Wednesday 21 March 2018

Film: Cowboy values: the genre that won't die

Western life: Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson in the Hateful Eight.
Western life: Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson in the Hateful Eight.

Paul Whitington

Lovers of westerns should enter this new year in high spirits, because two high quality examples of the genre are on the way. Next Friday, Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight will hit our screens having earned rave reviews in America. Then, a week later, comes Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and is an awards contender.

Tarantino made his first foray into the genre three years ago, with Django Unchained (2012), but you could argue that he's been making westerns from the very start. If you'd replaced the sharp suits and thin ties of the hoodlums in Reservoir Dogs with chaps and Stetsons, it wouldn't have made too much difference.

Hateful Eight has earned comparisons with Tarantino's celebrated début, and stars Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Samuel L Jackson and Tim Roth as a group of gun-toting strangers who begin to clash after getting stranded by a snowstorm at a roadhouse.

The thing that has always thrilled modern audiences about westerns is the anarchy and rage that simmer just below the surface in remote settlements where law and order are vague and unenforceable concepts. This theme is memorably explored in The Revenant, a gripping epic based on a true story.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a legendary 19th century frontiersman who was badly mauled by a grizzly bear while exploring the wilds of South Dakota. Left to die in the wild by two companions, he somehow survived and set out to hunt them down.

This is a classic western story, but these days fans of the genre must exist on scraps. Westerns have been out of fashion for many decades, and appear only in sporadic bursts. But one advantage of the western's current unpopularity with studios and backers is that the few that do succeed in getting made tend to be pretty good.

It's a far cry from the genre's heyday in the 1940s and 50s, when hundreds were pumped out every year and actors like Randolph Scott and John Wayne built entire careers around these so-called 'horse operas'. But the western stretches back further than that, to the earliest days of American cinema.

When US film-makers first started making westerns in the early 1900s, the period the movies were set in was as close to them as the 1980s is to us. So the earliest westerns were not period pieces but contemporary action dramas, as brisk and mindless as the blockbusters of today.

The silent westerns were considered violent, formulaic pulp nonsense, and the true potential of the genre wasn't realised until the 1930s and 40s when John Ford and others began using the western as a prism through which they could explore America's present as well as its past.

The first western ever made was probably The Great Train Robbery (1903). Written and directed by Edwin S Porter, and starring Gilbert 'Bronco Billy' Anderson, the 12-minute film depicted a gang of bandits robbing a train and taking off on horseback. The film was no classic, but it did establish many of the ground rules for westerns to follow, such as the hold-up, horseback gun-battles and the inevitable scene in a saloon.

The Great Train Robbery was a huge success, and after that the genre caught on, with competing studios springing up to churn out western shorts. Bronco Billy Anderson was the first great western star, but soon had a rival in William S Hart, a former Shakespearean actor who made dozens of westerns between 1915 and the early 1920s, in which he played noble cowboys who always got their man.

But all these early westerns were simple affairs, unambiguous battles between good and evil. The heroes protected pioneer settlers, and therefore America itself, while the outlaws were merely gurning nihilists.

Mexicans got pretty short shrift, but the lowest rung was always reserved for Native Americans. In early westerns the Indians were murderous savages, agents of chaos who tried and failed to stand in the way of progress. What was their problem, anyway?

Tom Mix ultimately became a bigger star than either Hart or Anderson, and his expert horsemanship became a recurring feature of his many silent films, some 336 of them in all. But by the late 1920s the western had become irredeemably pulpy, and after the advent of sound most big studios abandoned the genre altogether.

It was John Ford who revived it in 1939 with Stagecoach. Ford had made a number of westerns during the silent era, but Stagecoach was his first big-budget attempt, and it differed from previous westerns in a couple of important ways.

First of all Ford had chosen a story packed with moral ambiguity: his hero, The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) was a ruthless gunman out for revenge, and the object of the Kid's affections, Claire Trevor, was a former prostitute.

Secondly, while most westerns up to that point had been studio-bound, Ford insisted on taking his shoot to the wilds of Utah and the spectacular Monument Valley - its distinctive buttes would become synonymous with his later films.

Ford fought hard to persuade United Artists to let him cast ex-college football player John Wayne in the lead, because at that time Wayne was considered a lowly B-movie actor. The director got his way, and Wayne turned out to have a dash of that old frontier grit that would help him become the greatest western actor of them all.

Stagecoach marked the start of the western's golden age, with two directors in particular, Ford and Howard Hawks, taking the genre into new and unexplored territory.

In films like My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, John Ford brought visual style but also nuance and subtlety to westerns that were more overtly critical of the settling of the west and more sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans.

Ford paved the way for other practitioners of the genre. Howard Hawks didn't actually make many westerns but two of them, Red River and Rio Bravo, are classics boasting a positively Shakespearean grandeur. And when John Ford saw John Wayne's performance in Red River he is said to have remarked "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!".

The films of John Ford inspired directors near and far. In High Noon, Fred Zinnemann and writers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman turned a simple tale of a sheriff who confronts a gang of outlaws into an allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts. And in George Stevens' Shane (1953), Alan Ladd played a tired gunfighter who knows he's fast becoming an anachronism as law and order spreads west.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Hollywood westerns had inspired Akira Kurosawa to incorporate the genre's swagger and broad morality into samurai films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.

Those films in turn inspired young directors elsewhere: back in Hollywood John Sturges turned The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven, while Yojimbo would form the basis for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.

Made on location in southern Spain on a shoestring budget, Fistful of Dollars was the first of the spaghetti westerns, and took an entirely new take on the genre. Gone was the sentiment of the classic westerns, and the settlement of the west was depicted as a greedy and rapacious land grab.

The characters Clint Eastwood played in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and the operatic Civil War picture The Good, The Bad and The Ugly were heartless mercenaries whom Leone dared you to mistake for heroes. Leone's baroque violence and heavily stylized gunfights both parodied and glorified the western, and his films made former TV actor Clint Eastwood a star.

Eastwood has since made a considerable contribution to the annals of the genre himself.

In The Outlaw Josey Wales he re-examined the American Civil War from the point of view of the defeated South. And his Oscar-winning 1992 film The Unforgiven comprehensively de-glamorised the era of the gunfighters by painting them as drunken morons who often shot each other by accident.

But Clint doesn't make cowboy pictures any more, and the western has once again fallen out of fashion. So we should be grateful to directors like Tarantino and Inarritu who go against the grain to provide us with these rare and precious treats.

Revisionist westerns

Film historians still argue over exactly when the revisionist, or anti-westerns, began to be made, but as early as the 1950s film-makers like Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann and John Ford were beginning to question the prevailing view of the west's settlement as something noble. Anthony Mann and James Stewart attacked the nonsensical notion of heroic bounty hunting in The Naked Spur, while Ford addressed the mistreatment of Native Americans in his 1956 classic The Searchers, and more fully in Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone are undoubtedly revisionist, replacing all the Randolph Scott white-hat nonsense with dark stories of profiteering bounty killers. Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) is a bleak anti-western, which upends the conventions of the genre by setting its story in a snowy north-western town and making its hero a cagey coward. Dick Richard's 1972 drama The Culpepper Cattle Co brilliantly exposed the venality and greed of the white settlers. These days, pretty much every western is revisionist, and my favourite of recent times is Andrew Dominik's underrated drama The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

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