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October 1999, Week 5


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Sun, 31 Oct 1999 11:49:04 -0600
TEXT/PLAIN (89 lines)
Lang Thompson comments:

> >Westerns? There have been only a few great ones made during the last fifty
> >years. Only Shane comes to mind as the "standard" by which all others might
> Thirty years might be more accurate: the 50s were probably the genre's
> high water mark and there were still quite a few "great ones" during the
> 60s from the likes of Ford, Peckinpah, Hawks, etc (& if you want to go
> beyond Hollywood, the spaghetti Westerns were a major contribution and
> extension). You might argue that many of the elements that attracted
> audiences (not the least of which would be young males) is what drives
> action films: good vs. evil, with manly men settling their differences via
> guns and quick wits. (Which means the next big genre will be the singing
> action hero: Bruce Willis and John Travolta have both had hit records
> after all. You heard it on Screen-L first.) Something much harder to
> evaluate would be a declining sense of "the frontier" but which certainly
> can't be dismissed. And as for current Westerns, TNT has had a fair amount
> of success with its string of Westerns.

The whole question needs to be looked at contextually as well as
generically. Western literature, arguably beginning with James
Fennimore Cooper and enshrined as a popular genre in the works of Brett
Harte, Owen Wooster and others, still has its fans, but I would venture
to say that there is no volume of literary production (a source for
many films) that comes close to its heyday under the dime novels
written by Ned Buntline and co. or to the level that can still be found
in other popular genres, such as the detective story or science fiction.

Into the 1950s, westerns accounted (if I remember right) for over half
the films produced in Hollywood (granting that most of these were
forgettable). The "great" (however you define that term) Westerns were
relatively few, and many fans were not taken with the attempts at
psychological or political commentary in the "great" Westerns of the
1950s such as SHANE and HIGH NOON. (But the young directors-manques of
CAHIERS DU CINEMA were more likely to be smitten by an offbeat film

Film production also also slacked off in Westerns in the 1950s because
the genre was transposed to TV. Instead of being in a serial or
bottom-double-bill B picture, Roy Rogers had his own weekly TV show and
Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autrey were recycled on the tube as well.
The 1950s marked a peak of TV Westerns, including THE CISCO KID, WYATT
course GUNSMOKE (the longest running series of all time for a long
time) and such hour-long fare as CHEYENNE and MAVERICK, among many
others. (Look at the conclusion of Bob Hope's comedy THE LEMON DROP KID
for its use of cameos by the stars of many of these TV shows along with
movie stars like Gary Cooper!)

By the 1960s, especially as Vietnam imposed itself on the national
consciousness, many of the assumptions about Manifest Destiny and the
righteousness of violence that were taken for granted in the bulk of
Westerns were no longer viable (including the bloated 1962 Cinerama
epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON). The TV western virtually disappeared by the
end of the decade (but so for the most part had the War Film and TV
shows like COMBAT and THE GALLANT MEN). Hawks was recycling the
orignally-groundbreaking plot and characters of RIO BRAVO and EL DORADO
once again in RIO LOBO. Ford's 1964 film, CHEYENNE AUTUMN, about one
of the most infamous massacres of Native Americans in US history, was
intended in part as an apology for earlier films. Peckinpah was
rubbing audiences' noses in blood and violence while simultaneously
mourning the passing of a way of life. Only Sergio Leone, by returning
to the Western's mythic roots (and employing music and widescreen to
original effect), seemed to be offering a vital new twist to the genre.
Many thought that Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES was the final nail in the
Western's coffin.

They were wrong. But the Western will never be what it was. As Lang
Thompson points out, we can't return to those thrilling days of
yesteryear quite so easily any more, even though there will still be
attempts to do so. In 1939, John Ford could get away with having
STAGECOACH's Doc Boone say that Geronimo was "a nice name for a
butcher!" In 1993, we got *two* not-unsympathetic versions of
Geronimo's life (as well as 2 versions of the Gunfight at the OK
Corral). Lang may be right about the return of the Singing
Western--heaven help us!

Don Larsson

Donald Larsson
Minnesota State U, Mankato
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