Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Week of Westerns

Westerns have always been one of my blind spots. I've never liked them. When I was younger, when tales of cowboys and gunfighters were far more prevalent on television, they always seemed to blend together into one hazy morass of bland, old-fashioned folksiness, with a corny ballad or the "Bonanza" theme playing off in the distance somewhere. However, you're simply not going to get very far in American cinema without running into westerns. They are the quintessential American genre, for the simple reason that we had the American West, with all its deserts and canyons and Native Americans, which no other country with a film industry had access to. And westward expansion has long been an essential part of the American narrative.

Still, it took me a long time to start watching westerns, and when I finally did it was only with supreme reluctance. I went through most of John Ford's filmography with little interest, using his films as filler when I wasn't watching anything else. Sergio Leone's epics were more diverting, but didn't do much to penetrate my overall apathy. The later Clint Eastwood and Peckinpah films of the 70s always felt very subversive of genre ideas and ideals I wasn't sure I had the best grasp on in the first place. My favorite western for a long time was "High Noon," which is practically a filmed stage play, and hardly features any of the elements that make westerns distinctive. So, last week I decided to attack the genre again, head on. I marathoned several of the highest profile westerns that I hadn't seen yet, including Anthony Mann's "The Man from Laramie" (1955) and "Man of the West" (1958), John Ford's "Wagon Master" (1950), Budd Boetticher's "Ride Lonesome" (1959), and capped it off with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" (1962), one of his earliest films.

I think that covered a good range of styles and approaches that let me see some of the evolution of the genre through the 50s, when westerns were arguably at their peak popularity. Ford's "Wagon Master" was the oldest and most conventional of them, with the most straightforward, morally upright heroes. It's a film about communal struggle, bringing together a band of of various dissolute characters to journey together though challenging terrain. It's a classic pioneer story with all the romantic ideals and imagery and song of Ford's most nostalgic visions of the Old West. A few years later, came the advent of Cinemascope and other widescreen formats, which Westerns were extremely well suited for. I spent most of "The Man From Laramie" and "Man of the West" appreciating the structure and composition of the extra-wide, extra photogenic shots. Anthony Mann's films also had the benefit of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper as leading men, both turning in excellent late career performances. I'd seen them both in romantic comedies of the same period, which they were both clearly too old to be playing in any longer, but in the westerns they fit the scenery.

As the decade wore on, the stories got darker and the American West became harsher and more unfriendly. There were prominent female characters featured in all of these films, who were subjected to increasingly perilous and compromising situations, often by the men who they put their trust in. "Man of the West" has the lovely Julie London as a platonic love interest for Gary Cooper, but he fails to protect her from sexual assault, and another woman from senseless slaughter. "The Searchers," with all its interracial and psychosexual tensions, had come two years before in 1956. "Ride Lonesome" made it explicit in dialogue. The American West was a terrible place for a woman, where the threat of rape and ruin were ever-present. "Ride Lonesome's" heroine has to travel with a band of bounty hunters for protection, nearly gets traded off to an Indian for a horse, and finds herself in the middle of a revenge plot orchestrated by our hero.

But this is nothing compared to what happens to poor Elsa, played by Mariette Hartley, in "Ride the High Country." She runs away from a domineering father to marry a man of her choosing at a nearby mining camp. The fiancé turns out to be an abusive thug, with a pack of equally thuggish brothers intent on exploiting her. Peckinpah eschews the eye-pleasing landscapes of Ford and Mann for tighter, more immediate visuals, emphasizing violence and viscerality. The wedding scene, where every other woman present is a prostitute, stands as a firm rebuke to sanitized, idealized portrayals of frontier life in the past, with its Stetson-wearing white knights. When Elsa is rescued, it is by Joel McCrea's aging law man, well past his prime. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of these films starred Hollywood Golden Age stars nearing retirement, in increasingly cynical stories about a much more anarchic, amoral version of the West.

Protagonists were losing their moral uprightness. Their histories got more colorful, their motives more suspect, and those who were made in the mold of the traditional heroes found their effectiveness ebbing. "Ride Lonesome" features Randolph Scott as a bounty hunter anti-hero, who knowingly endangers the rest of his party in order to lure in Lee Van Cleef's nominal villain. Gary Cooper's reformed criminal sees his past catch up with him, and is drawn back into the cycle of violence and terror. Even Jimmy Stewart's Will Lockhart touches off the purging of a corrupted family largely by accident. You can see the seeds of more subversive westerns with even darker protagonists starting to germinate here, leaving the likes of Shane and "High Noon's" Marshal Will Kane firmly behind them.

After spending a week with some of the major westerns of the 50s, I'm still not much of a fan of the genre, but I'm satisfied. I can see the versatility of the Old West as a setting, and the various ways that different directors used its familiar conventions. It's a deadlier, meaner world in these films than I remember too, not one I think I'd ever feel particularly nostalgic about. Maybe that's why I was always so hostile to the schmaltzier TV westerns about the good old days - something about the approach always felt a little dishonest, a little more make-believe than reality. I got a little of that from John Ford, but not any of the other directors this week. Instead there was a lot of disillusionment, a lot of angst, a lot of discontent, and a few shootouts.

Not my idea of good times, but it did make for some good movies.

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