Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

My Top Five Westerns

A few weeks ago I turned the TV on a few minutes before the film I wanted to watch started, and caught the final few minutes of How The West Was Won. George Peppard was driving family across gob smackingly gorgeous Monument Valley scenery in an open wagon. Then the scene cut to aerial shots of the 1960s America pioneers, like his character, had helped to forge; a monolithic cornfield, soulless skyscrapers and a massive motorway junction.

Save to say that scene probably didn't have the effect on me that the director had intended.

That said, I do like Westerns, although they are a strange genre.

I can easily understand why universal themes such as love, war, crime and comedy have become established in the movies, but why a brief period of nineteenth century American history should have become a staple of global cinema is a bit of a mystery. After all, the equivalent period in British history was potentially just as exciting, but didn't really catch on.

To historian Arnold Toynbee this was down to the romance of the nomad, and he compared how the cowboy is remembered in the USA to the Mongolians who look back the great days of Ghengis Khan.

But as another late, great historian, Eric Hobsbawm, has pointed out, only the American cowboy has gone global. John Wayne did indeed play Genghis Khan, but the film is now only remembered because many of the cast, including Wayne himself, died of cancer, possibly from nearby nuclear tests.

The success of the Western, probably, is mostly due to the power of Hollywood, backed up by politicians, from Kennedy onwards, who used the myth to their own advantage until, in 1980, a real fake cowboy made his way into the White House, followed in 2000 by a fake, fake cowboy.

And a myth the West has always been fake, even when the West was reality.

In his Frontier Thesis of 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that in settling the West, Americans finally ceased to be Europeans and finally became themselves. He discounted race, class and gender, and said the West was defined by violence, individualism and a distrust of authority. As history it was pants, but as a myth it was brilliant. Only a decade after the publication of his paper the first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, had its premier in New York.

Very few of those early Westerns are remembered fondly - which is a polite way of saying they were crap - and the classic films generally belong to a narrow era that started with John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939 and ended with the spectacular turkey Heaven's Gate in 1980.

If I were to make a list of the five best Westerns I'd include the usual suspects of High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch etc, but this isn't that sort of list. The standard interpretation of the myth of the West doesn't really interest me. I could also have chosen A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves and other films that centred on the American Indian experience, but I'll save that for another time. What I couldn't do though is choose my top five female characters in Westerns. A Western is more likely to have a car chase than a strong female character.

Instead what I have here is a very subjective list of Westerns that mean something to me. Here goes.

5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

As the Western is now part of the world's culture, it is not surprising that it has had influences around the world. Perhaps most surprisingly it took root in is the country the USA so comprehensively defeated in World War Two, Japan.

Akira Kurosawa transferred the Western to feudal Japan, and so well did he understand the rules of the genre that his films ended up being remade as real Westerns. The Seven Samurai for instance became first The Magnificent Seven, and then Battle Beyond the Stars - a Western in outer space. Hidden Fortress skipped the Western genre entirely and went straight on influence Star Wars - another sci-fi Western.

His film Yojimbo, the story of a lone Samurai who walks into a town ruled by two feuding gangs and proceeds to wipe them both out, was itself inspired by Dashiel Hammett's semi-autobiographical 1929 detective novel Red Harvest. It too became a Western, not in Hollywood, but in Italy.

This was Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, the film that made Clint Eastwood the last actor to become a star by appearing a Western. That film was followed by For A Few Dollars More, which added Lee van Cleef to the cast. Filming in Italy meant a nominal 'Mexican border' location', and so in its travel round the world the Western regained some of the multiculturalism of the Old West which had been purged by Hollywood.

For the third part of the loose trilogy, Eastwood and van Cleef were joined by Eli Wallach, one of the most unlucky actors in Hollywood. He'd been signed up to play the lead in From Here To Eternity, but Frank Sinatre allegedly used his mob connections to get the role, and the Oscar.

Longer than a cattle drive across Texas, and more a series of set pieces than a film with any sort of plot, this is genre film making at its best, with any pretence to be historical fiction completely out of the window. Like other Leone Westerns, the scenery is almost a character in itself, and Leone appears to direct around Ennio Morricone's music rather than the other way round. Indeed, you only need to here a couple of bars of the classic theme, even on a ukulele, to imagine the tumbleweed blowing across the prairie, the cloaked figure slowly chewing tobacco and the extreme closeup to a pair of shifty eyes.

Arguably Leone's last Western, Duck, You Sucker! (also known by the marginally less macho title of A Fistful Of Dynamite) is better even though it does seem to be saying something serious about anarchy and revolution.

There is nothing whatsoever serious about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

But the West wasn't a myth hanging in the air waiting for an auteur like Leone turn up and make an artfully violent film out of it. Instead it exists because it is a foundation myth of a people creating order out of a state of primordial chaos though their own actions.

