Monday, September 7, 2009
A Short History Of The Western Genre, And Why The Wild Bunch Was Ahead Of Its Time
Almost as long as there's been narrative cinema, there have been Westerns. The first is generally agreed to be Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery in 1903, a short film in which bandits, well, rob a train. It's one of the earliest examples of cross-cutting, location shooting and camera movement in film, and features one of the most iconic images in film history, the above shot of a gunfighter firing directly into the camera.
Throughout the silent era, Westerns were generally cheap action movies and serials, with stars like Harry Carey, Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Good guys wore white hats and defended weak and innocent townspeople and women from black-hatted outlaws or wild Indians, tropes taken from popular Western fiction novels. Rowdy saloons, gunfights at high noon, wagon trains and stagecoaches under attack were standard. Actual Wild West figures popped up from time to time in Hollywood during the period: Hart was friends with both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Some of the best films of this period were directed by John Ford and were first released on DVD a couple of years ago. The Iron Horse (1924) is a sprawling epic about the building of the transcontinental railroad starring George O'Brien (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans); it was one of the biggest hits of the decade. 3 Bad Men (1926) is about a group of honorable outlaws who protect a young girl from bad guys during the Dakota land rush.
During the 1930s, as sound was adopted and the studio system solidified, Westerns became a reliable source of B-movie programming. John Wayne, after appearing in Raoul Walsh's experimental widescreen film The Big Trail, starred in dozens of these cheap, formulaic films. Westerns occasionally got the prestige treatment: Cimarron, a melodrama set amidst the Oklahoma land rush (a sequence of which Ron Howard copies in Far And Away) directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Richard Dix. won the Best Picture Oscar for 1931, it was the first Western to do so - there wouldn't be a second until 1990. Generally speaking though, the genre characteristics that had formed during the silent era were codified, run into the ground and made cliche in hundreds of pretty bad movies in the 1930s.
In 1939, however, John Ford returned to the genre for the first time since 3 Bad Men and made Stagecoach, one of the most perfect films ever made. Ford assembled all the character types familiar from so many other films (drunken doctor, innocent housewife, gold-hearted prostitute, noble outlaw, Southern gambler, etc), shoved them all in one stagecoach and drove them across the magnificent landscapes of Monument Valley, Arizona. There are bandits and thieves and saloons and an Indian attack complete with cavalry charge. Stagecoach is a summarizing film: it takes all the innovations and ideas and formulas a style of filmmaking has developed over a period of years and mixes them all together in a way that defines a genre, one that is new and fresh without adding anything new: it's greater than the some of it's cliches. The film was a big hit, it received five Oscar nominations and it freed John Wayne from B-movie hell and made him a major star with his iconic performance as The Ringo Kid.
Stagecoach was followed closely by several other prestige Westerns: Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn made Dodge City, Virginia City (1939) and Santa Fe Trail (1940), Raoul Walsh made Dark Command (1940) with Wayne and Claire Trevor, Gene Tierney starred in the terrible Belle Starr: The Bandit Queen (1941), James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich starred in Destry Rides Again (1939), in which Stewart takes a uniquely non-violent, almost Zen-like approach to cleaning up a dusty, outlaw-ridden town. William Wellman directed Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), an anti-lynching film set in the West, think 12 Angry Men with horses. In 1946, Ford made his second sound Western, My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The film codifies what was becoming an obsessive Fordian theme, and by extension came to be a fundamental theme of the Western genre: how civilization came to be formed out of the chaos of the Wild West. Ford had already approached this in Stagecoach (what with its civilization in microcosm approach to character types), but it's given its fullest classical expression in Clementine, where the sheriff seems more interested in building a town than avenging the death of his brother and the film spends more time with the town's celebratory dance than the movie's climatic gunfight.
I'd argue the Revisionist Western period starts soon after, with the first film in Ford's trilogy about the US Cavalry: Fort Apache (1948). If the Pre-Classical period is when the genre's types are created and the Classical when those types are codified, then the Revisionist period is when those types are subverted. With Fort Apache, Ford presents the cavalry as at much, if not more at fault for the ongoing Indian wars as the Indians themselves, subverting one of the genre's key traditions. Henry Fonda plays a Custer-esque Cavalry commander who plunges heedlessly into war with the Apache, a battle he cannot possibly win, against the advice of his experienced second-in-command, John Wayne, who speaks Apache and argues for treating the Indians with honor and justice. After Fonda's disastrous charge, Wayne is interviewed by the newspapers and we see inside the mythmaking process, how the stories we've been told about the West have been used to cover up incompetence and justify imperialism. The later films in the cavalry trilogy back away a bit from the harshness of the critique, but never again did Ford present Indians or the Army, good or evil, in as black and white terms as in Stagecoach.
