America does not own the Western any more than the “real” Westerners do. This is not to deny the special qualities associated with that all-male subculture of genre specialists chiefly responsible for the Western’s greatest glories, described by the screenwriter Burt Kennedy as “a kind of dynasty, to which those New York types who make all the movies nowadays will never belong.” The dynasty was real—as immersed in the conventions of the cowboy picture as a Noh actor in the contemplation of his mask—but it was a dynasty of tricksters and fabricators. They knew all there was to know about how a hero should seem.
Brian Garfield, a writer of Western novels (including the excellent Sliphammer) and author of the knowledgeable but singularly ill-tempered Western Films: A Complete Guide, distinguishes between “New Yorkers and Europeans” on the one hand and real Westerners on the other, among whom he is careful to include “others, not born to the saddle, [who] westernized themselves so thoroughly that—like religious converts—they became more native than the natives themselves”—this latter obviously a crucial category, since it includes John Wayne, John Ford, and Randolph Scott. The reference to religious conversion establishes the zealous undertone of Garfield’s remarks, with their desire to exclude the inauthentic and unworthy from the claim he has staked.
What’s at issue is not so much the right to assert what really happened in history as the right to fool around with history, a right jealously guarded. What actually exists within the protected zone of those who felt themselves privileged to interpret the West turns out, if we look at the biographies of Ford or Peckinpah, to be little more than a boy’s world of drunken brawls and rough practical jokes, John Wayne pouring vodka on Ward Bond’s chest and setting it on fire, or an increasingly sodden and coked-up Sam Peckinpah practicing between takes the manly art of knife throwing. As Louis L’Amour put it, “When you open a rough, hard country, you don’t open it with a lot of pantywaists.” What can the land tamers do then, after the country has been opened, except go to seed or make Westerns?
Random violence and drunkenness suggest the underlying boredom which is the emotional basis of Westerns. They are basically about killing time; they are what there was to do in town, in America, year after year. Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything, a disarmingly direct, utterly unironic look at what makes the genre tick, raises the right kind of questions. Rather than getting caught up in the mare’s nest of historical accuracy, she considers first of all not where the Western gets its images from, but what use readers and viewers make of those images: “One must begin with their impact on the body and the emotions.”
She begins by talking about pleasure and so naturally within a few paragraphs she is talking about pain: the pain of horses, of cattle, of women condemned to powerlessness and men self-condemned to silence and punishment. With reference to Louis L’Amour’s heroes she writes:
It is the ability to endure pain for a long time that saves him…. Protagonists crawl across deserts on their hands and knees, climb rock faces in the blinding sun, starve in snowbound cabins in the mountains, walk or ride for miles on end with all but mortal wounds, survive for long periods of time without water, without shelter, without sleep.
If the Western is in some fundamental sense a meditation on deprivation and suffering, the chief deprivation is emotional. The dryness and rigidity of the Western hero has to do with a refusal to express feeling in words: “The Western itself is the language of men, what they do vicariously, instead of speaking.” Aissa Wayne’s memoir, John Wayne, My Father, chimes in, as if in confirmation: “What made living with my father hard, and unnerving, was that he mostly suppressed what was churning inside him. To his family, he rarely expressed his inner feelings, or even admitted he had them. With all that bottled emotion, its release often came in the form of misdirected rage.”
Tompkins sees the genre as part of a war on women’s words, on the women’s culture of temperance and etiquette and civic responsibility, on nineteenth-century Christian culture as a female stronghold. “The Western doesn’t have anything to do with the West as such…. It is about men’s fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity, both of which the Western tirelessly reinvents.” But of course it isn’t all invention: Westerns invent very little, tending rather to reenact the tensions and anxieties that define the universal male culture of playgrounds, locker rooms, army barracks, and prison yards. If the Western hero is on the run, it isn’t only from women but also from the aggression of other men.
The openness of the wide open spaces serves as a means of protection. The western landscape is a place where the hero can get lost, hide out forever from everything, starting with language. (Tompkins speaks of the desert as “the place where language fails and rocks assert themselves.”) It may be hard for generations who have grown up in a world without Westerns to realize how much the childish perception of landscape was formerly colored by the Western’s use of forest, canyon, and mesa. Cowboy pictures provided an education in what space is for.
