Monday 23 October 2017

REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

John Wayne would be spinning in his grave if he took a look at the latest Hollywood western. In Cowboys & Aliens, which opened here yesterday, a group of stock western characters, including a gun-toting outlaw, a high-handed cattle baron and a mysterious stranger join forces when their frontier town is attacked by flying saucers packed with aliens.

To tell you the truth, it's not quite as dumb as it sounds, and Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford look surprisingly convincing in the chaps and Stetsons. And for all its dramatic licences Cowboys & Aliens is strangely in keeping with the western's origins as a relatively mindless visual entertainment.

When American filmmakers first starting making westerns in the early 1900s, the period the movies were set in was as close to them as the 1980s is to us. The Indian wars were still fresh in the minds of Sioux and Apache tribesmen, and many of the famous frontiersmen like Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody were still alive.

The earliest westerns were not period pieces but contemporary action dramas, as brisk and mindless as the blockbusters of today. Violent, cliché-ridden and formulaic, the silent westerns were considered 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 to explore both America's present and its past.

The resonance and sophistication that the genre ultimately achieved is being celebrated next week by Dublin's Irish Film Institute, which is running a season of politically allegorical westerns, such as The Searchers, Rio Bravo and High Noon. But all of that is a far cry from early depictions of the wild west.

The first western ever made was probably The Great Train Robbery (1903). Written and directed by movie pioneer Edwin S Porter, and starring Gilbert 'Bronco Billy' Anderson, the 12-minute film depicted a gang of bandits stopping a train, robbing its passengers and taking off on horseback with lawmen in hot pursuit.

The film was a huge success and after that the genre caught on like wildfire, with competing studios springing up to churn out western shorts. Bronco Billy Anderson became the first great western star and directed, wrote and appeared in literally hundreds of short westerns.

William S Hart was the other great western star of the period. A former Shakespearean actor, Hart was obsessed with the old west and had cultivated friendships with Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. Between 1915 and the early 1920s, he made dozens of short and feature-length westerns in which he played noble cowboys and sheriffs that always got their man.

But all of these early westerns were simple, unsophisticated affairs involving unambiguous battles between good and evil, with the guys in white always coming out on top. The heroes were protecting pioneer settlers, and therefore America itself, and the outlaws were merely gurning nihilists.

As you can imagine, Mexicans got pretty short shrift, and worst of all were the Native Americans. In early westerns the Indians were merely butchering savages, agents of chaos who tried and failed to stand in the way of progress. What was their problem anyway?

But by the late 1920s the western had become irredeemably pulpy, and repetitive, and with the advent of sound most big studios abandoned the genre altogether.

It was Irish-American director John Ford who revived the genre in 1939 with his landmark western, Stagecoach. Ford had made a number of westerns during the silent era, but they had been unremarkable, low-budget affairs. 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 less than forthcoming about her checkered past as a prostitute.

Secondly, while most westerns up to that point had been studio-bound and visually unremarkable, 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 westerns.

Stagecoach marked the start of what is now known as 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 Rio Grande, John Ford brought an impressive 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 the Native Americans.

In his greatest film, and probably the greatest western of them all, The Searchers (1956), Ford and his regular collaborator John Wayne lifted the lid on the hatred and racism that typified America's treatment of Indians.

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 with 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 1952 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 witchhunts, of which Foreman had recently become a victim.

High Noon is a classic, with Gary Cooper playing the lawman who refuses to fall in with the cowardly herd. But John Wayne, who was a staunch supporter of the Communist blacklists, decided it was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen".

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.

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.

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 deglamorised the era of the gunfighters by painting them as half-drunk morons whose unreliable guns blew up in their hands and 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. It's in the doldrums at the minute but the western is one genre that will keep coming back, because as everyone from Edwin S Porter and John Ford to Sergio Leone and the makers of Cowboys & Aliens have proved, its possibilities are virtually limitless.

Cowboys & Aliens was released nationwide yesterday. For more information on the IFI's season, The Western, visit

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