Sunday, July 18, 2010
OK, I admit it: I LOVE a good western.
Oh Heck, let’s be honest...I love a BAD western sometimes too. OK, often... lol
As a kid growing up in rural Arizona in the 70s [I was born in ’64] westerns were everywhere. The local TV stations in Tucson re-ran them constantly. The adult men of my town read them often... in stores, barber shops and their own trucks on work breaks. The school and public libraries were full of them. So I have an excuse for my taste: I was brainwashed early.
Westerns still seem pretty popular in AZ. More popular than in other places I have been. It even seems fitting to me somehow that the singular distinctive MYTH found in the classic western has remained popular at this late hour primarily here in the hinterlands of the real U.S. west. If nothing else, this fact suggests to me that the western has a certain psychological appeal, and that that draw is closely linked to literal "wide open spaces."
Libertarian writer Gary North has listed what he believes to be the 4 fundamental themes of the classic western. They are as follows:
1. cowardice vs. honor
2. the defense of private property (land)
3. law enforcement
4. the moral limits of vengeance
I think that’s a pretty accurate list. And I feel I should note...Westerns that do not apply any of these themes are almost always modern, revisionist westerns.
Westerns have never really changed over the years, but that is not to say there has not been a great variety of artistic direction within the genre.
Looking at the 4 themes stated above one would almost conclude that the western is nessessarily conservative... perhaps even individualistic and libertarian. But alas, that hasn’t always been true. In point of fact, westerns have been used to promote liberal agendas as well as conservative ones; to promote Christianity as well as to mock Faith. A recent western-- OPEN RANGE with Kevin Costner-- has serious socialistic undertones to the viewer who can see them. Actually though, this is nothing new. Many classic westerns have had uncomfortably "collectivist" themes since at least the World War 2 era. [Take a close look sometime at the underlying message of HIGH NOON, for example, which strongly implies that an empowered central government is the only thing that will save men from themselves. Watch the famous "church scene" carefully and you’ll see what I mean.]
At it’s best, though, the western is a great and uniquely American art form. And yes... at it’s best it is one of the most entertaining showcases for fiction concerned with the plight of rugged individuals, often standing at odds with the conglomerate or corporate mindset.
It has been said often that Owen Wister’s 1900 novel THE VIRGINIAN is the first western story, but I believe this is entirely ludicrous. Fenimore Cooper basically wrote frontier "westerns" seventy-odd years before Wister, and dime novels had already invented and overused the "fast draw showdowns" and "heroic personal codes" of the "horse opera" since at least the late 1860s.
Having said that, though, I will admit that THE VIIRGINIAN was a milestone; a true American classic. If you’ve never read it I actually envy you the experience. In essence, Wister took the conventions and cliches of the mythic dime novel western and added something that made literary history: a remarkable dose of realism. Wister’s cowboys are real working men. His landscapes are turn-of-the-century Wyoming as seen by a brilliant visitor. Read today, Wister’s masterpiece seems less like a "western" than something out of Dickens or Stevenson; the characters are finely drawn and the story is compelling. Even the female lead character is a fully developed and motivated character... and that is something only the best westerns ever could boast.
After Wister came the deluge. I believe the golden age of the western on paper was from about 1900 to 1925 or so. Even the worst westerns from that period seem to be well written and thoughtful. Check out the short stories that O. Henry wrote about the west, for example. They contain some best slang you will ever read.
Another good period though, for some reason, is the late 1930s to mid-1940s. Westerns had a strong literary feel just before and during the WW2 era. [Again I really don’t know why.] Ernest Hemingway himself once confessed to voraciously reading the works of Ernest Haycox [one of my 3 favorite all-time authors.] If you read some of Haycox’s short fiction from the period-- especially stories like "Violent Interlude" and my personal favorite "Officer’s Choice"-- you will see why. They read like Hemingway on horseback. Other greats from this period were Tom W. Blackburn, Luke Short, and Peter Dawson. [Interestingly, Short and Dawson were real life brothers-- real names Frederick and Jonathon Glidden.]