Or rather they repackaged an education initiated by generations of explorers, like John Wesley Powell writing in the Grand Canyon: “After dinner we pass through a region of the wildest desolation.” The marketing of wilderness, with Indians removed and guard rails in place, opened up a new space for fantasy in the minds of consumers. The extraordinarily popular fiction of Zane Grey used real locations as the basis for a world as fantastic as Tolkien’s, a misty kingdom given over to “the flutter of aspen-leaves and the soft, continuous splash of falling water.”
Grey’s titles alone convey the dreamlike quality of his books: The Wanderer of the Wasteland, The Light of Western Stars, Stairs of Sand, Valley of Wild Horses. In Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) he conjures up a Surprise Valley in which hero and heroine can become Adam and Eve again, and seal the transformation by literally sealing themselves in the valley, rolling a giant rock down the mountain to cut off the only egress. The escape from history could not be more complete, nor would it ever be so complete again. Zane Grey represents a romantic height from which the genre has been devolving ever since. As Jane Tompkins points out, “the land is never represented in Westerns in this way again…. In the Western novels and movies that succeed Grey’s, the landscape hardens.”
Landscape makes Westerns look different from other movies, and location shooting gives an epic spaciousness to otherwise small-scale pictures like The Naked Spur (1953) and Ride Lonesome (1959). The obligatory vistas, whether of keelboats going up the Missouri (The Big Sky) or of canoes skirting the Everglades (Distant Drums), are often reason enough to watch a film, and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves acknowledges this by allowing landscape to assume virtual creative control. Yet for the most part Western movies have had little real use for wilderness or exploration. They never linger long enough, not even John Ford’s movies; they are always in too much of a hurry to get back to the closed human worlds of the fort, the town, the mining camp, the stagecoach station.
The classic Western is customarily less epic than it is a study in claustrophobia and repetition, offering not wide open spaces but dead ends, the canyons and defiles of ambush, the mesa beyond which there’s nowhere else to hide, the alleys and stables where men on the run are cornered. “They’ve got this whole town boxed up.” Open space being lyrical rather than dramatic, the Western’s formal problem becomes one of making space ever tighter and narrower.
Just as the figures are hemmed in by their landscape, they are caught within their rather limited behavioral rules. There are no corners to hide in, no room to back up: the aesthetic of the prison yard again. It is a system of traps where there is really only one plot: the man whose hand is forced, who must shoot to kill. If he were simply free and strong and able to go wherever he liked there would be no story.
The title of a 1970s horror movie makes explicit the underlying menace of Westerns: The Hills Have Eyes, whether they belong to cattle rustlers or thirst-crazed army deserters dragging a load of gold bullion through Death Valley or a Comanche raiding party. “When you can’t see ‘em, they’re lookin’ at you” (Run of the Arrow, 1956). The Western hero has little real freedom, since he must forever watch his back and keep an eye on the rimline. The landscape is a book full of ominous coded messages: embers, broken twigs, suspicious bird calls.
The country where masked men ride is itself a mask. Or it is a painted face: the face of the Indian suddenly looming up out of the underbrush, a favorite shot in the 1950s, particularly suited for 3-D. It is hardly necessary to add that not even the most liberal and well-intentioned of Westerns bothered to attempt even minimal accuracy in the presentation of Native American cultures and artifacts. Indians served as supremely efficacious decorative elements, a blend of war paint as fright mask and continual drumming: Distant Drums, Apache Drums, Yaqui Drums, A Thunder of Drums, Drum Beat.
The heroes themselves were equally decorative. Cowboy regalia provided an opportunity for a display of male plumage which became perfect material for fetishist obsession, as amply displayed in Box-Office Buckaroos, a densely packed catalog of cowboy collectibles, from a Tom Mix white plastic cowboy belt to Gene Autry rubber galoshes. What with scarf, boots, lariat, stirrups, holsters, belt, string tie, and hat—not to mention the horse, the gun, the walk, and the talk—the Western hero was burdened with as foppish and hieratic a dress code as anything this side of a Renaissance courtier.
People who write about Westerns tend to talk about heroes and history, whereas hard-core fans generally paid more attention to the bad guys and the action. History was never more than a pretext, and the hero was often a blunt object for a range of interesting evil to bump up against. The ostensible moral seriousness of 1950s Westerns like High Noon, The Gunfighter, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Bravados was consistently undercut by their delight in a fauna of male evil and dysfunction: Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Palance, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Charles McGraw, Lee Van Cleef, Leo Gordon, Ray Teal, Earl Holliman, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson. (Marvin and Bronson were constant presences throughout the 1950s and 1960s before finally becoming stars, as if to belatedly acknowledge the scarred and downbeat level of reality they represented.)
