Thursday, June 24, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 3

Our youtube crash course on Hollywood westerns concludes with the following:

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). In this post-Vietnam film, the mood is very different. Hollywood introduced the new rating system in 1968, and the level of violence in this film shows how “adult” came to mean something different from what it did a decade before.

For some this film is a watershed in the portrayal of character in westerns. Clint Eastwood’s performance shows how heroes as well as villains get portrayed with a far more gritty and cynical realism.

In this clip, at the start of the film, we’re in Missouri, at the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the U.S. (Union) Army is collecting firearms from surrendered rebels. Villainy, betrayal, and revenge are quickly introduced as the new moral order. Eastwood then emerges as the loner. When duly constituted authority is itself brutal and corrupt, a single man can be true only to himself and his own code of ethics. 

Lonesome Dove (1989). This made-for-TV series is an adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1986. It combines the western buddy film (cf. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with a kind of road movie without roads or cars. Like Red River, the action of the film is the trailing of a herd of cattle from Texas to the north, and there is much about the perils and hardships along the way.

The “buddies” of the film, two former Texas Rangers, are played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The journey takes them over the course of a summer to Montana. There are multiple themes and plotlines and many characters. There are also vicious villains in the story, but they do not prevail, and the heroes operate within a moral universe whose contradictions engage rather than threaten to repel us.

The film has been commended for the authenticity of its content. Of interest is the strength of the women’s roles, Diane Lane in particular as the prostitute who accompanies the men on their journey. The treatment of sexuality and male-female relationships is unusual for a western of the time. Also, of all these films, Lonesome Dove features an African-American actor in a central role.

In this clip, the herd is overtaken by a storm, and we watch the following morning’s aftermath as the cowboys pull the chuck wagon up a muddy incline. Meanwhile, Robert Duvall’s character, Gus, pays a visit to the prostitute Laurie, who is traveling in the company of a gambler, Jake.

Dances With Wolves (1990). Actor-director Kevin Costner tried to make up for a century of misrepresenting Indians as blood-thirsty savages with this big-budget film about the frontier. While Hollywood had already cast Native Americans as Indians in secondary roles, this was among the first to show them in lead roles as well.

The film has been criticized for its romanticizing of the plains Indians and its portrayal of racism among whites. There’s also no record of a U.S. Cavalry soldier mixing with Indians in the way we see in the film. Some will argue that the movie even perpetuates racial stereotypes about both whites and Native Americans. But no western can tell the whole story about the West or get it all right. For all its faults, this one made an honest effort.

In this clip, Costner’s cavalryman joins the local tribe in a buffalo hunt. That ten minutes are devoted to this scene alone gives some idea of the epic scope of the film and the filmmakers’ intentions. (See it sometime on a big screen with the correct widescreen aspect ratio.) In the opening shot, that’s Canadian-born Native American actor Graham Greene who takes the spy glass from Costner.

Tombstone (1993). After many Hollywood versions of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, this was the first to attempt to tell that story with some historical accuracy. Kurt Russell portrays him as the complicated and not always heroic character that the man was in real life. The film also makes an effort to represent the gunfight at the OK Corral as it really happened.

Violence in the film is pretty graphic, and instead of ending with the shootout, it presents the aftermath, including the shooting death of Earp’s brother and the lengthy pursuit of the rest of the Clanton gang. Of interest is the portrayal of Doc Holliday by Val Kilmer, who plays him much closer to the original of the man – somewhat of a foppish southern dandy, who also happened to be fearless and deadly with a gun.

In this clip, we see the gunfight. Kurt Russell is dressed closely to the way Earp would have been dressed (unlike earlier versions of the film), and note his mustache. It’s also authentic. Other Wyatt Earps were often clean-shaven. Notice also how women are part of the story, though they only walk on in this scene to see whether their men have survived. The two women with an interest in Wyatt are true to history, too. One was his common-law wife; the other was a stage actress he’d met and fancied.

3:10 to Yuma (2007). Last of the bunch is a remake of a film by the same name made in 1957. Audiences who’d seen few westerns went to this one to see Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in a battle of wits between an honorable man and an outlaw, as they wait in a hotel room for the train to take Russell Crowe’s character to prison. The original film already did this part of the story well with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.

As evidence of how the western has evolved over the past 100 years, this version begins with an extended, noisy, and bloody stagecoach holdup, and it ends with a lengthy gunfight and enough dead to fill a cemetery. Once again, the moral universe in which this western takes place has little room for heroes. A good man is on his own against a world of villains and cowards. The villain lives, but the good man has to settle for being remembered by one other man, his son, as a hero.

In this clip, we see that spectacular stagecoach holdup at the beginning of the film. That’s Peter Fonda riding next to the driver, son of Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine), one of several men who followed in their actor-father’s footsteps into westerns.

And so it went, from a train robbery to a train to Yuma. It’s been a long ride, with the emergence of heroes and a confident portrayal of swift justice to this curious understanding that heroism is a costly and possibly dubious enterprise. You could pick a dozen different movies and come up with a different storyline, but you’d end up at pretty much the same place.

Of course, as westerns keep being made, the story isn’t over.

Next time: Cowboy lingo


  1. This is coming into my era, of course. The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of my favorite westerns, certainly among my top two or three.

  2. I never could get through Dances with Wolves; I thought the story was unbelievable. Loved Tombstone and 3:10 to Yuma, and have always been proud of the fact that the latter began as a story in a pulp Western.

  3. Charles, I saw "Josey Wales" while returning to the US after a year in the UK, and it did a lot to help repatriate me. The ending seemed to hit the right chord in that post-Vietnam era.

    Laurie, does anyone still read Leslie Fiedler these days? He claimed there was this deep thread in American literature of the white frontier hero and a "colored" companion - i.e., veiled "lover."

    I think "Dances With Wolves" taps straight into that tradition. Doesn't make it a great film, but it was hugely successful at the time.

    I may have said this already somewhere else, but I agree with you. Elmore Leonard's "3:10 to Yuma" is a nifty little story.

  4. Josie Wales is my favourite western, I think.