Also in 1948 was Howard Hawks's first Western, Red River, with Wayne playing against type as a sadistic trail boss on a cattle drive who is overthrown by his adopted son, Montgomery Clift. The film provides an origin story for the capitalist expansion of the late 19th Century (factory workers need beef), and its sublimely disconcerting happy ending fails to overcome what the film has been telling us: that that capitalism was driven by ruthless, murderous men.
In 1950, James Stewart began making a series of Westerns with director Anthony Mann. In each of the movies, Stewart plays against his all-American everyman image as a loner, tortured by his past and relentlessly seeking revenge. Films like The Naked Spur (1953), Bend Of The River (1952), and The Far Country (1954) gave Stewart some of the darkest, and richest roles of his career. Mann had been mostly known as a director of films noirs, and he brought some of that genre's psychological complexity to the Western. Mann also directed Devil's Doorway (1950), one of the most honest and sympathetic films about the Indian experience in the West, told through the eyes of a Shoshone Civil War veteran who is run off his land by an angry mob of white settlers. In 1954, Nicolas Ray directed one of the most twisted of all Westerns, Johnny Guitar, with Mercedes McCambridge as the nice girl in town seeking bloody vengeance on Joan Crawford's bar owner in what appears to be some expression of psychotic sexuality. The film, along with Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957) with Barbara Stanwyck, is unusual in that its main protagonists are women.
Not all Westerns made during this period were, of course, revisionist. George Stevens's Shane (1953) follows the classical formula almost slavishly; while Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) does as well. That film, wherein Gary Cooper stands alone against a gang of outlaws while all the members of his community abandon him, so incensed Howard Hawks that he made Rio Bravo (1959), his greatest Western, as a counter to it. In Hawks's view, a sheriff's job is to police the community and defend it from outlaws, not run whining to the civilians every time there's a job to do. Hawks respected professionalism above most other virtues, and in his version, Sheriff John Wayne is offered and rejects the help from the community that Gary Cooper was so desperate to get. Hawks liked the story so much, he made it two more times with El Dorado (1966) and his final film, Rio Lobo (1970).
John Ford continued to make Westerns throughout the 1950s. His Wagon Master (1950) is a minor masterpiece of classical filmmaking, with a couple of cowboys helping a Mormon wagon train navigate their way West through bad terrain and murderous outlaws. The Searchers (1956), though, is revisionist through and through: a harrowing look at the racism that pervaded the West, as John Wayne's psychotic hero Ethan Edwards hunts down the Comanche tribe that kidnapped his niece, the film exposes both the nihilism of the Wayne hero (in the end he can never be a part of the community he is necessary to create) and the casual racism of the white settlers as a whole. Two Rode Together, which Ford made five years later with James Stewart and Richard Widmark, is an even blunter examination of this same theme, with the settlers, whipped into a frenzy, actually lynching Indians. Perhaps Ford's most revisionist film, however, and one that summarizes much of his life's work, is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the role of mythmaking in the perpetuation of lies about the West is laid bare, as John Wayne's gunfighter hero, Tom Doniphon, loses both the girl and the community to James Stewart's future Senator. The ironic tagline: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Also during this period, the influence of the Western genre spread beyond the US. The most famous and successful director to dabble in the genre was Akira Kurosawa, who transposed it to medieval Japan in films like Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). Seven Samurai was then remade by John Sturges in the US as a Western, The Magnificent Seven (1960), while Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), which made Clint Eastwood a star and launched a cycle of Italian Westerns, set in the US and filmed mostly in Spain with an international cast of actors (Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Eastwood, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski, among others). These were generally noted for their graphic violence, amoral anti-heroes, Ennio Morricone scores and bad dubbing. Leone and Eastwood made two other films together, For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966), each of which pushed the limit of what was acceptable in terms of violence and morality in the genre. As production codes were winding down worldwide, audience's appetite for more realistic gunfighting seemed unquenchable. But still, these films held out some kind of hope for the future. Eastwood's heroes may have been outlaws, but they still retain the kind of code of honor that made civilization possible. Leone's greatest film, Once Upon A Time In The West, is a kind of fusion of the Spaghetti Western's playful violence with the Fordian theme of building civilization out of chaos. In the end, Charles Bronson gets his bloody revenge on Henry Fonda, but more importantly, Claudia Cardinale brings water to the men building the railroad that will ultimately make those gunfighters obsolete.
