Americans like to think Western movies are about their history, and they therefore cherish them greatly. But the Western was in fact an early construct of dramatic motion pictures. Edwin S. Porter directed a short film in 1903 called The Great Train Robbery. This was a milestone in film making because it established action on screen and became the first recognisable Western film. It had cowboys, horses and lots of smoking guns. However, one thing it did not have in huge quantities was the truth. It was based on an earlier stage play and embellished a story about a renowned thief called Butch Cassidy. The Western would go on to embellish further stories from the early United States, particularly from the post-Civil War period. These stories would see a creation of myth around a thing called the Wild West. This was invariably a savage, untamed land that was rampant with blood-thirsty ‘Indians’ and wayward, dangerous outlaws. Enter heroic, gun-toting men on horseback with a plan for law and order and an upholding of the American Constitution. It was not always presented in such a straight-forward way as this, but that was generally the gist until Westerns started to be revised in the 1960s and 1970s. That is also not to say that the Western genre is not home to some of the most incredible cinematic features ever produced. Notwithstanding a lot of bullshit, Western films can often be amazing to watch.
SPOILER ALERT – some of the videos featured here give away significant details of the films discussed.
The wide expanse of the frontier
For me, the most powerful aspect of classic Westerns has always been the remote location settings. The wide expanse of the Western frontier. The vast vistas of the natural terrain. There is something intoxicating and all-consuming in its beauty, especially when presented in widescreen and technicolour during the heady days of Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. The most recognisable name in mastering these vistas on celluloid was of course John Ford, the legendary director of over 150 films between 1917 and 1970. There are numerous examples of Ford’s masterful use of the landscape in his Westerns (Stagecoach, Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon), but none more so effective than the opening of The Searchers (1956).
A door is opened by a woman leading us outside to the sun-drenched desert plain in front of her. The plain is dwarfed by massive mesa formations in the distance. Max Steiner’s violin score mournfully strains on the soundtrack. The woman then shades her eyes to peer a man on horseback arriving in the foreground. This is Ethan Edwards (played with trademark masculine chauvinism by John Wayne), who is returning to his brother’s cabin after spending several years away fighting on the losing side in the Civil War. It is one of the great ‘setting the scene’ moments in Hollywood history. And as much as it is noted for the introduction of one of the most compelling characters in the Western canon, it is too memorialised for the thunderous beauty of Monument Valley, Utah shimmering in the background.
Man enters with a horse and gun
In the early days, the Hollywood Western was simply about the thrill and the adventure. John Ford knew it, Howard Hawks knew it, Anthony Mann knew it and so did Budd Boetticher. There were always three simple ingredients added to the mixture: a man, a horse and a gun. Most of the great Westerns of the 1940s and 50s immediately began with just these three things in the frame. In Boetticher’s 1959 classic Ride Lonesome for example, we are transported to the mesmerising rock formations at Lone Pine, California where a desperate-looking Randolph Scott skulks after a fugitive with a gun in his hand and a horse by a lead. Everything is set up. We have a character to follow, and he has a gun for protection and a horse to get around. The film (and that scene) is admirably discussed here by Martin Scorsese:
The horse is of course a major part of the Western – where would John Wayne or James Stewart be without a horse to ride? They would never be as formidable-looking, that’s for sure. Horses, although often exploited and treated cruelly by Hollywood, were established as a key part of many Westerns. There is a brilliant, comedic scene in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), where a number of Cavalry soldiers are shown how to ride a horse but chaos descends when many of them appear to not have a clue. The scene features Ford favourites Victor McLaglen and Hank Worden.
While John Wayne appeared in many John Ford Westerns as a soldier, it was Howard Hawks who propelled his legend further as a no-nonsense, gun-toting cowboy-type determined to do things his way. Red River is one of his finest hours in this type of role. The best scene, however involves Montgomery Clift (playing Wayne’s adopted son) and John Ireland discussing and playing with their guns, as if they are physical extensions of their bodies (it is an early cinematic example of a ‘dick-measuring’ competition):
Then you have the combination of guns and horses, put to spectacular use by John Ford in his 1939 film Stagecoach. With Monument Valley as the dramatic backdrop, a stagecoach of settlers is set-upon by Apaches. A fugitive named Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne) furiously defends the passengers and driver with a shotgun as the stagecoach hurtles through the sand and dust. Even after 80 years, this scene still has the ability to thrill audiences, even if the depiction of Native Americans is of a negative stereotype.
