Get Off Your Horse and What?

15 Apr

It’s just as well I’m not very interested in being fashionable.

If I was, I’d never be able to admit that I like watching Westerns.

It’s okay to like some Westerns, of course.

You can like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, because, well… it was made by Clint Eastwood and somehow anything Clint Eastwood does is cool.

For a while, it was also okay to like Dances With Wolves. (Although personally I found it to be pretentious and tedious. And all that PC talk about how wonderful it was to see Native American actors being cast to play Native American roles blithely ignored the fact that both John Ford and Sam Peckinpah routinely cast Native American actors long before anyone had even heard of Kevin Costner).

But in general it’s not really okay to like Westerns.

It’s also virtually impossible to make Westerns and I really don’t expect to see anyone else giving the genre another go any time soon.

I suppose it’s all down to a bit of an image problem.

There seems to be a perception that Westerns are necessarily racist, sexist and that they generally falsify history and glorify right-wing political ideas.

So if that’s what you think, then you’re not alone, since it seems to have become accepted wisdom over the years, although I suspect that most of the people who do think along those lines probably haven’t seen too many Westerns.

So if that really is what you think, then maybe you should try watching a couple of Westerns and find out whether or not that accepted wisdom has any truth in it.

Of course there are some Westerns I wouldn’t recommend.

In spite of a stellar cast and some amazing directing talent (or possibly because of it) How the West Was Won really irritates me.

Mostly what I dislike about it is it’s consistent dishonesty. It pretty much airbrushes non-whites out of American history. (You could argue that many Westerns do, but this particular film pretends to be a sweeping account of the history of the West, so it has less of an excuse than other films that don’t have the same pretensions). It’s also a film that suffers from the presence of Debbie Reynolds (I know, she was terribly sweet in Singing in the Rain, but aside from that I find her deeply irritating. Especially when she sings).

I also loathe Shane.

I read the book (under duress) at school, and I thought it was pretty much okay for a children’s book. Not wonderful, you understand, but fairly short and a fast, undemanding read.

How someone managed to turn it into the bloated, ponderous pile of stodge that is the film version, I do not know.

I suppose some idiot decided that this was a ‘classic’ and concluded that it had to be treated accordingly. This, I assume, is why the damn’ thing has all the vivacity and pace of a tortoise on haloperidol.

Even Jack Palance, (on magnificently wicked form as the nasty gunslinger), can’t save it.

Of course anyone with cinephile pretensions will probably know and love films like, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Stagecoach or High Noon. With a little luck they might even know about The Wild Bunch or Ulzana’s Raid.

But I’d like to make a pitch for a couple of less well-known films.

You see many of the best Westerns, in my opinion, are low-budget, unpretentious little films that get on with the business of telling their story without a whole load of extraneous twaddle.

To give you an example; Last Train from Gun Hill was made in 1959 and stars Kirk Douglas as a Marshall looking for the men who raped and murdered his wife, while Anthony Quinn plays the rancher who’s son is one of the culprits. (Both actors were in their prime, at this point, but not yet the mega stars they later became).

Essentially what you have here is the irresistible force (Douglas) meeting the immovable object (Quinn) while Carolyn Jones (Morticia from the TV version of The Addams Family) slinks between them with a truly feline poise as Quinn’s ex-girlfriend.

(She’s his ex because he beat her up and put her in hospital and she’s really not the kind of woman to take that kind of thing. Westerns quite often feature strong and intelligent female characters. Not balloon-chested, gun-toting amazons you understand, but credible human characters).

Carolyn Jones’ role in this film is particularly interesting, because she not only plays a key role in the mechanics of moving the plot along, but she’s also important in challenging other characters.

Kirk Douglas’ character is driven by vengeance, while Anthony Quinn’s is driven by his need to protect his son. Unfortunately, the son is a weakling who’s trying to live up to the warped image of manhood provided by his overbearing father. (Even here there’s a degree of complexity, there are hints that the son really doesn’t want to be the kind of man that he thinks his father wants him to be and that, left to his own devices, he might have been a gentler and more civilised person).