The title Garden of Evil appropriately tags the Western’s catalog of the many ways in which males can fail to measure up: spineless gamblers, equivocating lawyers, businessmen huffing and puffing in the face of Indian trouble, young hotshots too quick on the trigger, reservation agents conducting a black-market trade in rifles and whiskey, dying cavalry commanders blinded by pride, alcoholic mutineers, sadistic desperadoes liberated by the absence of law. Cowardice, cruelty, fanaticism, petty thievery, just plain goofing off: these were the raw materials out of which a commander (Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant or Randolph Scott in Seventh Cavalry) had to make a functioning unit.
The losers finally broke out and took over in the era of the “dirty Western”: Rio Conchos (1964), The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969), and the more than three hundred Spaghetti Westerns produced between 1963 and 1969. When Americans looked in the distorting mirrors of Django and Sabata, they found a more congenially nasty image than what had been filtered through the pieties of Gunsmoke and Bonanza: an unhypocritical defense of eye gouging and below-the-belt punches, served up by frankly self-serving, lecherous heroes who (unlike James Stewart in The Naked Spur or Gregory Peck in The Bravados) positively relished the opportunity for revenge.
If the Western hero had once been conceived as an Arthurian knight of the plains, he ended up more closely resembling a cocaine dealer in cowboy drag. The Western had always sought to blur the line between hero and outlaw, and now it had been erased altogether. Since an examination of a photograph of the real-life Jesse James reveals someone who more resembles a serial killer than he does Tyrone Power or Robert Wagner, that might be the most fitting way to close the circle. In any event that is where the Western reaches the end of its trajectory, unless its recent escapist (Silverado) or utopian (Dances with Wolves) manifestations are indeed harbingers of a reviving genre rather than wishful footnotes to a closed history.
The compilation of films that follows is by no means intended as a list of the “best,” omitting as it does many widely familiar items (My Darling Clementine, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country), and many outstanding films that remain mysteriously unavailable on video: Silver Lode, The Last Wagon, Forty Guns, Day of the Outlaw, Ride Lonesome. It aims more to be a partial taxonomy of the Western in its heyday, a mix of masterpieces, oddities, turning points, and typical examples. A more detailed guide to the terrain can be found in Edward Buscombe’s extremely useful The BFI Companion to the Western (Da Capo, 1991) and Phil Harding’s definitive year-by-year survey, The Western.
Man of the Forest (1933, Henry Hathaway; Hollywood Select Video, price variable). The naive charms of the Western, circa 1933, are amply displayed in this Zane Grey adaptation, in which a woodsman (Randolph Scott) with a brood of mountain lions as faithful companions rescues a rancher’s daughter from a claim-grabbing villain (Noah Beery) complete with waxed moustache and carpetbag. The riding tricks, fist fights, and climactic gun battle are vigorously staged; the comical interludes are predictably heavy-handed; the intermittent glimpses of lakes and woods and rocks are like home movies of Eden.
Blood on the Moon (1948, Robert Wise; Turner Home Entertainment, $19.95). The Western writer Luke Short played something of the role that Hammett and Chandler did in opening up the detective novel; the movies based on his books (Ramrod, Station West, Vengeance Valley) brought in more conspiratorial plot lines, unexpected sexual intrigue, and powerful female characters (most memorably, Veronica Lake in Ramrod). Blood on the Moon is the best of the bunch, thanks chiefly to Robert Mitchum’s eloquently laconic performance (“I’ve been fiddle-footed and no good all my life”), the cleanly dovetailed editing, and Nicholas Musuraca’s film noir cinematography.
Wagon Master (1950, John Ford; Turner Home Entertainment, $19.95). An idiosyncratic movie that pulls against the grain of most 1950s Westerns, away from psychology, motivation, and even plot. Wagon Master is a sort of cinematic oratorio on the theme of Mormons heading west, a suite of contemplative tableaux in which singing (mostly by the Sons of the Pioneers) carries as much weight as spoken dialogue. The narrative is so rudimentary as to seem like an afterthought; Ford seems most content when allowing Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., and Ward Bond to relax in front of the camera for long spells.