This is all very much an American thing. Over here in Blighty a cowboy, of course, is not a heroic cattle hand with a chiseled jaw, but a dodgy builder with an exposed butt-crack. The British Empire had its wild frontiers, but they (almost) always had law and order.

Take Canada, for example, which bordered the real West. The Klondike gold rush, the last real eruption of that old frontier spirit, saw prospectors hoping to get rich quick land in Skagway, Alaska. There, whilst hooping it up in the saloon, the boys were usually fleeced of their last dime by the owner of the town, Jefferson Randall 'Soapy' Smith.

NWMP at the Chilkoot Pass
If they survived that and made it over the border to Canada they were met, under a fluttering Union Jack, by a detachment of North West Mounted Police, in their scarlet tunics and brass buttons, who dispensed first aid and ensured that anyone proceeding further had enough supplies to survive. One notorious Kansas villain made it to Dawson Creek, the Canadian town at the heart of the Klondike, where the Mounties ejected him from a saloon, for the crime of 'talking too loudly'.

America, by contrast, was an almost a stateless society. The Seventh Cavalry might have been out there fighting the Injuns, but in the towns the people had to do it themselves.

That said, the West was nowhere near as violent as the myth makes out. Each year, between 1870 and 1885, the average number of people shot dead in all the cattle towns of the West, including Dodge City, was just one and a half. The real villains, it seems, were con men like Soapy Smith out to take your money, rather than gun men like the villain of this film, out to take your life.

Gun men make better cinema though, so here we have Jimmy Stewart's honest politician taking the credit for shooting dead Lee Marvin's titular baddie, when he was really gunned down by John Wayne. By the end of the film the local newspaperman knows the real story, but declines to run it saying "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", before presumably going off to get a job at Fox News.

Perhaps though he should have said "film the legend", for the story of the West was being made into cinema even whilst it was being written. In 1915, for instance, the lawman and Indian fighter Bill Tilghman was making a film about a bunch of crooks called the Oklahoma Outlaws when he had to break off to help hunt for one of them, Henry Starr, who had just robbed a bank.

3. Unforgiven (1992)

Nearly eight decades later, when this film was made, the Western was something of a dying genre. The Marlborough man had smoked himself to death and the cowboy had now left the White House. Perhaps not surprisingly it's a fairly revisionist film.

John Wayne's gunslinger may not have been as smart a Jimmy Stewart's politician, but he was certainly a decent enough guy. This film question though whether those who live by violence are really such well rounded individuals.

The cowboy was essentially made and then destroyed by technology. Effective and mass produced personal small arms, such as the revolver and repeating
rifle, gave the cowboy affordable firepower that allowed him to kill both Indians and wildlife at will, and in relative safety. Eventually technology would produce barbed wire which would make the cowboy redundant, but for a while the man on a horse with his gun really was the symbol of the West.

On the face of it this film is just another one of those films where Clint Eastwood plays one of those cowboys with a gun who shoots lots of people. Dirty Harry in a stetson. Certainly we have the same ambiguity between good guys and bad guys, and the same contempt for the law and formal procedures.

However what we also have is an examination of what makes a gunman different to a man with a gun. This isn't just skill at arms, but psychology. Clint's killer is effective not just because of his quick draw, but because he's a psychopath. This is real stuff. Research has shown that even amongst trained soldiers, only a minority would actually aim their weapon at an enemy soldier with the intention of killing him. Most of us are not killers by nature.

Eastwood's character is, and he certainly does shoot a lot of people, seemingly not able to properly retire from the killing game.

This was true of a few real desperadoes too. Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Jesse James all had opportunities to fade away and live out their days making honest money, but somehow they couldn't manage it. Strangely they are all fondly remembered today. This film suggests that perhaps they shouldn't be.

2. Treasure of Sierra Madre ( 1948)

But why were people heading West anyway? For freedom and adventure is generally the answer in the movies. Maybe, but I suspect it was mostly about making money.

For all the myths of the cowboy as the loner, he was always very much connected to the money economy of the East. Everything that happened in the West, from hunting to prospecting, ranching to mining, whatever wasn't done for survival was usually done to make money. 

This film barely counts as a Western. It takes place in the Mexican desert and so most of the staples of the genre are missing. There's no Sheriff, no rowdy saloon, no railroad, and the Indians who turn up noticeably lack feathers and tomahawks. Then there is the date it's set, 1925.

There was no magic date though when the Old West ended and the twentieth century began. By 1890 there was no real open space left to be claimed, and so no Western Frontier as such. The USA now stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but large parts of it were still lawless. The original Wild Bunch weren't rounded up until 1903 - the year of the first Western - and many other outlaws lasted longer than that. Henry Starr, for example, having evaded Tilghman in 1915, was eventually shot dead in 1921. He was robbing another bank at the time, but this time his getaway car was parked outside. Mexico though was still pretty wild in 1925, recovering from its revolution, and an attempted military coup in 1924.

