How the West evolved
The recent exchange of comments on an Alert post (you can find the comments if you click here and scroll down to the link to Kiki Fung’s report on the 2017 Canberra International Film Festival) concerning Jacques Tourneur's Canyon Passage (USA, 1946) implicitly raised the question of how we might arrive at placing the mantle of “greatness” on films made within the parameters of a genre's conventions for a more or less defined audience.
|Susan Hayward, Dana Andrews, Canyon Passage|
Among cinephiles it can almost be a badge of honour for a western like Canyon Passage to fail to sufficiently engage audiences, be underrated or barely noticed by mainstream critics because it is too far removed from “the standard model.” This is not to deny the cinephiliac pleasure to be derived from discovering an original western like Canyon Passage.
|The Great Train Robbery|
|William S Hart, Hell's Hinges|
This amounts to something like a short summary of the genre's evolution to c1970.
|John Wayne, The Big Trail|
The above listing ceases about the time of the decline of the western after the postwar revival that extended over two decades - the mid forties to the mid sixties - reaching a peak in proliferation on television. There had been a previous period of decline of the 'A' western in the thirties following the financial disaster of The Big Trail (1930). During that time the matinee western flourished with the popularity of a number of western stars, most notably Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, along with the 'B' western on which John Wayne was employed through the thirties. As the above list suggests the 'A' western seemed set for a major revival in 1939 which was cut short by the war.
|Warren Beatty, McCabe and Mrs Miller|
The revisionism of Man of the West and The Searchers, not so much recognised at the time, has become clearer in retrospect. Canyon Passage is nothing if not a revisionist western that passed largely unnoticed at the time. McCabe and Mrs Miller is a key revisionist western that was not successful at the box office. The success, on the other hand, of The Wild Bunch has often marked it as the most influential 'revisionist' western along with Sergio Leone's cycle of baroque westerns; I see Peckinpah's Bunch as more elegiac than revisionist. His blend of the elegiac in the relationship between McCrea and Scott and the baroque sequences at the mining camp in Ride the High Country, together with Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid seem more to the point in this context.
To conclude with an unanswered question that of the role of the western in American gun culture: the myth of the rule of the gun - what is reflection, what catalyst?
* The B western ranges widely from basic recycling of conventions to innovative renovations like the Ranown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, three westerns - The Brass Legend, Valerie and Fury at Showdown - directed by Gerd Oswald and The Naked Dawn (Edgar G Ulmer).