Distant Drums (1951, Raoul Walsh; Republic, $14.95). A typical early-1950s Saturday matinée blend of oratorical narration, choreographic action, and touristic Everglades backgrounds, featuring Gary Cooper at his most ingratiating as a Natty Bumppo stand-in, splendid color photography, and ubiquitous drums provided by Max Steiner. The ostensible subject is the Seminole wars. Considered in isolation, the images (vistas of beach and swamp, a small boat approaching a moonlit coast, soldiers advancing silently among skull-decked burial mounds) have a foursquare, Currier and Ives poetry. More ominously, the depiction of tropical warfare against an alien race, against whom the most punitive raids and brutal interrogation techniques are permitted, seems like a dress rehearsal for My Lai.
The Naked Spur (1953, Anthony Mann; MGM, $19.95). Anthony Mann’s distinctive Westerns combine adventurous location shooting with a full-bodied acting style scaled to the natural elements. Working with James Stewart in a series of films starting with Winchester 73 (1951), Mann uncovered a passionate and bitter side of an actor previously noted for light comedy. The Naked Spur sets a tightly written five-character drama of bounty hunting against constantly shifting Rocky Mountain landscapes, contrasting the spaciousness of the settings with the meanness of the humans who pass through them. Robert Ryan is splendid as the smiling outlaw who turns his captors against each other. As always with Mann’s Westerns, the camera combs and clambers over trails and rock faces, imbuing the whole enterprise with a sense of vigorous movement.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray; Republic, $14.95). The most notable of the 1950s cycle of dominatrix Westerns that also included Forty Guns, The Oklahoma Woman, Cattle Queen of Montana, and Rancho Notorious, in which male gunslingers found themselves upstaged by the likes of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlene Dietrich. These exuberantly fetishistic movies provided marginal correction to the otherwise unmodulated masculinity of Western heroes. Here Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge shoot it out while Scott Brady dances, Sterling Hayden plays his guitar, and Nicholas Ray demonstrates with his deployment of horizontal lines and open spaces what he learned from his architectural studies with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Vera Cruz (1954, Robert Aldrich; MGM, $19.95). A cheerfully corrupt Cinemascope adventure movie foreshadowing the “dirty Western” perfected by Peckinpah and the Italians. While the 1950s Western tended to focus on morally sincere, self-questioning heroes like those of High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, Vera Cruz looks ahead to the next decade with its cynical double-crossing and comic approach to violence. Gary Cooper here seems almost an anachronism, while Burt Lancaster clearly belongs already to the coming era. The Mexican backdrop, setting Europeanized aristocracy against revolutionary peasants, established motifs that would be mined repeatedly by subsequent film makers. By the late 1960s, a Western with a Mexican setting guaranteed a generous dose of portentous political allegory.
A Man Alone (1955, Ray Milland; Republic, $14.95). A stark second feature whose subtext evokes political corruption and McCarthyist witch hunts. The wordless first reel has a sort of primal simplicity, as Milland wanders through a Trucolor desert and stumbles on the aftermath of a brutal massacre. The silence continues as a riderless horse strays along an empty street in the midst of a blinding dust storm. Milland himself—a fugitive falsely accused of the killings by the actual culprit, a sanctimonious banker (Raymond Burr)—doesn’t open his mouth at all for the first half hour. Unfortunately, once the characters start talking the intensity diminishes markedly, as the trapped and isolated hero endures a prolonged standoff amid images of confinement: quarantined sick rooms, fruit cellars, coffins.
The Searchers (1956, John Ford; Warner, $19.95). Ford’s greatest Western is also his least typical. The Searchers latches on to the psychologizing trend which the director elsewhere rejected, in the process eliciting a characterization of rare obsessive force from John Wayne as the Comanche-hating avenger on the trail of his abducted niece (Natalie Wood)—a monomaniacal early American type from the pages of Robert Montgomery Bird if not Charles Brockden Brown. Ford’s pictorialism is as emphatic as ever, but in a more troubled and unresolved context than customary; his majestic framings bristle with inner contradictions and fratricidal conflicts. There was always a subversive side to Ford that wanted to undermine everything he so reverently upheld, and at various moments in The Searchers it almost has its way. Even the forced ending, with Wayne’s entirely unbelievable change of heart, has a fitting melodramatic abruptness. Winton Hoch’s crisp and boldly colored cinematography makes every set-up look like the woodcut it is at heart.
Jubal (1956, Delmer Daves; Goodtimes, price variable). This is what Hollywood meant by an “adult” Western: a heavy-breathing variation on Othello, in which a wildly hammy Rod Steiger poisons rancher Ernest Borgnine’s mind with suspicions about his genteel wife (Valerie French) and his upright foreman (Glenn Ford). The application of the Western’s epic scale to a squalid melodrama of jealousy and frustrated passion results in an exaggerated style somewhere between La Gioconda and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Sexual seduction is staged as ponderously and implacably as a military operation, with dialogue to match: “It’s fine for a man, but for a woman it’s ten thousand acres of lonesomeness.”
