The Western Story – Part 2: Beyond the Frontier

Over time, the Western films of Hollywood expanded outwards. Many were made in Europe by Italian and Spanish directors (Spaghetti Westerns). Some were adaptations of Japanese Samurai films (The Magnificent Seven). Some were set in Mexico and required drugs to understand (El Topo). Even Communist Eastern Europeans were fond of making their own Westerns that held a more sympathetic views towards Native Americans (Osterns). All in all, the Western spawned many sub-genres and it influenced other stand-alone genres, most notably Science Fiction – would John Carpenter’s 1980s classics such as Escape From New York, The Thing or They Live have been possible without Howard Hawks’ Westerns? The frontier was not the frontier any more – there were multiple frontiers. You could say that Westerns changed for the better and shook off that stubborn conservative coat. Not everyone could abide by the Western myth that had been created by the Hollywood studios and backed profusely by political powers. Beyond the Western myth, there were stories of harsh winters and things not working out. There were stories of women. There were stories of the marginalised. And there were also stories of Indigenous peoples.

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The harshness of the mountains

The sun-drenched plains and scorching desert of the American interior became synonymous with the Western. It became so much so that it was easy to forget that the United States also had a snowy, northern frontier, mainly marked by the great Rocky Mountains (thanks John Denver!). For practical and commercial reasons, it was not easy for cast and crew to traipse up to the colder parts of the country back in the day. Keeping close to the Hollywood studios was more desirable. Cold, depressing landscapes was also not compatible with the Western mythology. But that all changed with pioneering filmmakers in the late 1960s and 70s. Robert Altman was one of those. He gained feverish respect for changing the course of American cinema with a more expressive and challenging vision of his country and its history. It started with the mad-cap anti-war satire M.A.S.H. in 1970, and was followed by the Revisionist Western, McCabe & Mrs Miller in 1971.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is one of those films that feels like no other and yet strikes you with a familiarity of old Westerns. It’s an utterly masterful film, full of unforgettable performances, Leonard Cohen poems/songs, and directed with a genius hand by Altman. But above everything else, the cold, desolate setting allows its remarkable and often comical story to thrive. Altman reconstructs a turn-of-the-century frontier town in Washington State, which is growing due to the boom of mining in the vicinity. Warren Beatty plays a mysterious gambler and business man who arrives in the town and quickly establishes a brothel with the no-nonsense Mrs Miller (played by the magnificent Julie Christie). But McCabe’s past and the suspicion of the townsfolk stalks him at every corner. The opening scene sets it all up perfectly:

The pattern of ‘Winter Westerns’ continued throughout the 70s. The blonde buccaneer Robert Redford, fresh from hamming it up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), headed to the upper reaches of Utah in 1972 with director Sydney Pollack to film the true story of Jeremiah Johnson. The Rocky Mountains plays an extra in this film, where Johnson, a Mexican War vet, leaves the world behind to see out a life of self-subsistence and trapping animals. The harshness of the landscape is beautifully captured by Pollack and the viewer cannot help but feel the cold coming through the screen throughout. The film was no doubt an influence on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), itself a latter day ‘Winter Western’. A good example of the effectiveness of setting in Jeremiah Johnson is shown here, when he first meets the Grizzly Hunter “Bear Claw”:

The women of the West

The role of women in early Westerns were mostly thankless and stereotypical, and in themselves became part of the mythology. They were known as dames, destined to be John Wayne’s love interest or wife, or else they were prostitutes with fiery personalities working at the local saloon/brothel and making eyes at John Wayne’s sidekick. Rarely did the roles change or become nuanced. Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande for example, plays Wayne’s estranged wife, who tries to stop their 15 year old son from entering into the Civil War even though the father, an Army Sergeant, does not agree. In the end, the son stays in the Army and O’Hara is so overcome by her husband’s charms so much that they rekindle their love for one another! The exceptions are few and far between, but they are there if you look close enough. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is one shining example, containing not one but two strong female characters.