I believe that western movies also had their rennasiance in the ’30s and ’40s. Some of those films are still the most realistically designed westerns ever filmed. Look at the costuming in films like DALLAS with Gary Cooper or DODGE CITY with Erroll Flynn.
Even the horses are dressed right-- in Victorian high-backed saddlery. The spirit of these films is great as well... always a rollicking wide open attitude... and a blissful democracy about the rights of men. And again these westerns often feature great female characters. Check out Ella Raines as the cowgirl heroine "Arly" in the old John wayne classic TALL IN THE SADDLE. She is by far the best character in the film... lively, smart, attractive, and virile. They just don’t create cowgirls like that anymore. Sigh.
The greatest western movie of all time though, in my humble opinion, is TRUE GRIT from 1969. I don’t care what anyone tells you, John Wayne totally earned his Oscar for his portrayal of fat, one-eyed, Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn. This film, based on Charles Portis’ classic novel of the same name, is an amazingly audacious movie that would NEVER be made today. The story of teenaged moralist Mattie Ross [played to perfection by Kim Darby] hiring the drunken Cogburn to avenge her father’s death is less a cliched shoot-em-up than a near documentary about the criminal mindset and effective containment thereof. Cogburn, Mattie, and Texas ranger LeBouef [played with red-neck bravado in an under-rated performance by Glen Campbell] travel through an 1870s Oklahoma Territory where criminals are real and not glorified. They are consistently presented as selfish, whiney and brutal... and thus darkly comical. Also, the use of period slang and vernacular in this film is the best I have ever seen, although I have to admit that the screenplay for TOMBSTONE with Kurt Russell runs a close second.
TV westerns, in my opinion, were usually not as good as their counterparts in print and cinema. GUNSMOKE and BONANZA, the 2 longest running TV westerns, are both-- to me, at least-- case studies in boredom and nausea. [Nobody on Bonanza even LOOKS like they’ve been west of the Jersey shore, and how about that Gunsmoke anyway? 20 years on the air and NO character developement whatsoever! You’d think he would’ve at least married the hooker by about year 5! LOL]
MAVERICK with James Garner, on the other hand, was a classic. I can’t wait til they DVD that one!
All in all... I think the very best TV westerns, for some reason, were the ones that bordered on soap opera. My two all-time favorites were both of this style: HIGH CHAPPARAL and [remove all hats, please] THE BIG VALLEY.
The great selling point of these 2 shows was their attempt at historicity. While the hairstyles and clothes were sometimes off, both shows made a really noble attempt at historical realism. Both, for example were actually filmed where they were set. "HC" was filmed each week in Old Tucson and actaully took place there. "BV" was done the same way in the San Joaquin Valley in SoCal.
As much as I like the compelling Inter-cultural ranch saga and great acting of HIGH CHAPPARAL, for me there was never a TV western to rank with BIG VALLEY. This classic show had all the themes mentioned by Gary North above, and it used them to the most dramatic effect ever. It was the opposite of a collectivist western in that the heroes were a family involved in big time capitalism, and the values of free trade and charity were constantly if subtly preached. Also, no western ever quite reached the sheer testosterone level that the Barkley saga did. Never was there-- in ANY other western-- a better group of differing bad-asses than the Barkley brothers. Hot-head Nick, big-brained Jarrod, and Tragic/noble Heath [no accident, I think, that his name so closely resembles that of the anti-hero of WUTHERING HEIGHTS] were the best ensemble of charcters that ever graced a TV western. In fact, this show was far more closely aligned to the literary western invented by Owen Wister than to the then-current paperback writers like, say, Louis L’Amour [who I also admire, actually.] Also, the great Barbara Stanwick really lifted the bar with her presence as the matriarch of the clan. She made it classy as well as tough. Long live THE BIG VALLEY!
So yeah... I dig Westerns!
I know they are out of style-- but I love them in spite of it... heck, maybe BECAUSE of it.
Some folks escape with Jedi Knights and some with young sorcerers named Harry... but give me a horse next to Rooster Cogburn any day!