WHEN WESTERNS WERE KING
No genre of film, television or literature has been more loved, nor has any had a greater influence on American culture and values
Westerns were the dominant genre in film for the first sixty years. If I were to list the top directors and actors of that period, half of them worked in westerns: John Ford, John Wayne, Howard Hawks, Jimmy Stewart, John Houston, Gary Cooper, Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, William Wyler, Gregory Peck, Glen Ford, Henry Fonda - the list is endless.
In television, westerns dominated for the first three decades. If I were to list the top television shows during that period, most of them were westerns: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, The Rifleman - again, the list is endless.
It wasn't until the eighties that westerns began to wane in popularity, and that is probably because they were supplanted by sci-fi adventures such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back To The Future. But, if you study those films, you'll notice that they contain the same elements as a western. Indiana Jones, for example, is nothing more than a western set in the late 1930's. Star Wars is a western set in space. Back To The Future is a western set in the 1950's. As a matter of fact, the third and last installment in the Back To The Future series - and some say the best - is set in the old west.
The elements that make a good western are the same ones that make any film good. If you can master those elements, you will have mastered good filmmaking.
What does it take to make a good western? Well, there's a good guy trying to uphold the law, there's a bad guy trying to break the law, and there's a woman caught in the middle. Those are the basic elements.
One of the things that make westerns appealing is that often men have to make their own laws. There may be no formal laws or lawmen. For example, on a cattle drive, the cattle boss makes his own laws. He is a dictator, much like a captain on a ship. In Howard Hawk's 1948 film Red River - which some have likened to Mutiny On The Bounty - John Wayne is the absolute ruler over his men. Like Captain Bligh, Wayne's authority is challenged because he is making some bad decisions, won't listen to reason, and intends to execute a few of his men. The one who finally stops him is a younger man he has always treated like a son, played by Montgomery Clift. Clift takes the herd away from him and sets off in a new direction, leaving Wayne behind. The final showdown, when they meet up again, is terrific.
Another thing that's appealing about westerns is that they typically deal with good and evil in a clear, well-defined way. In King Vidor's 1946 film Duel In The Sun, Gregory Peck plays the wild younger son of Lionel Barrymore, whom he proudly takes after, and who stomps around the countryside like he owns it. He represents undisciplined, unbridled sin. His older brother, played by Joseph Cotton, is a good-hearted lawyer who takes after his mother, Lillian Gish. He represents justice and doing what's right. Jennifer Jones plays a young, voluptuous Spanish woman both men have set their eye on. She is torn between the two brothers, and between being a good girl and being a bad one. It's a strong allegory for the way good and evil struggle in the same person, in the same family, and in the same community.
Another thing that's appealing is that westerns embody the spirit of manhood. There is a lot of machismo in westerns. It is represented by the wildness of the horses they ride, the dangerousness of the guns they tote, the hardness of the lifestyle they live. In westerns, the heroes have to make hard, grown-up decisions. Often a town's - and even a territory's - future is at stake. And he always has to think about more than just himself: there's the woman he loves, and usually a lot of other lives to consider. Often, the people that love him want him to quit and save himself. But he knows he can't do that. He has a job to do, and he won't be able to live with himself if he doesn't do it.
High Noon, Fred Zinnemann's 1952 masterpiece with Gary Cooper, is a good example of that. When newly married and newly sworn-in sheriff Cooper hears that a gang of gunslingers is arriving in town at noon to settle an old score, he turns to the town for help; but they're all too scared. His new bride, played by Grace Kelly, begs him to leave town and save himself. She even threatens to leave him if he stays. But Cooper knows what he must do. The ticking clock and a powerful score accompany the mounting suspense as the inevitable showdown approaches. There has never been a better gunfight, and it is imitated wonderfully in the modern western Silverado.
Westerns cut to the essence of what life is about. There are no politics or other false social institutions in a western to camouflage the truth. If there are, they are quickly shown up for the charlatans they are. It is a strange mix of playground ethics and grown-up reality. It is relationships in their simplest and most basic forms.
In the 1956 film The Searchers - which many consider to be John Ford's and John Wayne's greatest western - Natalie Wood plays a young woman who is captured by Indians after her family has been massacred. Now her uncle, played by Wayne, is bent on revenge. He is accompanied in his search for the girl by Jeffrey Hunter, a half-breed who has been adopted into Wayne's family. Wayne becomes so obsessed with finding the girl, that Hunter is not sure whether he intends to rescue her or kill her for being defiled by savages. This is one of Wayne's darkest and most powerful performances, and some of Ford's most beautiful visions of the West.
Character is always what is at stake in a western. Not money, not love, not power - although those are always involved. But what it comes down to is, are you a man or a coward? In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - another Ford masterpiece, this time from 1962 starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance - when Stewart arrives in town, he is immediately marked as a coward. (The Big Country, William Wyler's 1958 western starring Gregory Peck, is similar.) As a lawyer, Stewart just wants to see justice prevail in the West without resorting to guns. But everywhere he goes, he runs into Liberty Valance: a notorious bully that no one except John Wayne is willing to stand up to. Time and again, Valance makes a fool out of Stewart. Pretty soon, he's hurting and killing Stewart's friends, so that he has no choice but to face him in a shootout. But who actually ends up shooting Liberty Valance?
Part of the reason westerns focused so much on the character of the protagonist is because the men who made them were themselves men of character. We still get some of that in the "sci-fi westerns" that dominate the screen today; but not so much because the men and women who make these films don't have the same stake in character that their predecessors had. In sci-fi westerns like Star Wars, there is a desire to save the universe - the now tread-bare theme of all sci-fi films - but mostly there is a desire just to survive. Indiana Jones isn't really trying to do anything noble - he just wants to acquire the next artifact. There is a lot of selfishness in sci-fi westerns, reflecting the overall selfishness of the present age. There is also a certain lack of manliness in the men, reflecting the influence of feminism on our present culture.
I doubt if we will ever return to the great age of westerns, any more than we will ever return to the great age of musicals - another staple of early sound films - simply because we are a different people with different values. I do think, however, that the elements that made westerns so popular for so long will always be present in films that speak to the best qualities in audiences. People want films that speak to their best qualities. That is why westerns dominated films for so long, and why westerns will always be with us in some form, as long as there are filmmakers concerned with character.
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