In my opinion though, it's theme definitely makes it a Western. Basically three Americans go into the desert in search of gold. They find their fortune, but loose their minds.

Written by the mysterious 'B Traven', an unknown German with anarchist sympathies, it was directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Boggart, it's brilliantly played by everyone. Traven even squeezes in a bit of Marxism.

Which is perhaps why it's not considered a real Western. Real Westerns celebrate that one man can grow rich off the labour of a thousand less fortunate souls. This film shows the inhumanity of that view.

1. Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

So what is there for a liberal Green to enjoy in Westerns. Are they just celebrations of stylised violence, national self deception, real life psychos and Capitalist greed?

Not entirely.

My favourite anarchist writer, Murray Bookchin, regarded the rugged individualism of the cowboy as a better seed on which to grown real social ecology than the state socialism of Europe.

You can also, if you will, take the view of the West at the end of How The West Was Won and wind it backwards. Rolling back history to before the natural beauty of the USA was despoiled and polluted, covered in concrete of monocrops, before the buffalo herds were exterminated and the barbed wire put up, you have the cowboy living fairly lightly on the land.

That's what Edward Abbey had his hero Jack Burns doing in his novel Brave Cowboy. Abbey is usually remembered, if he's remembered at all, as the author of The Monkeywrench Gang, the book that popularised monkeywrenching and inspired the creation of Earth First! Many people assume that the hero of that novel, George Hayduke, was Abbey's favourite character. But he wasn't. That was Jack Burns.

This is a 'modern' Western, although as it was written in 1962 it was set closer to the time of the real West than to today. Modern Westerns generally take one of two forms. Films like Bad Day At Bad Rock (a really great movie, unlucky not to be in this list, which is almost unique in showing prejudice towards Japanese-Americans during World War Two) have modern characters acting out a Western theme, in that film the stranger arriving in the 'town with a secret', or else they have Western characters appearing the modern world, such as Clint Eastwood's Coogan's Bluff, which inspired the TV series McCloud.

Abbey goes for the second approach, but Burns isn't a violent lawman, but a cowboy loner who seeks out the few remaining wild places of America, whilst earning a thin living herding sheep. The film is a pretty straight remake of the book, and stars Kirk Douglas's chin as Jack Burns.

Jack's friend Paul Bondi has been sent to prison for helping some illegal immigrants. Determined to rescue him, Burns gets himself jailed for brawling with a one-armed man in a bar, played by Bill Raisch, who also played the fellow Richard Kimble was after in The Fugitive, so they can escape together. However with a family and an academic career, Bondi would rather serve out his time than escape, so Burns busts out himself and heads for the Mexican border.

Soon he is fleeing over the mountains pursued by Walter Mattheu's Sheriff, who can call on the US Air Force for help, as well as George Kennedy's thuggish Deputy.

Burns is a veteran who doesn't carry a draft card, a man who believes in natural justice but has no respect for the law. He's an anarchist of a very American type, and one who's individualism has no limit. He's a lover of wilderness, and who would rather live out his days as fugitive in the hills than submit to the government.

In the book it is the more philosophical Bondi, rather than the taciturn Burns, who expresses the author's concerns. "I see liberty being strangled like a dog everywhere I look, I see my country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and superhighways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets".

Abbey's enemy is entirely faceless. The Sheriff is a sympathetic character, respecting Burns and
having little time for the Air Force General who only wants to tell him the dollar value of the helicopter Burns has shot down.

In the end *SPOILER ALERT* Burns evades the law and gets himself and his horse over the mountains until all that remains between him and freedom is that icon of modern America, Route 66. But in the end the modern world wins and Burns and Whisky are knocked down by a lorry load of toilets bound for Albuquerque. Whisky is killed and Burns, who you imagine prefers to disappear behind a rock for his ablutions, is taken off to hospital. In the original draft of the novel Burns dies. But Abbey couldn't bare to leave his hero dead on the tarmac, so the ending is left ambiguous.

It's a great film - Kirk Douglas said it was his favourite - and it's a pity more people haven't seen it. It's fate is usually a graveyard slot on TCM movies. Perhaps its message is not one that most Western fans want to hear. Whilst the planned film version of The Monkey Wrench Gang remains in limbo it's the only big screen Abbey we're able to see.

As for Burns, Abbey did indeed have him return, in his posthumously published sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke Lives!, in which he teams up with the gang, and Earth First!, to take on the world's biggest walking dragline.

It's a long journey from Ronald Reagan conservative to Earth First! anarchist, but what they share is the figure of the cowboy as living in a liminal place between civilisation and wilderness.

Like all great myths, that of the cowboy can be read in different ways. That some have used it to justify corporate greed, preemptive warfare and the environmental destruction should not stop others from seeing exactly the opposite message in these films.

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