Tuesday, June 22, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 1

If you limit yourself to movie clips that are available on youtube and pick no more than one or two from a decade, I figured you could come up with a quick-and-dirty survey of Hollywood western history. So I set out to do just that, starting with The Great Train Robbery, and this is what I got.

The Great Train Robbery (1903). This earliest known western was filmed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison’s movie company. Though it’s meant to take place on the frontier, it was shot in New Jersey, mostly using location photography – wooded hills and an actual train courtesy of the Lackawana Railroad.

The film runs for 10-12 minutes, depending on how much of the original was preserved in the print you’re watching. An early experiment in the use of film for storytelling, it’s fairly sophisticated for its time. Some scenes in this excellent version on youtube have a touch of hand-tinting, and an orchestral soundtrack has been provided.

The theme of the film is one treated over and over by the western genre as it evolved. There are outlaws (these are pretty vicious), and there are enforcers of the law who go after them. There’s a chase, and the gunplay provides much of the excitement. For audiences, the biggest thrill was the last scene, where one of the outlaws aims a gun at the camera and fires (see above).

Tumbleweeds (1925). Here we see the biggest cowboy star of the 1920s silents, William S. Hart. These are the first scenes of a film about the opening of Oklahoma to homesteaders. Until 1889 this had been strictly Indian territory, with cattlemen grazing cattle on unclaimed grasslands. Referred to as the “Cherokee Strip” in the film, it gave access for Indian hunting parties to the open ranges to the west.

Hart preferred to downplay myths about the West in his films and liked historical accuracy. So we get footage of cattle herds and ranch animals. His cowboys look pretty authentic, including the fact that they seem to like to sing on the job. The lyrics on the screen were an invitation to the audience to sing along (a feature of film-going I can remember as a boy in the 1940s).

True to his name, Hart’s character has a soft heart. In this clip, he rescues two young wolves whose parents have been poisoned. But he has little sympathy for the homesteaders waiting to lay claim to the open prairie. He has a goofy, bearded sidekick as a foil, who is not immune to Cupid’s bow, though Bill himself seems an unlikely candidate for romance. Note Hart’s handsome Stetson hat and his angora chaps.

The Lucky Texan (1934). The 1930s were the era of the B-western. This clip is from one of many made by the young John Wayne. The emphasis is on the action – fistfights and chases. The stunts in these films could be spectacular. Notice the run-and-jump rear mounting of the horses. Wayne had a double do most of his stunts, a rodeo champion, Yakima Canutt.

My Darling Clementine (1946). By the 1940s, westerns had “grown up” and were dealing with more adult themes. Characters are drawn with more depth, and there’s time for other interests and situations. There are also bigger budgets, reflected here in the location photography in Monument Valley, Utah.

Director John Ford tells the story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers in Tombstone, where they have an eventual confrontation with the Clanton gang at the OK Corral.  In this clip, we see the new marshal escorting the lady friend of another man, Doc Holliday, to the dedication of a church, which turns out to be a dance.

Dances are often featured in western films (there’s one already in The Great Train Robbery). Like the church bell ringing in this scene, they are evidence of civilization arriving to temper the lawlessness of the frontier. Ford, in fact, used the western to provide Americans with a mythic vision of the “winning of the West.”

Picture credit: The Great Train Robbery); moma.org

Next time: Red River to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


  1. I loved the WS Hart films. Fantastic stuff. Always liked the early ones, seemed so much more authentic in the clothing? Style of riding? Not sure about today, still? The silent films had so much more life in them always something going one.

  2. Haven't seen a single one of these. I'm much more familiar with the literary legacy I'd say. I don't watch movies much, and when I do it's mostly contemporary action thrillers.

  3. I will check out the Hart film. I have his stamp but have never seen one of the flicks.

  4. There's a version on YouTube of Tumbleweeds with Hart paying tribute to his film career at the end. He's so passionate in it that it runs the risk of being parodied, but still essential viewing by anyone interested in him. His memoir My Life East and West is good reading too. If you haven't seen it already Ron I wrote a few posts about Hart that are in my Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley series on the blog.

  5. Thanks, Laurie, I've been to Hart's house, which is open as a museum, near Newhall. It's full of 1920s memorabilia, Charles Russell paintings, photographs, etc. I need to read his memoir. I'll look for your posts about Hart.