At the same time, Sam Peckinpah made his first Western, Ride The High Country (1962). It was from a script intended to be directed by Budd Boetcher, who had made a string of very good, low-budget psychological Westerns with Randolph Scott in the 1950s (The Tall T (1957), Seven Men From Now (1956), etc). It's very similar to the kind of film Boetticher made, but Peckinpah was gradually moving in a more visceral direction. With The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah let the violence loose on a scale rarely seen in mainstream film to that point. But not only that, the film is suffused with such a pervading sense of the apocalyptic End Of The West as to eliminate all possibility of future civilization. Where Ford and Leone saw community-building rising from the actions of those who would then be passed by that community, Peckinpah saw only an endless cycle of death and murder. It would be another 20+ years before another director would take this approach to the genre, and then only rarely.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, revisionism reigned as the genre's popularity waned to almost nothing. Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) presented a sanitized, comical view of the West from an Indian's point of view. George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969) pioneered the buddy movie, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a pair of charming thieves that don't really want to kill anyone. Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) shows how a frontier community is built on the twin industries of liquor and prostitution, and ultimately taken down by larger, more ruthless capitalists. Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973) was a darkly comical retelling of Yojimbo, with his gunfighter this time burning the sadistic town to the ground before moving on. Eastwood made his own community-building story with the great The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), as his titular gunfighter can't help but attract a following of helpless people who need defending. In 1985, Lawrence Kasdan made Silverado, a fine film notable for Danny Glover's fine performance as one of the genre's rare major African-American characters. In 1990, Dances With Wolves swept the Oscars with its revisionist telling of the plight of the Sioux Indians. Seen through the eyes of Kevin Costner's white Civil War soldier, the film comes perilously close (some would say goes well over the line) of condescending to the Indians, presenting them as idyllic "noble savages".
In 1992, 23 years after The Wild Bunch, Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven, a brutally violent story of a gunfighter, William Munny who comes out of retirement to hunt down and kill a pair of cowboys who attacked a whore in a hellish town run by a psychotic sheriff (Gene Hackman). This was the first Western to pick up on Peckinpah's thread of the nihilism and endlessness of violence (even his own Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973) was more melancholy than hopeless). It goes about as far as one can go in showing just how horrible a place the pre-civilizing West actually was, and presents little hope about it ever getting any better. Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man takes a trippier approach to just as miserable a world, with Johnny Depp's William Blake shuffled backwards in time and Westwards in space to his final Pacific resting place accompanied only by an Indian named Nobody and Neil Young's haunting score. John Hillcoat's Australian Western The Proposition (2005) continues in this vein, but with even more violence and less hope.
The HBO series Deadwood, however, provides a near-perfect fusion of the muddy violence of these apocalyptic Westerns with the Fordian theme of community building. Creator David Milch fills his fictional town with all the classical character types (saloonkeepers, lawmen, drunk doctors, greedy capitalists, innocent rich women, and so on) and then makes them even darker (the rich woman is actually an opium addict, the sheriff a borderline sociopath, the hotelier a venal toady, etc). Who holds the community together is Al Swearengen, one of the great characters in all of fiction. He begins the series as a scam artist, stealing what money he can from the clueless, organizing the bandits who attack people in the hillsides, stirring up violence against the neighboring Sioux, and not beneath knifing anyone who gets in his way. By the end of the series though, he is the lone force standing in opposition to the greater cruelty of George Hearst's mining operation, a brutal expression of pure capitalism that chews up any community in its path. Deadwood, in a sense, takes Ethan Edwards and William Munny and not only brings them inside the community, but makes them its leading citizen. In this way, he redeems the nihilism that Peckinpah and Eastwood saw in the violent men of the genre by making them merely shades darker than The Man With No Name, Tom Doniphon or The Ringo Kid.