Wednesday 15 November 2017

The Western - Bruce Hodsdon ponders its landmarks from silents to the 70s and beyond

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
The realisation of new stories or old ones told in new ways in popular genres is subject to the test of audience acceptance. On this criterion The Great Train Robbery (1903) in which Bronco Billy Anderson appeared for the first time would assume number one spot as marking the birth of the western in the cinema. Bronco Billy went on to become the first western star from 1907-19 playing in (and also directing) hundreds of one and two reelers, his career overlapping with that of Tom Mix who was launched as a western star in 1911. However William S. Hart's' feature Hell's Hinges (1916), in its moral dimension, might be seen as the real birth of the genre.

William S Hart, Hell's Hinges
What follows are westerns selected on the basis that they were, like Hell's Hinges, both path breaking and influential in generating even inspiring follow-up films thematically and/or formally contributing to the evolution of the western. My examples: in 1923:The Covered Wagon (the epic wagon train western); 1924:The Iron Horse ('historical' western epic); 1929: In Old Arizona (introduction of sexuality in the western - thanks Raoul), Overland Bound (leading the B western revival*); 1932: Law and Order (the town western); 1939: Jesse James ( the 'biopic' western - the majority outlaw centred), Destry Rides Again (the western parody), Stagecoach ('adult' characterisation and ambience), Drums Along the Mohawk (the settler western); 1943:The Ox Bow Incident (social issues 'anti-western'); 1947: Red River (cattle drive and cattle baron westerns); 1948: Fort Apache (cavalry); 1950: The Gunfighter (elegiac), Broken Arrow (pro-Indian), Winchester 73 (revenge); 1951: Across the Wide Missouri (frontier trapper); 1952: High Noon (a man alone); 1954: Vera Cruz ('professional' outsiders), Johnny Guitar (the baroque western); 1962: Ride the High Country (the 'post' western); 1966: A Fistful of Dollars (the spaghetti western), The Shooting (an existential western).

This amounts to something like a short summary of the genre's evolution to c1970.

John Wayne, The Big Trail
The western had a central role in the birth of Hollywood with many hundreds of one and two reelers being produced in the teens - launching pads for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh.

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 late sixties and seventies is most often seen as the beginnings of the revisionist western. The question is whether the western has ever ceased revising itself ? Way back in 1916 Hell's Hinges could be seen either as revisionist or the birth pangs of the genre. 

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.
Fast forward to the primordial west, Deadwood, on long form tv.

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).

Reference source: The Western ed. Phil Hardy 1983
Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, crucial part of the Ranown cycle

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