Wednesday, June 23, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 2

Our youtube crash course on Hollywood westerns continues.

Red River (1948). This film by director Howard Hawks concerns the winning of the West from another angle – the trailing of cattle herds across Texas and Indian Territory to the rail heads in the north. Unlike most westerns, this film has little to do with outlaws and bringing law and order to the frontier.

The story is complicated when the cowboys mutiny mid-way on the trail. But the conflict is even more so with the elements, “savage” Indians, stampedes, and the uncertainty of whether there will be a train to meet them when they arrive.

John Wayne stars, and his character is one of his tough ones. In this clip we see him outlining the terms of employment for the men who want to go with him. There’s also a scene of gambling, often seen in westerns – and in the West itself, where there were few other forms of entertainment. Look for Walter Brennan as one of the cooks and Montgomery Clift as Matt, second in command on the trail.

Gunsmoke (1955). There were westerns on radio from the 1940s into the 1950s, and this is one that successfully made the transition to TV. An “adult” western, its strength was in its characterizations and dramatic situations. “Gunsmoke” began as a 30-minute per episode series on TV and eventually expanded to an hour. In later years, it was also broadcast in color. “Gunsmoke” ran on TV for 20 years, to 1975.

In this clip from the first season, Marshal Dillon (James Arness) confronts a gunslinger in a saloon, played by Charles Bronson. Dennis Weaver is Chester. The simplicity, economy, and emotional impact of these short radio and TV plays make them little gems of storytelling. Dillon, with his easy and thoughtful manner, is deadly with a gun and the model of western heroism.

Seven Men From Now (1956). The writer-director team of Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher produced a number of films in the 1950s with cowboy star Randolph Scott. This one is arguably the best.

The Motion Picture production code kept movie content to what we’d consider a G or PG rating today, and violence and villainy were pretty much soft pedaled. Sex was there, but it would have to be so oblique as to go well over the heads of those younger in the audience.

The western has always made room for a degree of violence, but this one pushes villainy and sex to a new limit. Watch in this clip as the villain, played by Lee Marvin, charges the atmosphere in a crowded covered wagon during a rain storm.

 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). John Ford’s last western has a cast full of veteran western actors – John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine, and others. Though African Americans were a visible part of the population of the West, they rarely appear in westerns. This film is an exception. Willy Strode has a mostly unspeaking supporting role here as John Wayne’s companion.

This one is another “adult” western with Lee Marvin as an even more vicious villain. It addresses the theme of frontier lawlessness versus the introduction of law and order. In this clip, we see an attempt to resolve the issue in a traditional gun duel in the street. (Note the subtitles, which are wonderful examples of how the western speaks to people in widely different cultures around the word.) 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The western has often romanticized western outlaws – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, for example. This film, does so with a winning light touch. Its handsome heroes, humor, and tongue-in-cheek irony made this film hugely popular in the middle of the social and cultural upheaval that was America in the 1960s. It must be one of the biggest crossover hits to be enjoyed both by western fans and moviegoers who don’t particularly care for westerns.

Part of this may be due to its successful cross with another genre, the buddy film. Western heroes often had sidekicks (remember Tumbleweeds), but rarely were they equals. More often, the western hero is a loner. Newman and Redford working as equal partners make their scenes together particularly appealing.

In this clip, train robbers Butch and Sundance are being pursued by law enforcement across a lot of authentic western landscape. It’s the first time they have been in serious trouble. Yet the humor and the interplay between them keep the tension entertainingly relaxed.

Next time: The Outlaw Josey Wales to 3:10 to Yuma (2007)


  1. I've seen quite a few of these and was a big fan of Gunsmoke, as well as Bonanza, High Chapparal, Big Valley.

  2. Red River is one of my Top Five favorite westerns.

  3. I remember watching Gunsmoke, Red River, et al. I was always mesmerized by JW, although he was often accused of being a poor actor, I tend to look at it a different way.
    I always saw him(the actor) as playing himself! He was born out of time. For me, one of his best films was, The Quiet Man, with that stalwart of the time, Ward Bond and Victor MacLaglan. Stagecoach! Fantastic opening sequence! But for sheer pleasure, and watching a man in later years, as he acted towards a father figure, the fim "The Cowboys!" The whole film for me was an espousal of his laconic persona on screen when he guided those kids across the plains etc. Trying to avoid Bruce Derns baddies! Fantastic film.

  4. Charles, I listened to "Gunsmoke" on the radio but as the TV series were coming in I got interested in other things besides TV and am now watching some of these for the first time: "Gunsmoke" and "Wanted: Dead or Alive."

    Laurie, I like "Red River" because it's about actual working CBs. I also think Montgomery Clift is such a terrific foil to John Wayne. I'd love to know what the 2 of them talked about off camera.

    Cheyenne, I just acquired a copy of "The Cowboys" and will be watching it for the first time.

  5. You rich guys. No TV in Show Low, Arizona, until long after I left to go to college. So Gunsmoke was radio for me. As was the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder.

    Thanks for the cuts. Unlike almost everyone who loves western movies, I don't think The Searchers was the Duke's best film; not even his best Western.

    I just watched Santa Fe, the most misnamed Western in history. Good story. Fairly accurate historically but the guns and the people were misplaced (JEB Stuart graduated West Point in '59 and George Custer in '61, as I remember. Also Col. Lee led U.S. Marines to take Harper's Ferry, not the Cavalry. Oh well. Lots of fun anyway.


  6. And James Arness is still alive. How cool is that!

    I'm listening to the radio version of Gunsmoke now and enjoying it quite a bit.

  7. Chuck, I'm with you on "The Searchers." Wayne's performance is just that one note of grimness from beginning to end. Gets tiresome.

    David, William Conrad had a great voice for Matt Dillon on the radio. Unfortunately, he didn't look the part for TV. Though he did end up having a TV career anyway. One door closes, another opens.