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Western Movies Since 1960

Essay by review  •  October 31, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,818 Words (12 Pages)  •  1,316 Views

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A NOT-SO-ACCURATE prophet once wrote, "As recently as 1972, there were a tremendous number of quality Westerns being made . . . and since there seems to be a ten-year cycle in Western movie making, I'd say we'll see more in about 1982." 1 In 1982 only two Westerns were released, and neither was exactly a major success. Barbarosa, starring Willie Nelson, drew some respectable reviews-and some very damaging ones-but nobody went to see the film. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez appeared first on PBS television, then later went into general release. Today the Western seems to be deader than the California Med-fly. Critics and aficionados of the form can only hear, as with Arnold's sea of faith, its long receding roar.

Everything except fluoride in the water has been blamed for the death of the Western. Even critics themselves have come under attack of late. Stephen Tatum, writing in 1983, called critics such as Brian Garfield and Don Graham "shootists," indicting them for a variety of sins. They are said to hold a "fundamentalist," transcendent conception of the Western. They are "redeemer" critics who wish to stop the clock, deny history, and halt the inevitable evolution of genres. Not only that, Garfield and Graham are moreover accused of being "authoritarian" and suspiciously close to the "moral majority" position.'

It seems quite possible, however, that the roots of the Western's decline lie deeper than in the likes and animadversions of benighted critics. The Western has lost its audience. An entire generation of moviegoers has seen one big-screen Western in their lives, and that, sadly, is Blazing Saddles (1974). For this generation, who as children were glutted with television Westerns, such a legacy makes the Western an impossible form. Blazing Saddles is the final debunking of a long tradition and exposes the Western's moral preachiness, its presumed insensitivity to blacks, reds, women, and other minorities, its good-guy-bad-guy schematic oppositions. Blazing Saddles took the Western into the terrain of the scatological, and from that defamation, nothing could be regained for an entire generation. By the early 1980s, the Western seemed hopelessly irrelevant to the largest share of the moviegoing audience-the teen market. How could it ever compete with the simpleminded eighth-grade prurient voyeurism of Porky's, the futuristic and infantile fantasies of Star Wars, the primal fears of Jaws I, II, III, etc. ? Obviously it couldn't. For all subsequent generations, then, the Western has to be rediscovered, like some store of ancient literature one studies in school.

Reviewing the last twenty-five years of the Western, 1960-1985, is salutary for both aficionados and novices. The sixties began with a great film done in the sparest, most austere classical manner, Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station (1960). The last of the Renown cycle of seven films that Boetticher made with Randolph Scott, Comanche Station reduces the elements of the journey Western to create one of its purest expressions ever. Scott is an aging knight, a man "always alone in Comanche country," who, reminiscent of John Wayne's searcher, hunts endlessly for his wife, taken ten years previously by the Comanches. He buys a woman out of captivity-not his wife, of course, whom he will never find-and escorts her back to her husband. The journey pits him against a charming, evil adversary (Claude Akins), and the trip becomes the occasion for a moral dialectic of the kind for which the Western seems the perfect vehicle. In the end the villain adopts Scott's code, dying honorably, and Scott delivers the wife to her husband. He turns out to be a blind man, a fact that surprises and pleases because all through the film we have worried, along with Scott, about what kind of man would leave such a woman to another's care. It is a great film, and anybody wanting to know what the old-time Western was about would do well to review all of the Boetticher-Scott Westerns.

Boetticher's films froze the genre in a timeless frontier world, but the seminal films of the decade did something quite different; they announced the end of the West. That became the great theme all through the 1960s. Five films from the 1961-63 period are of particular note. The first was a highly literary Western, The Misfits (1961), written for the screen by Arthur Miller from a short story by the same title. Typical of things to come, The Misfits played off the integrity of the old-time cowboy against the confusion, hysteria, and corruption of the industrial age. The wild mustang ponies, now greatly reduced in number and used for the manufacture of dog food, poignantly symbolized the despoliation of the natural wilderness and anticipated the "ecological" Westerns of the future, including The Electric Horseman (1978), a film deeply indebted to another early sixties Western as well, Lonely Are the Brave (1962). Like The Misfits, Lonely Are the Brave was based upon a literary source, Edward Abbey's novel The Brave Cowboy. Kirk Douglas's rendition of Abbey's hero, a modern, ironic version of the lone cowboy Shane, contained some bleak poetry and much nostalgic counterpointing of one era with another. Thus, early in the film Douglas sits astride his cow pony, and in the background, framing and bulking the composition, is a high mound of compressed automobile chassis. This film, like the novel, wears its western sympathies on its sleeve, and there is nothing subtle about the opposition symbolized by the difference between the brave cowboy, emblem of an older, saner time, and the pathetic figure of modern man, expressed unforgettably in Carroll O'Connor's harried truckdriver whose cargo is a load of toilet bowls.

Nineteen sixty-two also saw John Ford's next-to-last Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, drawn from Dorothy Johnson's fine short story of the same title. A highly self-conscious film, full of self-reference to the Fordian canon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance addresses openly such themes as the transformation of the wilderness into a garden. The effect is sometimes as though the script had been co-written by Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx. The greatest Western of this period was Ride the High Country (1962), Sam Peckinpah`s second essay in features and a crowning achievement for its stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Another journey Western, seemingly much indebted to the structure of Boetticher's journey films, Ride the High Country celebrated all the old-time Western values, in the person of McCrea, yet revealed a depth of understanding of the degree to which rigid idealism needs the tempering of pragmatism, represented by Scott's character.

The last of this group of end-of-the-West films



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