Western Still Riding High After 200 Years
Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
July 20, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs
It is the quintessential American film genre - a reflection of our rugged individualism, unconquerable spirit and the embodiment of our collected mythology. No other body of stories reveal how Americans view themselves or their collective past than the Western.
This year, the Western turns 100.
"Next to the Bible, the Western provided the most direct moral and cultural message in the early days of American cinema," says Robert von Dassanowsky, director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "It was symbolic of a specific national and historical identity that could be used to symbolize the values of the nation."
Dassanowsky cautions that the Western often promulgated racist, sexist and xenophobic ideals that were once accepted but are now reviled, but it also extolled the nation's heroic beginnings, its pioneering spirit, the triumph of men and women over an untamed wilderness, and especially the vanquishing of evil by good.
Jim Kitses, professor of film at San Francisco State University and co-editor of "The Western Reader" says, "The Western is out of fashion as we enter a new millennium, but it is still the national epic and Hollywood's greatest tradition of popular cinema."
It all began with the milestone 10-minute silent film "The Great Train Robbery," the story about a locomotive besieged by thieves. Utilizing innovative cinematic techniques, the film caused audiences to scream in fear and leap from their chairs when the now-famous scenes of the train surging toward the camera or the bandit firing his gun directly at the audience appeared.
For the next several decades, through the silent era and beyond, the Western proved to be an immensely popular staple of moviemaking. Such films as "The Covered Wagon" (1923), Hollywood's first big budget Western epic, and "The Virginian" (1929) began to fill movie houses.
When the great Depression began throttling American morale, Hollywood responded with films that encouraged and bolstered national pride. In 1939 two noteworthy films appeared: John Ford's, "Stagecoach" catapulted a little-known but prolific actor named John Wayne on the road to cinematic immortality, and the comedy "Destry Rides Again" with Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart, as a pacifist town sheriff, proved that burlesque could veil stunning political depth.
The 1930s also birthed a sub-genre that would continue well into the '40s and beyond: the B Western. Filled with faithful steeds, funny sidekicks and lots of singing, the B Western made beloved icons out of such actors as Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and Gene Autry.
During World War II, the Western was the undisputed cinematic king, embodying patriotic ideals of democracy and freedom triumphing in the face of daunting aggression. Some of the finest films of the decade include Howard Hawk's "Red River" (1948) and John Ford's masterpiece, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949), the relentlessly grim "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) and the superlative O.K. Corral flick, "My Darling Clementine" (1946).
The Western faltered philosophically in the 1950s as the clear menace of Nazism was replaced with a far more difficult and chilling enemy - the planetary threat of atomic annihilation. Hollywood's focus shifted to Biblical epics and the burgeoning science fiction genre to better represent the diametric contest between the superpowers.
Although cracks began appearing, the '50s nonetheless produced magnificent films, including what is widely regarded as the greatest Western ever made, "The Searchers" (1956).
Part adventure film, part psychological study, "The Searchers" is about an obsessive quest to save the life of a kidnapped girl from marauding Indians.
Other standouts include "High Noon" (1952), with the indomitable Gary Cooper, "Shane" (1953), "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957), "The Gunfighter" (1950), "Winchester '73" (1950), and "Rio Bravo" (1959).
What ultimately signaled the death knell of the Western genre was the 1960s.
"The collapse of the studio system and the growth of counter- culture messages in independent film were at odds with the establishment messages of the Western and its associated icons," von Dassanowsky says.
Both the darling and the backbone of the film industry, Westerns began falling out of fashion as an increasingly vocal and angry youth movement cast aside the conventions of their parents.
The cowboy hero, once a bastion of morality and virtue, began to take on the darker shades of the non-conformist antihero only hinted at in earlier films. Fine John Wayne films like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965) and "True Grit" (1969) stalled beside the far more gritty Clint Eastwood films, "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1967). Directed by Sergio Leone, these films represented what would come to be known as the "Spaghetti Western," movies made by foreign filmmakers and shot in Spain and Italy.
This is not to say that the decade did not still produce some fabulous films.
"The Magnificent Seven" (1960), the story of seven gunslingers hired to save a Mexican village beseiged by bandits was the first of several Westerns to be based on the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. The delightful "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" hit movie screens in 1969, arguably the best "buddy movie" ever made. That same year, Sam Peckinpah's staggeringly violent and bloody film, "The Wild Bunch" (1969), about a group of aging outlaws, appeared to the praise of audiences young and old.
The spirit of the Spaghetti Westerns continued into the '70s with "High Plains Drifter" (1973) and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), actor/director Eastwood's tributes to Leone. Other noteworthy additions include Dustin Hoffman's "Little Big Man" (1970) and Robert Altman's "Mc-Cabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). The funniest spoof of the genre, Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" opened in 1974 with Cleavon Little starring as a black lawman sent to clean up a town of very surprised white residents.
It is perhaps 1976's "The Shootist" that is the most poignant. John Wayne portrays an old gunfighter dying of cancer. It would be Wayne's last film. Less than three years later the same disease would claim his own life. Nothing would be the same again.
The Western genre imploded as the '80's dawned. In fact, only three noteworthy Westerns were made during the entire decade: the ensemble piece "Silverado" in 1985, the youth-oriented action/ adventure "Young Guns" (1988) and the beloved CBS television miniseries, "Lonesome Dove" (1989) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. The '90s represented an attempt to create more realistic Westerns that dealt openly with race, class and gender as well as the failures of the American West.
"The Western is no longer the property of white male hero," says Kitses, "which is good news."
"Dances with Wolves" (1990) almost single-handedly brought the genre back from the brink. Kevin Costner, director of the film, stars as a Union officer sent to the forlorn Dakota frontier. There he discovers both himself and his Sioux neighbors. A more postmodern sensibility informed Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992), the story of an aging gunfighter trapped in a Western town where the hats aren't black and white anymore.
It's as if Eastwood's character is the embodiment of all of the outlaw characters he ever played. If the dying Western was given a requiem, this was it.
Other memorable films of the '90s include "Quigley Down Under" (1990), "Wyatt Earp" (1994), "Tombstone" (1995) and the comedy "Maverick" (1994).
If the Western genre has functioned as a barometer of America's fitness and a reflection of its historical narrative, then its future cannot be predicted, nor its impact and relevance underestimated.
"As a new era opens, despite some who constantly suggest the genre is dead, it will continue to be a productive source of great American movies," Kitses says.