film is not a Western at all. I do not have the knowledge to counter the first of these suggestions, but in my opinion the film is definitely a Western, it features gunfights, crime, big hats, good guys vs the bad guys. More than enough to qualify. I would imagine that much of the iconography that came to prevail in the Western genre was established in this quite fantastic film.

First of all the film is easily accessible on Youtube. There are a whole bunch of different versions. This three parter is the one I prefer (the quality isn’t great, but it’s the closest in length to what the film was originally shown as, suggesting the frame rate is about right):

There are many amazing things about this film. The shooting of the film externally, on location stands out amongst early film. The high paced chase sequences through the forest toward the end are especially interesting, the kind of location shooting that seems so commonplace today. Who could imagine a Western shot on a soundstage? We may have this film to thank for that. The distinct scenes were also innovative in their day. The manner in which the action shifts from the initial holdup, on to the train, inside the train and then finally into the forest is wonderful. The scenes on the train utilise some wonderful shifts in camera angles. Initially, whilst on top of the train the camera is positioned directly behind the robbers as they attack the men working on the train, beating them up and throwing them off. The next scene, inside the train is almost the opposite. This time the camera is directly side on, almost like an old 2D video game. The thieves work their way from left to right, beating up the men before letting off explosives. This kind of thoughtful shot composition is also reflected in the film’s opening scene where the robbers beat up the signal operator. As their attack continues the train can be seen pulling into the station through a small window in the top right of shot.

The action in the film is excellent as well, with the rather cold-blooded violence helping to build tension. This is no twee exercise where the good guys save everyone and the baddies are totally inept at inflicting any damage. During their early rampage the robbers throw a man from the top of a moving train carriage, then later they shoot a civilian in the back as he attempts to flee. Similarly the long takes (whilst also lengthening the film in the days of a stationary camera) allow scenes to develop and heighten expectation. The film flies by and seems in some ways like an epic production, the aforementioned shooting on location, as well as a substantial cast of extras make this short film a full, substantive work. And of course, no discussion of this film is possible without mentioning the most iconic shot in the history of the Western. The film’s final shot (it was actually released on a separate reel so could be played at the start or end) sees a gunman fire his gun point blank at the camera. It is an audacious piece of filmmaking, and still wows people today. It wows me anyway. I think it is a fantastic way to finish off a fun, innovative and beautiful film.

I really love this film. Not just in an it’s an interesting relic of early film kind of way, but in that I genuinely enjoy sitting down to watch it kind of way. All film lovers have a lot to thank Edwin S. Porter, and innovators like him for.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

My initial idea for the last film in this piece was to review a film that chronicled iconic, real-life iconic events from the Old West. However whilst searching through the ‘1001 Movies’ book I stumbled across the entry for Shane (1953) which states the film is amongst Westerns “surely the most iconic”. I thought that sentiment seemed to fit rather well with the scope of this blog.

A reaction to this film really centres on a reaction to two characters. Firstly there is the painful little boy Joey, an incredibly annoying character whose characterisation could only be less subtle if he spent the whole film with the words PLOT DEVICE scrawled on his head with permanent marker. This character manages to detract from the film as a whole, the entire way through. Then there is Alan Ladd’s titular Shane. You want to talk iconic, this is by far the most iconic character in any of these films, and surely in all Westerns. He’s silent and brooding, women desire him, men either respect him or fear him, he’s a sharpshooter who’s reluctant to use his gun. The camera looks up at him in ‘hero worship’ mode and music soars when he appears onscreen. Alan Ladd is able to convey this silent hero type extremely well, not needing to resort to histrionics, and delivering Shane’s tough guy dialogue in a believable way that demands respect rather than titters. Shane is a rebel with a cause – to help and protect a family that he has literally just met. Before you know it, the men have taken their shirts off and are working as a team to remove that stubborn stump from the top paddock. The film’s plot centres around this – Shane being gradually incorporated into the Starrett family unit as they battle against the local land baron Emile Meyer and his cronies the Ryker boys trying to take them over. If I was a small-time farmer who wanted protection from a big evil corporation, this is the dude I want on my side. And to counter his presence the big evil corporation eventually brings in a similarly evil character to do battle – Jack Wilson played by an extremely young Jack Palance. This is the great Jack Palance at his best here. He does not spend a whole lot of time on screen, but the time he does spend sees him embodying evil, clad in all black, cold, seething and deadly. The result when this force, meets Shane’s in the film’s climax makes for some intense viewing.

This is a really nicely shot film. The opening shot, looking down over an expansive, picturesque valley sets the tone. The scenery is not overdone though, with these sort of images contrasted with the claustrophobic, sparse dwelling the Starretts inhabit. The film is shot in really snappy technicolour, which looks really vibrant and makes the film look like it was shot at least 20 years after it actually was. The action is just as competently shot as the scenery, and this movie features the best fistfight I have ever seen on film, better than any boxing film. Shane and his foes duke it out for what seems minutes with punches to the face landing left right and centre, in a scene that is exciting and realistic to look at. Then, just as you think the scene is almost over Joe Starrett comes to Shane’s aid and turns into a 2 on plenty brawl. But director George Stevens remains always in control and is able to stop it from becoming a shemozzle at any point. This movie is well worth watching just for this sequence. It’s beautifully well controlled, and pretty brutal as well. I have no idea how this manages to be a G rated film with that sequence in there. Much to my girlfriend’s embarrassment, I take notes whilst watching films for this blog. But sometimes the thoughts I jot down there are the most accurate ones. Just after this sequence I wrote “fucking masculine film”. And it is, the men are real men who feel the pressure to provide for their families in this brave new frontier land and to have the respect of their fellow blokes. However to say it is a masculine film is not to say that female characters are neglected or that females would not enjoy the film. Without exception every single one of the men in the film is hopelessly devoted to his darling wife. They make decisions on what is best for her. Not because they are nagged or feel pressured, but because their love for these frontier women (what a life) is so deep. What’s more the women are independent and willing to stand up and fight for what or whom they believe in.

Like many genre flicks Shane has multiple layers of social commentary to peel back if you wish, most of them pretty relevant to our 2011 world. One of the reasons Joe Starrett is so determined to hold on to his plot is because he believes his small-scale, open range farming is sustainable whereas Emile Meyer will just brutalise the land for short term monetary gain and then move on. A problem that plagues our modern world. The place of guns in a society is also examined. Despite obviously being a sharpshooter, Shane is extremely reluctant to utilise his weapon until circumstances make him believe there is no other option. Restraint that the world needs more of. He tries to teach Joey to shoot as the youngster is desperate to learn, but is stopped by Marion Starrett who scolds Shane by saying that “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” It is clear that gun control was a concern of filmmakers of the 1950s, not just filmmakers today. Another contemporary concern that the film confronts is an economic one. The demise of the little guy so to speak. The ability of the large corporation to bully them into submission and take what is not rightfully theirs. Emile Meyer thinks just because he owns a lot of land and has a lot of money, he can force the Starrett’s and their friends of their lands using underhanded intimidation. Land ownership on the frontier was obviously a complicated question. If no-one ‘owned the land’ (obviously most of it was inhabited, not that you would know from this film, I don’t think one Native American makes an appearance), then who could claim it. And how could you stop someone else coming along and claiming it over the top of you?

Thankfully the iconic Shane is able to negate the effects of the miserable character of Joey. Probably the best endorsement I can give for this film is the emotional connection that it built up in me with most of the characters. By the end of the film I was cheering, desperately hoping for a happy ending. This is definitely my favourite of the feature-length Westerns I watched for this piece, and joins Stagecoach atop the list of my favourites of the genre overall.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 26/1001

 

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