The hustle and bustle
The ‘town’ in the old Westerns are also something of a mythical nature. Even Deadwood, a revisionist Western HBO series (2004-2006) based on some truth, featured a town that had all the hallmarks from these older films: the saloons, the brothels, a church, a hotel, a jailhouse, stables and plenty of people walking around seeking their fortune. In cinematic history, there has never been a bettered single-shot scene showing a Western town in all its glory than in Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon A Time in the West:
Here, a beautiful woman named Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) returns to a burgeoning town called Flagstone to meet with her family, who unbeknownst to her have recently been massacred. As the train grinds to a halt (signifying the end of the line, and hence, the frontier), the sounds of the arriving people gives way to Ennio Morricone’s score, which at first is calm and measured but then soars as the camera lifts over the train station, presenting a bustling town before an unsure and confused Jill. It is without doubt the most amazing and spine-tingling pieces of cinema ever shot.
We can also look to Howard Hawk’s fun thrill-ride Rio Bravo (1959) for some effective uses of the old Western townscapes. In one of the best Western casts, John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson all collaborate together in the town of Rio Bravo, Texas, to keep a man in custody whilst coming under siege from the prisoner’s gang. The bottled town setting is tailor-made for lots of saloon drinking, brawls, poker, gunfights, and some sexual tension between Wayne’s town Sheriff and a stunning Angie Dickinson:
The duels and the shootouts
Shoot-outs indeed are the staple of many Westerns, and are particularly utilised in the climaxes of films. And there is no better climax (in any genre of film) than in the astonishing final duel from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). It gives me goosebumps just mentioning it. The twist and turns in this majestic piece of film-making reaches a head when the three main characters played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach all come to a Civil War graveyard where their cherished pot of gold is supposed to be buried. An unforgettable three-way shoot-out to the clicks, strains and trumpets of Morricone’s other-worldly score follows, and it is absolutely breath-taking:
Director Sam Peckinpah was known for his unrelenting violence on camera, and he was no stranger to misogyny. Along with Leone, he brought Westerns into a bloodier future in the 1960s and 70s. Some may regard Peckinpah’s films to be distasteful, gratuitous and mostly revenge-driven, and I would not argue with that. But he did make great works of cinema. This shootout in his 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a case in point. Garrett (played by a snarling James Coburn) is joined by the Sheriff (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) in an attempt to arrest members of Billy the Kid’s gang but it soon turns into a deadly shoot-out. Bob Dylan (who features in the film) provides the soundtrack with his soulful Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. And that makes this scene all the more worthwhile!
The heroes and villains
Of course, in Westerns, there are always good guys and bad guys. In earlier films, there was never even any ambiguity. Rarely did the good guys have bad pasts, and rarely did the bad guys have good pasts. They were straight-up villains who inevitably would end up shot by the good guy. In George Steven’s Shane (1953) for example, the fresh-faced Alan Ladd is the titular hero who is fast on the trigger, and the block-faced Jack Palance is the villainous hired hand of a ruthless cattle baron sent to intimidate a small town in Wyoming. That scene where hero and villain come face-to-face in the local saloon, where a dog walks out the door and a kid watches under a table, is the stuff of legend:
An even better moment of hero vs villain comes in John Ford’s later classic The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1963). In order to take stakes up a notch, Ford cast both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart as competing heroes. Lee Marvin is the titular villain Liberty Valance, who runs riot in the town of Shinbone by suppressing the influence and authority of Stewart’s law practice. Wayne teams up with Stewart, but both men are at odds with the use of violence to deal with Valance’s threat. In the end, the drama reaches its peak in a street duel between the shaky Stewart and a toying Lee Marvin:
The early nineties saw a resurgence in Westerns, with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven cleaning up at the Oscars in 1993. That film pitted Eastwood, a gruff and lonesome widower with a shady past, against Gene Hackman’s corrupt Sheriff. It was unlikely hero against unlikely villain. The climax of the film is reached when Eastwood gate-crashes Hackman who is assembling his followers at the saloon to go out and hunt him down. Eastwood’s first question to the un-expecting posse is: ‘who’s the fella who owns this shithole?’ It is a fantastic moment in a fantastic film:
Part 2: Beyond the Frontier to follow…