To one extent or another, then, all of these men need a reality check and it’s Carolyn Jones’ character who goes some way towards providing it.

Hopefully I’ve caught your interest, and if you want to know how the story ends, then watch the film. It shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

Like so many of my favourite Westerns Last Train from Gun Hill was never meant to be a classic film. It was a relatively low-budget film that just rolled off the studio production line.

What makes it special is the cast and an intelligent script.

(One of the joys of this kind of film is that no one was paying too much attention to them at the time and every now and then it allowed someone to try something a bit different or a bit contentious. The kind of thing they couldn’t do in a higher profile production).

If you want something even more obscure, you can try a film called No Name On The Bullet. This film would have a small place in film history anyway, because it was Audie Murphy’s last film.

(Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of WWII who was picked up by Hollywood, and turned out to be a pretty useful actor.

His range may have been a bit limited, but he had a real screen presence. Somehow, even after a pretty harsh life before the war and his impressive record during the war, he managed to retain a youthful, even baby-faced, appearance that contrasted with a certain steely eyed harshness that showed through from time to time. Actually if you check out his biography, you’ll find that he was a pretty impressive human being who showed a remarkable amount of courage and integrity, not only during the war, but also in battling depression and working for other veterans who were suffering from mental health problems. He’s also credited with bringing an unusually large dose of authenticity to the film adaptation of his life story To Hell and Back).

No Name on The Bullet is set towards the end of the Western period at a time when people have settled down and built their churches, schoolhouses and law courts. This is a period when you just can no longer just go around shooting people and riding off into the sunset with no questions asked.

Audie Murphy plays a notorious killer for hire who has adapted to the changing circumstances by manipulating his intended victims into starting a gunfight so that he can shoot them with impunity.

He is an intelligent and articulate character. He is also clearly ruthless and cynical, but there is also a certain honesty about him. This honesty contrasts with the ‘respectable’ townsfolk who all know that he has been hired by one of their number in order to kill one of them. What had seemed to be such a nice little town actually turns out to be a hotbed of conspiracy and hypocrisy.

What drives the plot, and produces much of the tension, is the guilt-driven paranoia that besets almost everyone in the town as they turn on each other while the gunslinger simply sits back and watches until he’s ready to strike.

Interested?

I’m not saying it’s classic cinema, but it’s an interesting little film and it was made for grown-ups. (As opposed to so many contemporary blockbusters, which can be fun and certainly have their place, but are not really made for someone who wants something to think about).

Westerns are easy to mock. (Mel Brooks did it brilliantly in Blazing Saddles) and I don’t suppose it’s really possible to make them any more. They’re often associated with deeply unfashionable ideas about masculinity and a mythology about American history that has been shown to have little bearing on the truth. So any Western that gets made these days will have to be at the very least a ‘revisionist’, that may well be no closer to the truth than the mythology it seeks to replace, but will probably be a lot less fun as well.

In truth a lot of Hollywood Westerns really were unfair and patronising (if nothing worse) towards various minorities. All too often native Americans are treated as savages (albeit sometimes ‘noble savages’), while African-Americans were generally either totally absent or reduced to providing comic relief.

Similarly Mexicans were often portrayed as childlike characters or comic book villains.

(If you’re not sure what I mean, try watching The Magnificent Seven back to back with Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More. Much though I love The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s Mexicans, mostly played by Spanish Gypsies, are much more serious, not to mention scary, characters than any of the Mexicans you’ll find in the mainstream Hollywood films of the time).

Having acknowledged that, I think it’s still true to say that the Western allowed film makers to explore ideas and themes in a setting that allowed them to strip away everything but the bare essentials.

The classic example would be High Noon.

What other genre would allow you to examine questions of integrity, courage, pacifism and loyalty with such trenchant clarity?

At this point I’d like to include a short comment about Randolph Scott.

For many years I thought of Randolph Scott as a bit of a joke. Then I watched a couple of his films and I changed my mind.

He was a tall man with a rugged sort of face. Not every film he appeared in was a Western (60 out of the more than 100 films he made), but he will always be associated with Westerns more than any other kind of film.