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Of course, Nicholas Ray was no stranger to mixing things up. He was an extremely gifted and influential director, and mainly made noir movies. But with Johnny Guitar he arguably made a post-modern Western masterpiece. And it has one of the greatest female actors of all time (Joan Crawford) giving one of the greatest performances her career as a saloon owner called Vienna (ah, Vienna!). Pity then that the title of the film is dedicated to the supporting male actor, Sterling Hayden. But Hayden is great in this too. The film is remarkable for its ambiguity around who is hero and villain, and who has had romantic pasts with who. Vienna casts a vindictive and nasty presence throughout, but perhaps there is a legitimate reason for that. Then there is the wild-fire Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge) who despises Vienna for some reason and wants her dead. The film is very obviously noted for the power that the two women wield. It is raw, emotive, intense and much stylised. The sexual tension between Crawford and Hayden (they were having an off-screen affair), and Crawford and McCambridge (they often clashed off-screen) is simmering. It’s a must-see:

Before the underlying sexuality of Johnny Guitar, there was Duel in the Sun, a 1946 technicolour film from King Vidor and David O. Selznick, starring Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones. The awesomeness of Jones had been established in earlier films, but her striking portrayal of an Indigenous orphan called Pearl, who grows up in a large cattle ranch across the border in the US, captured the imagination. The film was nicknamed ‘Lust in the Dust’, which really overlooks the deeper and darker elements explored here. Pearl is an eternal outsider in a white man’s world – she is lusted after for her exotic beauty and ‘untamed’ nature, and she is never accepted by the cattle ranch patriarch because of her ethnicity. To make matters worse, she is raped by the cattle rancher’s renegade son (Peck), and they are both outcast. The relationship between the two envelops the rest of the film. It is all a bit odd trying to make sense of it nowadays, particularly Jones’ brown-face, but it is her compelling lead performance as a ‘femme-fatale’ that stands out:

Portrayal of Indigenous Americans

The Western genre has woefully neglected the stories and culture of Indigenous peoples across the land that now makes up the United States. Indeed, Western films particularly of the early Hollywood era and right up until the 1970s perpetuated a stereotype of Native Americans – the degrading colloquial term ‘Injan’ becoming a household moniker for Native Americans simply because of its widespread use in film. Ford’s Westerns in particular rarely offered empathetic portrayals of Native Americans, instead presenting us with shadowy, violent figures with tomahawks and an appetite for white women.

The so-called Revisionist or Anti-Western, however, did take root in the mid-1960s (in tandem with widespread protests across the US on the Vietnam War) and those films sometimes offered an alternative, more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. Little Big Man was the first serious Hollywood film to subvert the usual placement of US Cavalry and cowboys as the heroes, and instead have them as villains. Arthur Penn’s 1970 epic told the story of a white man (played by Dustin Hoffman) who was raised in the Cheyenne tribe of the Great Plains during the 19th Century. The film utilised Indigenous actors, including Chief Dan George who gives a nerve-tingling speech to the gods prior to his death in this scene:

Richard Harris took centre stage in Elliot Silverstein’s 1970 epic A Man Called Horse, but the film also focused on the life and culture of the Sioux people and the threat of Western Civilisation. It was set in 1825, when a rich Englishman is captured by Sioux warriors whilst out hunting in the Dakotas. Despite initially being repulsed by the tribe, the man becomes sympathetic towards them and is indoctrinated into their culture. The film appears very dated now, and some would say very condescending and white-centric in its depiction of Indigenous law and custom (a Greek model and an Australian stage actress both play Sioux women in the film). But it would have been very progressive at the time and there are some very good scenes:

By the time Kevin Costner got around to making his 4-hour epic Dances with Wolves in 1991, the Western had become a thing of the past. But astonishingly, with A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man as notable exceptions, Hollywood had neglected to seriously adapt a story about the frontier that truly appreciated the once thriving Indigenous populations, their culture and their language. Not only that, but rarely was there a film that examined the effect that colonialisation and warfare had on the natural environment. Dances with Wolves is overly long, probably widely inaccurate, and at times self-indulgent on Costner’s part (he appears to be a ‘white saviour’ to the Sioux). But it does manage to take culture and nature pretty seriously. It is also a beautiful film to witness on the big screen, complimented greatly by Dean Semlar’s superior photography and John Barry’s life-affirming score:

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