Monday, May 31, 2010

The Hired Hand (1971)

Peter Fonda directed and stars in this very authentic-looking and conceived film about two drifters who return to the wife and child that one of them abandoned six years before. Warren Oates plays Fonda’s friend and Verna Bloom is the wife. While unspecified in the film, we learn in Fonda’s commentary that the year is 1881, and it was shot in New Mexico. The River in the opening scenes is the Rio Grande, and key scenes were shot in a dusty town of adobe buildings that the filmmakers found far off the beaten path. The bar where the men go for a drink is a haphazard construction that looks like it could tumble down at any moment.

Fonda also reveals that he wanted to create a new mold for the western by making it as realistic as possible in its details. Lovers of shoot-em-up action will be immediately struck by how slowly the film unfolds, reflecting the slower pace of life on the frontier, where almost nothing moves faster than a horse in low gear. Soft acoustic music plays under some scenes, but the film mostly captures the quiet of a pre-industrialized rural environment, the ambiance colored by birdsong during the day and crickets at night.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

So long, Dennis Hopper

I'm going to miss Dennis Hopper. He had a remarkable screen presence, dating back to Easy Rider (1969), which I think of as a western on motorcycles, and even before that. As a contemporary of James Dean, he appeared in numerous youthful roles, including this one from Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) in one of several scenes as Billy Clanton with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp. Wyatt attempts to set the young Billy on the strait and narrow, but without success. The boy remains loyal to the clan and dies the day of the shootout.

None of this has any basis in history, but it makes for a theme seen often in Hollywood westerns, a troubled and wayward young man being mentored by an older man of character. It's there already in Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), where the Virginian tries to persuade a young cowboy to use his easy way with horses to pursue a career as a horse trainer instead of looking for get-rich-quick schemes with shady characters. That ends in tears as well.

Shane (1953)

Myth, reality, and 20th-century history meet in this classic western from the 1950s. In Jack Schaefer's postwar novel Shane and the Hollywood adaptation by George Stevens, a gunfighter appears out of nowhere, befriends and eventually defends a frontier family, and then disappears again. In a way, he represents every returning soldier from the killing fields of WWII and Korea who needed to be reintegrated into the communities they came from. The difficulty of this process is reflected in Shane's hyper-vigilant behavior and unwillingness to talk about his past, in both the book and the film, which suggest a man more than a little afflicted with PTSD. So the coming together of the western-movie gunslinger and the peaceable nuclear family in this story was surely a way for audiences to understand in fictional form the real drama going on in so many of their personal lives. That the gunslinger disappears, the family is saved, and the next generation is now free to grow "strong and straight" must have been greatly reassuring.

Meanwhile, the actual historical context of Schaefer’s story is the time of the Johnson County War of 1892, as Wyoming cattlemen attempted to force out rustlers, homesteaders, and other intruders on the open range. Cattleman Ryker (aka Fletcher in the novel) and his cowboys come riding up in the opening scene of the film to begin making their threats to the Starrett family to get off their land. So what we see in the film as the pressure on the homesteaders becomes increasingly violent has some basis in history.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Vengeance Valley (1951)

This Technicolor film, based on a Luke Short novel and released in 1951, is a rare western with actual working cowboys. Burt Lancaster is foreman of a ranch in an unspecified mountain setting (probably the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, where Hollywood often went on location to shoot westerns), and the action of the film includes a spring roundup of herds of Herefords, with talk of brands and voiceover explanation by one of the characters about what we’re watching. Early on, we see all the ranch’s cowhands gathered at a long table at the ranch house for breakfast, and there’s the usual joshing the cook, who clearly has the upper hand with them all. Later, we see him on the roundup, serving up coffee in the dead of night during a rainstorm. in a scene played for comedy, Lancaster shows his horse sense, as a horse dealer tries to sell him two worthless horses. All of these are authentic details of Old West ranching.

The timeframe of the film is also not specified, but judging by the women’s dresses, it is the late 1900s. But typical for 1950s westerns, the men dress like it’s the present day. Lancaster and the other cowboys wear jeans (Burt’s fit him like a glove), which no self-respecting cowboy would have worn at the time. Jeans were for farmers. Otherwise, Burt’s clothes look lived in when we first see him coming in off the range in his sheepskin coat and handsome Stetson (though a real working cowboy’s hat would be a good deal more worse for wear and sweat-stained). The other hats in the film are straight out of the box from the nearest western outfitters.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A long way from Tombstone

Western myth and reality make unusual partners in Blake Edwards’ Sunset (1988), a comedy set in 1929 Hollywood with James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Bruce Willis as silent western film star Tom Mix. Earp and Mix, who become buddies in the film, apparently were friends in real life, and Mix was pallbearer at Earp’s funeral. The film has Edwards’ usual light touch, and Willis and Garner are believable together. The plot is charmingly far-fetched up to (but not including) the point where it simulates not once but twice the shootout at the OK Corral – once on a grand staircase in the Roosevelt Hotel, while the first Oscars are being awarded in a nearby dining room. It’s all supposed to work as a kind of spoof – but it doesn’t quite, and if you’ve never heard of the film, that’s probably why.

As for history, Wyatt was already dead and buried by that night of the first Oscars.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, Duke!

I figure John Wayne's birthday is as good a day as any to get in the saddle here on blogger. I come to my interest in westerns from many years of reading about the historical west and cowboys in particular. Years ago, I discovered real-life cowboys of the 1880s were not regarded as icons of national character but rather as public nuisances on their trips into town from the open range. Then I wondered how they got to be the heroic figures we're familiar with from the movies. And that started a lot of reading, reading, reading.

Eventually, my interest expanded to cowboy songs, cowboy poetry, rodeos, comics, western movies, radio and TV. And I have an idea now of how myth and history overlap in these different genres - also how prolific was the output of cowboy-related material in popular culture. I'm just now discovering pulp westerns, thanks to Laurie Powers' book about her pulp writer grandfather, Paul S. Powers. Sagebrush Trail (1933) is one of John Wayne's many B-westerns made in the 1930s. Great example of how pulp westerns and B-westerns came together. And it's one of my favorite John Wayne movies. It also stars Lane Chandler and the incredible Yakima Canutt, who was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman for Wayne's early movies.

Anyway, that's how I got here today. I just acquired a stack of westerns from amazon that I intend to view in the coming weeks, with the intention of leaving my comments here and inviting those of any cowboy fans who happen to find this blog