Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is it About Those Westerns?

I never say that I am a fan of the Western film. Ask me what kind of movies I like, and they are generally anything but Westerns or war movies. But something funny happens to me when watching a Western. Admittedly, I have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but I almost always like them. I just don't know why I resist them. What is it about those Westerns?
Now, I am a urban/suburban kind of gal. My idea of a town is Manhattan, not Tombstone. My idea of the West is Manhattan's upper west side, not west of the Mississippi. My idea of a wardrobe is anything worn by Audrey Hepburn, not gingham dresses that trail in the dust. My ideal mode of transportation would be a limousine, not a covered wagon, and my ideal man would be Cary Grant, not Randolph Scott (although Randy might have been Cary's ideal man, but I digress).

So, what is it about those darn Westerns that get me every time?

The Silent Western
I think I first became a convert to the genre while watching silent Westerns. Aside from the likes of William S. Hart and Tom Mix being so darn entertaining, there is an air of real authenticity in the silents that diminishes with every decade. Tom Mix was a real cowboy and even a notorious bandit, Al Jennings of Oklahoma, was a technical advisor on films that depicted life in the West and all of its hardships. Westerns of the 1920s and before that were made out West (not "The Great Train Robbery" shot in the wilds of New Jersey) had the chance of being made by people who actually lived during those times. The great Western migration was still a living memory.
"The Covered Wagon," filmed in 1923, has great footage of  a buffalo hunt and stampede over a landscape that no longer exists. These films are as close as we can ever come to really knowing what the Old West looked like.

John Ford and Howard Hawks
Later decades brought a more romantic vision of the West. As time passes, it is only fitting that great episodes in history are seen through a romanticized vision, and no directors captured those visions better than John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Through the films of these two directors, the legend of the Old West has been elevated, romanticized and sealed in our dreams. Aside from the action and scenery, they are stories of who we are. Americans came from another place to this place, this hard, rough place, for the promise of a better life. No non-Native American sprung up in the West. They had to come from somewhere else, and it was usually one hell of a journey. Once there, even more obstacles were to be faced, some from without and some from within. The man in the figurative white hat usually won, but always there was a price and sacrifice. Favorites from John Ford: "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." Favorites from Howard Hawks: "The Big Sky," "Rio Bravo," and "El Dorado." Not a bad one in the bunch.

"High Noon" and "The Searchers"
"High Noon" (directed by Fred Zinnemann) and "The Searchers" (directed by John Ford) are my two favorite Westerns.
I love "High Noon," not only because it is such a compelling story told in an edge-of-your-seat way, but because there is a rugged  and tired melancholy about Gary Cooper's Will Kane. He wants to get out of town with Grace Kelly, but his fundamental goodness and sense of duty and justice won't let him. The stark black and white photography makes it all the more haunting. A simple story, simply shown, it could be set in any place or time, but the Old West makes a great setting for a tale of morality. Plus, who doesn't know a bunch of spineless you-know-whats like the ones that desert our hero in his time of need?

"The Searchers" is just about perfection. That monument of the Western, John Wayne, was never better. As much as "High Noon" is a deceptively simple tale, this one is complex and fraught with emotion. Is it hatred that drives Ethan or is he Debbie's father (my suspicion)? Everything about this film is epic, from the scenery to the script to the unspoken and spoken passions of the characters, not to mention John Ford's poetic framing of this legendary film. It's breathtaking on so many levels, no matter how many times you see it.

The Round-Up
So, there you have it. I suppose it is something in the collective American consciousness that draws me to those open spaces and legends of our past. Although some of my ancestors didn't come to these shores, until the West had been settled, some were here during those times (though it seems they never got west of Pennsylvania). No, I think it has something to do with being an American - not right or left or center - but just an American. While our individual stories differ, we share a common history, even it it is by virtue of just living here. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land," and it must be true. We are not continental, European sophisticates or whatever, no matter how hard we try. We are Americans - a little dusty, rugged and unrefined in the eyes of the rest of the world, but ultimately straight shooters, plain and simple. And, at least for this American, I find I am always more than a little surprised that I feel that way; surprised and proud. I wonder if new generations of immigrants who come here for a better life will someday see these stories on the screen and say "I am a part of this and this is a part of me." I think so. I hope so.

My Favorite Western Movie Heroes and Heroines

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, "The Searchers"

Gary Cooper as Will Kane in "High Noon"

Tom Mix (and Tony) as Tom Mix (and Tony)
 in all of their movies!

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in "The Unforgiven"

Jane Russell as Calamity Jane in "The Paleface"

Doris Day as "Calamity Jane"

Jean Arthur as Marian Starrett in "Shane"

Alan Ladd as "Shane"

And honorable mention to William S. Hart, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Randolph Scott and all of the other great actors, writers and directors too numerous to mention who made the characters and the legends of the Old West come alive.

And a special nod to the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges 
for keeping the tradition alive and well and thrilling.


Diane said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours. I love westerns and I love your view of westerns. Thank you so much for reminding me of the reasons that I too love America. Flick are the best.

FlickChick said...

♥♥♥ all I say is thank you for your kind words.♥♥♥

Caftan Woman said...

I sat nodding sagely throughout your article. Wonderful stuff!

As Father's Day approaches, newspaper ads and even the TCM Now Playing Guide recommend westerns as the perfect gift for Dad. Not around these parts, pardner!

I think growing up in an era of multitudinous TV westerns led me to my overwhelming fondness for western movies from all eras. Movies like "Stagecoach" and "High Noon" and "My Darling Clementine" aren't only great westerns, they are great movies.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, CW. This was a bit of a tough topic for me to tackle, as these films really do affect me in ways I really can't explain (but have tried to!).

R. D. Finch said...

A great post and a refreshingly different approach. I never was a particular fan of Westerns until relatively recently, but now I love them! You named my favorite John Ford Westerns (+"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). I noticed you have a poster for "Red River" but don't include it in your list of favorite Howard Hawks Westerns. It's my favorite by this great director and has what is for me one of John Wayne's three greatest performances (along with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and the best of them all, "The Searchers").

FlickChick said...

Thanks, RD. It's funny how they are kind of under your skin, even though you are not aware of the, And they do lend themselves to those epic tales.

ClassicBecky said...

I tend to be like you, FlickChick ...most traditional westerns are not my cup of tea. But I too like the silents -- as you said, they are more authentic, probably because they were made so close in time to the real era.

My favorite westerns are anything with James Stewart, High Noon, Shane, Three Godfathers and The Magnificent Seven. I could watch those over and over, and actually have! LOL!

Great post!

FlickChick said...

Thaks, Becky. I tend to be a real girl when it comes to movies, but a good saga is a good saga!

Meredith said...

It took me awhile to come around to loving Westerns as well. Though my favorites are the films that both glorify the west and deconstruct its tenets at the same time like Once Upon A Time in the West and High Noon! Great stuff.

FlickChick said...

Agreed, Meredith. I guess some of us ladies have to take our time to get around to them. The films you mention do have a more modern approach and offer a different perspective.