3:10 to Yuma (1957, Delmer Daves; Goodtimes, price variable). This could have been retitled The Rancher in the Gray Flannel Suit, with Van Heflin exuding middle-class angst and mid-life crisis of values when he’s forced to confront Glenn Ford as a roguishly charming outlaw, an emblem of everything Heflin has given up in the name of civilization and domesticity. The film, adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, is impeccably written, directed, and performed, and Charles Lawton Jr.’s eloquent black-and-white cinematography adds a dimension of poetry.
The Tall T (1957, Budd Boetticher; Goodtimes, price variable). A perfect Western, one of several such that Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy made with Randolph Scott in the late 1950s, by which time Scott had aged into something like the Platonic idea of the grizzled and weathered Western hero, capable of delivering with offhand conviction a line like: “There’s some things a man can’t ride around.” The Tall T (another Elmore Leonard adaptation) works on a constricted scale, with a near unity of time and space, as Scott and his companions are held hostage by Richard Boone, remarkable in the role of a Miltonic fallen angel, flanked by a candy-sucking half-wit and a cool psychopathic sharpshooter. The picture settles into an abstract game of rocks, clearings, glances, and silences, a condition of constant mutual surveillance with each character on the lookout for a moment’s inattention. Boetticher, a matador by training, tracks the action as if it were a bullfight about to turn bloody, even when someone is merely scratching himself or leaning forward to pick up a cup of coffee.
Warlock (1959, Edward Dmytryk; Key, $19.95). A number of didactic undercurrents vie for control of this elaborate Western, but they become so tangled up in subplots that there isn’t time to sort out what the message was supposed to be. The frankly homoerotic relationship of gunslingers Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn adds a novel element to a movie in which good guys turn bad and bad guys good with disconcerting frequency.
Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci; various distributors). The Spaghetti Western reached its finest and most polished moments under the guidance of Sergio Leone (For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West), but a rotgut little bloodbath like Django gives a better sense of how the Italians drove a stake through the heart of Tom Mix. The opening shot of an unkempt Franco Nero dragging a coffin through the mud sets the tone for a bad dream of massacre and reprisal pitting two equally rapacious factions against each other to the point of extinction. This is the one that Jimmy Cliff and his friends watch in a Kingston fleapit in The Harder They Come, only one of many points of intersection between Spaghetti Westerns and Jamaican music.
Ride in the Whirlwind (1972, Monte Hellman; various distributors). The last gasp of the B Western, in the form of a consciously absurdist tale (written by Jack Nicholson) of innocent cowhands (Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell) getting accidentally embroiled in a shoot-out between outlaws and vigilantes. The mood throughout is raw, bleak, and blank. However, the movie wears its pretensions lightly thanks to sharp-edged compositions, lean editing, and a mercifully laconic script; Hellman manages to create the impression that we’re seeing a gunfight or a hanging for the first time.
The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah; Warner, $19.95). With age, Peckinpah’s murderous epic of over-the-hill outlaws finding death in Mexico seems more and more like a collective fantasy dreamt up by the alcoholic denizens of The Iceman Cometh. It’s a long meditation on letting things slide, with every frame and every performance giving off a combative weariness. The violent set pieces—the initial massacre, the train raid, the final slow-motion ballet of exploding blood bags and slices of raw meat—look as artful as ever, but they now seem to emanate from a very private vortex of willful disintegration, like a misbegotten adventure of Peter Pan’s lost boys.
Ulzana’s Raid (1972, Robert Aldrich; MCA, $19.95). The classical Western seems to have terminated its career with this violent consummation of Hollywood’s fascination with the image of the marauding Apache. The screenwriter, Alan Sharp, announced his intention “to express allegorically the malevolence of the world and the terror mortals feel in the face of it,” and Robert Aldrich obliged with unfalteringly somber direction, assisted by a wonderful performance from Burt Lancaster. Although it makes some motions in the direction of ethnographic understanding, the film is clearly not about Apaches but about the dread of Apaches. (Cavalry officer: “I just don’t like to think of people unprotected.” Scout: “Yes, well, it’s best not to.”) The fear of the Other has rarely been made so relentlessly the focal point of a movie, a fear reinforced by Joseph Biroc’s almost blindingly sharp photography of the Arizona desert.