When he rode into a film you knew that he would be the kind of man who knew how to do things. He would know how to ride, and shoot guns (that’s pretty standard in a screen cowboy), but he’d also know how to make and fix things, how to look after sick horses, find water in a desert and all sorts of other useful, practical things.

Generally speaking he would be honest and self-reliant and he would always be courteous and respectful to women.

He could be ruthless at times, and sometimes he was driven and obsessive, but he could be gentle too. He was taciturn and often a loner, but he would be intelligent and articulate when he wanted to be. (Actually his screen persona reminds me a little of Homer’s Odysseus, even if Odysseus is a lot more inclined to lie. The fact that Odysseus is a king is irrelevant, he’s not a very rich king and his influence, like Randolph Scott’s came from his personal qualities, not his social status).

In other words, Randolph Scott, like Gary Cooper, knew how to play a good and decent man without making him insipid or preachy.

(This is a rare talent. Think how many of the ‘heroes’ in contemporary films are not just flawed but virtually pathological. It seems that many film makers, knowing that it’s easier to create a charismatic villain than an interesting hero, now want to present us with ‘heroes’ who are essentially just villains who happen to be a bit less villainous than their antagonists. I don’t think this has anything to do with realism or reflecting moral complexity, I think it’s just lazy).

You could say that Randolph Scott embodied the mythology of the West in his screen performances.

That the mythology didn’t have much to do with the reality of the Old West, but so what?

If you want history then read a history book. (And I do read quite a lot of history, I’d recommend it to anyone).

Fiction isn’t the truth and it was never meant to be.

Fiction is a lie that tells a different kind of truth.

But the truth isn’t always bleak. It doesn’t have to batter us down into nasty, mean, crabbed little lives. Sometimes we can do a little better than that.

And I don’t mean that we should all aspire to shoot ‘the bad guy’.

After all, you can seldom do much good in the world by killing people, but the point to High Noon isn’t that Will Kane shoots Frank Miller. It’s the fact that he stands up for the truth in spite of being alone and afraid. (And at times Gary Cooper shows you just how scared Kane really is and just how tempted he is to get on his horse and ride out). Most of the townspeople want to pretend that Frank Miller isn’t all that bad, or that if they leave him alone he’ll behave himself.

(A few are more honest and they simply want Miller back because they made good money when he was running things and to hell with the rule of law. At least some know that Miller will be a disaster for the town but they just want to leave him to it as long as they can get clear before things really kick off). 

High Noon is often seen as an allegory for Carl Foreman’s own predicament during the McCarthy witch hunts, but I don’t think you need to know anything about Senator Joe McCarthy, Communism or Blacklists to understand or appreciate the film.

I think that all you really need to do is watch it.

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4 Responses to “Get Off Your Horse and What?”

  1. Colin 16/04/2012 at 10:22 pm #

    That’s just wonderful! It’s great to see someone take the time and make the effort to express so eloquently why the western is one of the most maligned genres around today and, crucially, why this should not be the case.
    I have to say that your choices of little known westerns that still embody the best the genre has to offer are hard to fault. And you do a good job nailing exactly why Randolph Scott deserves to be viewed as one of the finest western stars.
    The only thing I find myself taking exception to is your dislike for Shane – but then again, diversity of opinion is no bad thing.

    • fekesh 06/05/2012 at 10:20 am #

      Sorry about ‘Shane’. Maybe I should give it another chance some time.
      In any case, Thank you for your comment. It’s always encouraging to get a response, and especially from someone who shares some yof your opinions and interests. I’ve had a look at your blog and I intend to come back again, you’re clearly an afficionado and I’m bound to find new titles to look for on your site.

      • Colin 06/05/2012 at 10:30 am #

        Shane is one of those movies whose reputation precedes it, and unless you studiously avoid reading any of the critical raves about it there’s always the possibility that it may end up disappointing. In many ways it’s easier to get into movies which have been slightly neglected, you find yourself coming at them with a fresher perspective and can judge them on their own merits.

        And yeah, drop by the site any time.

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