Monday, August 31, 2009

Western movies

Patti Abbott posted her thoughts on western movies the other day and to date she's received forty eight replies. That's why I read her every day. She's always entertaining and interesting. But forty-eight replies to western movies--who woulda thunk it?

The last time I posted some of my own thoughts on the subject I got several off line letters calling me a crank, mostly because I'm not much of a fan of either John Wayne or John Ford.

As for Wayne he was a great presence but not much of an actor with the exceptions (to me) of The Searchers (and again you have to balance his great presence against the nuances a better actor could have brought to the role) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

I like a number of Ford's pictures but his frontier Army stuff has always struck me as juvenile. It's Boy's Adventure, the Kipling romance of the military at its most treacly. Wayne's gray hair at the end of "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" still doesn't make it a movie for adults. Read any serious history of the Army in the frontier west and you'll see what hokum it is. Plus all the phony Irish horseshit. Spare me.

I guess because I grew up watching so many noirs I early on liked the movies in which the characters seemed real. I remember being stunned by seeing Winchester 73, The Naked Spur and The Devil's Doorway.I was eleven and twelve. These were people I recognized from my everyday life. And their rage and sorrow and violence I was all too familiar with.. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen Anthony Mann was my western god. Later in the same decade I saw all the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns. They didn't have the same emotional power of Mann's films but they did have a laconic lonely truth. And they hold up. We just watched Seven Men From Now last week. The performances by Scott and Lee Marvin are as vital as ever and Boetticher's use of landscape is a perfect metaphor for the story he's telling.

No big argument, just my opinion. Hey, I can't help it if Anthony Mann is a god, one who managed to find the savage dark side of the wistful James Stewart. That accomplishment alone should put Mann in the pantheon.


Cullen Gallagher said...

I'm also a big fan of the Mann/Stewart Westerns. Some of the Mitchum Westerns, like Pursued or Blood on the Moon, also have some noir-ish overtones.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if knowing too much about a genre can have an impact on watching or reading it. You write westerns so you know when someone has gotten it wrong. Having no knowledge of anything in particular makes me a less critical viewer. Someone told me recently, you only could climb on a horse on one side. See where I'm coming from.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

Have to agree with you on Ford. The corny Irish stuff always turned me off. The Searchers and My Darling Clementine are probably his best westerns. I prefer Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. The Broken Trail with Robert Duvall-made for AMC a couple years ago is also quite good.

Ed Gorman said...

When you read Valdez is Coming or many of his short stories you see why Elmore Leonard embodies everything I talk about liking in the western genre. Some very powerful writing about the real west instead of the mythic one. The Colonel's Lady is to me an exemplary short story by any standard. For just one example. Valdez is populated by people very much like those we have on our political stage today. I prefer Leonard's early work to many of his later books before he got to the cute criminals . If I ever taught a course in writing a novel Valdez would be one of the books I'd use. So would 52 Pick-Up.

Fred Blosser said...

I always see VALDEZ and HOMBRE praised, but my favorite Leonard is GUNSIGHTS -- a little more relaxed than those other two novels but perceptive even so, with a mix of characters that seem to foreshadow those of the later crime novels. I always wondered if Leonard had originally envisioned it as a vehicle for Redford and Bronson, who would have been perfect as the lead characters Early and Moon.

Ed Gorman said...

Yep GUNSIGHTS is a hell of a book too.

Juri said...

I'm with you on Ford. His humour is what puts me off. It's like he doesn't take his films seriously. All for Anthony Mann and Boetticher. And BLOOD ON THE MOON, that's a great film.

Max Allan Collins said...

You have to give some historical context to Ford to understand his importance and how good he could be. There is no serious sound-era western genre without STAGECOACH -- it's all singing cowboys (including Wayne) and Hoppy and kid stuff. And when Ford's mature films include THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALLANCE, how can you not credit him as a key artist of the genre? Or Wayne? No other actor would have been right in THE SEARCHERS -- the whole point is Wayne's good guy loner persona being questioned and undermined; somebody "better" would not have had the iconic resonance.

And Hawks in his masterpieces RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO plays off the Wayne persona does Wayne.

I guess I don't see why to praise Mann we must diminish Ford. It seems like a kneejerk American reaction to fall into that construct (and I've certainly been guilty of it) -- so-and-so is better than so-and-so, this guy is underrated and that guy is overrated. I can love Ford and Hawks and still love Mann and Leone. But I would argue you don't have either Mann or Leone without Ford, and Hawks was obviously using Ford as his starting point to do very different things.

The Irish stuff I'm pretty much with you on, O'Gorman, sez O'Collins.

Bob Levinson said...

Two more entries in the discussion:

(directed by Geo Stevens, who never met a genre he couldn't serve)

Great pairing of a Ladd and a lad

(Don Siegel, who also directed CHARLEY VARRICK, DIRTY HARRY, etc.)

Wayne and Stewart, together again in the Duke's swan shootout

MP said...

I love the Mann/Stewart westerns and think they're at least the equal of the more highly lauded (at least recently)Boetticher/Scott films. But as much as I admire Mann's noirs and westerns and western/noirs, my favorite Mann film is the little seen, absolutely splendid Korean war movie "Men in War". It's certainly among the best war films ever made. It doesn't appear to be currently available on DVD, but used copies couldn't be that hard to find, and it pops up pretty frequently on TCM.

Brendan DuBois said...


Great column, as always... and I hesitate for a moment before asking this question, just to show what a newbie I am... but I've always been fascinated with history... especially WWII history. And with that, I know historians such as John Keegan, Max Hastings, Stephen Ambrose, and so forth, give a good overview of WWII history.

And I'm ashamed to say I don't know that much about the history of the West, which I'd like to address one of these days... any particular authors stand out that give an accurate and well-written accounts? Thanks!

--- Brendan

boiledoverbooksn said...

All auteurism aside, we've got to recognize that a film is the product of many hands. After ghostwriting for Yakimma Canutt and spending many years among the stuntmen of American films, I've become an expert at the selective viewing of any given film.

Stagecoach had Yak's waltz around the stagecoach, doubling Wayne, and there are few moving images more iconic than that. Yak, like all stuntmen, operated as an independent contractor for the gag, and Ford didn't really know what Yak had dreamed up for the shot.

Those few seconds alone put Stagecoach at the top of my own list, along with How the West Was Won, with Loren Janes fall from the train into the saguaro.

Of course, Ford also had the wisdom to take frequent trips to Monument Valley.


David Laurence Wilson