From documentary on Great Westerns a History by Rich Hall

  • Iconic: a man or men against a sweeping backdrop on horseback.
  • Man against unforgiving nature or the landscape.
  • The West is an idea – promise – new beginning, the civilising of a continent – a Myth!
  • The cowboy: tough-talking, upstanding, honest – the ideal American.
  • An imagined frontier past.
  • The film era lasted more than twice as long as the real historical period!
  • Old fashioned values – romanticised; where men could be men and women were women!
  • Apparitions of the future.
  • Transitions of the characters from nomadic, rootless to civilised moral men and sometimes back again to preserve the society of the majority.
  • In ‘My Darling Clementine’ the shoot out between Wyatt Earp and the Clantons lasted 4 minutes – nowadays fights need to last longer – they have become the reason for the film – no longer character but action driven.
  • Westerns 7000 since the 1920s – dominant genre in Hollywood in 50s – 20% of Hollywood’s output.
  • Myth meets reality; stock characters. Reinvention of Buffalo Bill etc.
  • Westerns – three stages: incipient: good vs. evil; simple values / classic / the apologist – ‘The Misfits,’ ‘Dances With Wolves.’
  • ‘Shane’ the quintessential Western hero – loner; stands up against the bad guys then having won rides off alone into the sunset.
  • ‘The Searchers’ – John Ford began to kill the genre he’d helped create; an anti-hero, Wayne’s character is in love with his brother’s wife, racist and descends into total obsession turning into that which he hates most.
  • Universal pleasures between Westerns and Film Noir:
    • Good wins over evil    – reaffirms expectations and ideological values
    • Flawed heroes – like real life
    • Nostalgia – the past was a simpler time.
  • Pleasures of Westerns:
    • Scenery
    • Heroes
    • Fighting
    • Flawed heroes
    • Binary oppositions
  • Gunfight is an iconic element in westerns.
  • Individualism and self-reliance lauded values
  • 1959 6 out of the top 7 shows were Westerns
  • 1960 Castro – Cuban communism defied the US
  • 1960 ‘The Magnificent Seven’ painted a rosy picture of US foreign policy regarding their arming of Cuban guerrilla fighters to remove Castro – ultimately though unsuccessful.
  • ‘The Misfits’ directed by John Huston; screen play written by Arthur Miller, paved the way for more highbrow writing.
  • Characters are pure anachronisms.
  • ‘The Misfits’ are all outcasts from society; living on its edge; the men trying to exploit the girl’s vulnerability. No place for noble values; trying to round up horses for dog meat.
  • Characters had been simple – became complex.
  • ‘Hud’ was selfish womanising.
  • John ford’s career spanned 50 years.
  • ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ represents the coming of civilisation; shot mostly indoors. John Wayne as Donovan (representing the old way) teaches James Stewart as Ransom (representing the modern way) that guns are the only way to preserve the freedom of the West and he appears to kill Valance but actually Wayne’s character does and so morality is preserved.
  • Sam Peckinpah introduces a whole new level of violence in the 60s and 70s when the external threat to America was from communism in Asia (Korea and Vietnam.) In 1969 ‘The Wild Bunch’ represents his view of an evil world disguised as a Western. Man can be an animal – evil not heroic. Brutality of the conflict; a gunfight is nasty not glorious. He slow motioned the violence in choreographed way to make the audience complicit in its repellent realism.
  • Sergio Leone reinvented Westerns – Spaghetti Westerns – filmed in Spain, created a parody of itself. ‘The Good The Bad and The Ugly’ introduced a new star Clint Eastwood.
  • ‘High Plains Drifter’ starring and directed by Eastwood.
  • In ‘The Man With No Name’ directed by John Ford Tombstone (the town) became dystopian.
  • In ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ directed by Robert Altman – grubby exteriors and naturalistic lighting convinced viewers they were watching a real Western. Set in a nascent community struggling to survive McCabe is a pimp and Mrs Miller offers him a partnership to run the local brothel. As time goes on the town becomes more civilised, then the big corporations muscle in. McCabe is sacrificed for the good of the community.
  • 1971 ‘Little Big Man’ portrayed Indians as hippies, free love, spiritual, tolerant human beings. The film was a subtle indictment of the US genocide in Vietnam.
  • 1973 ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ directed by Peckinpah encourages the younger generation to watch by casting young counter culture teen icons and getting Bob Dylan to score the film and lined up old Western stars to play one last cameo as if to echo the decline of the Western.
  • 1974 ‘Blazing Saddles’ was the death knell for the genre
  • 1980 ‘Heaven’s Gate’ the final official Western was a financial loss but there was by now a real cowboy in the White House!!
  • 1992 ‘Unforgiven’ Directed by Eastwood.
  • Genre pleasures for Americans:
    • Identity
    • Reassuring
    • Comfort
    • Culture
    • Ethos
    • History    

 


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