Gunfighter nation

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


Any discussion of the western has to begin with director John Ford, who virtually launched the modern genre with "Stagecoach" in 1939. Before "Stagecoach," westerns were formulaic back-lot B-movies. If the genre seems full of cliches now, it's only because you've seen dozens of imitations. "Stagecoach" introduced Monument Valley, the Indian-stagecoach chase, the cavalry rescue (complete with bugle) and John Wayne as the noble gunfighter.

Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1946) is the finest screening of the Wyatt Earp story and the O.K. Corral gunfight. Henry Fonda gives one of his most unflappable performances as the laconic lawman.

"The Searchers" (1946), which depends for its suspense upon the rather preposterous possibility that John Wayne might kill teenage Natalie Wood, has been somewhat overrated over the years. Still, it is a masterpiece of landscape, mise en scene, and gesture.

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962) was once underrated, mostly because critics focused on the least interesting actor, James Stewart. Wayne and Lee Marvin, at his reptilian best here, are the ones to watch.

George Marshall's "Destry Rides Again" is a textbook classic of the genre, but it also demonstrates how self-conscious Hollywood had become in 1939 about the conventions of westerns, such as shootouts, dance hall hijinks and saloon brawls.

William Wellman's "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) is more than an anti-lynching statement. Filmed mostly at night with only a couple of trees for a set, it's the most character-driven and dialogue-heavy of all westerns.

Howard Hawks, the ultimate guy director, pitted a hard- boiled John Wayne against the smoldering Montgomery Clift in "Red River" (1948) and sparks flew. This is THE cattle drive movie.

Can't you hear that Tex Ritter song as soon as the title "High Noon" (1952) is mentioned? Director Fred Zinneman helmed this Gary Cooper classic. Notice how the film is edited to unfold in real time.

"Shane" (1953) is the greatest western ever made. Director George Stevens set out to make the perfect western and that's just what he did. Alan Ladd glows from within like he is incandescent and Jack Palance is a black hole that consumes all light. No western bears up to repeated watchings like this one.

Director Nicholas Ray showed with "Johnny Guitar" (1954) a possible future direction for adult westerns. Rival women in leather regalia run the town (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) while the stud (Sterling Hayden) lounges in the saloon with his guitar. It's a fascinating notion and a hoot to watch, if a thematic dead-end.

"3:10 to Yuma" (1957) is a small gem precisely because it's small. A nervous farmer (Van Heflin) has to hold a clever outlaw (Glenn Ford in his best performance) prisoner until a train arrives. That's about it. The tension just keeps building. Elmore Leonard wrote this one.

The greatest popcorn western of all time, "The Magnficent Seven" (1960) is now also claimed in the Vietnam War film canon. That's no joke. If you ever wondered what America was thinking when it got militarily involved in Vietnam, watch this movie and you will see exactly what it was thinking. Tragically, Ho Chi Minh wasn't Eli Wallach.

Marlon Brando directed and starred in "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) and therein lies the reason for watching this revenge western. Brando towers over the material.

There is a tendency to overrate director Sam Peckinpah, but there is no denying his "Ride the High Country" (1962) and "The Wild Bunch" (1969). Both derive their power from the sense of loss as the Old West gives way to the Twentieth Century. In the first, Randolph Scott (in his last movie) and Joel McCrea prove that the old ways are honorable. "Bunch" has been interpreted many ways, but what it really is is the eye-popping result of Peckinpah's bloodthirsty id given free rein.

"Lonely Are the Brave," from a Dalton Trumbo script, is set roughly in the year it was made, 1962, and details the travails of a modern day cowboy (Kirk Douglas) who cannot find his niche. The three most important plot devices are females: his sister- in-law, the painting over the bar, and his horse. This is Douglas' favorite performance.

In director Martin Ritt's "Hombre" (1967), Paul Newman virtually reprises John Wayne's role in a homage to "Stagecoach" based on an Elmore Leonard story. Tart, quotable dialogue abounds and Richard Boone turns in an outlaw performance as tough as rawhide.

John Wayne's last great performance was in "True Grit" (1969), which signals the end of an era in the same way his "Stagecoach" signaled the beginning of an era. The time of rootin' and tootin' was over now that Wayne was a "one-eyed fat man."

It's hard to remember now how radical Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" looked in 1964 with its sun-blasted scenery, ugly dirty people, and nihilistic violence--not to mention a squinty young unknown from American television named Clint Eastwood. To everyone's astonishment, an Italian had seized the genre! Three years later Leone brought the "spaghetti western" to its full flowering in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which remains the greatest big-screen epic western.

Hollywood could still load the chambers for traditional western entertainment in the 1960s and "The Professionals" (1966) and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) are the best examples. Big screen treatment was leavened with wry humor and a little sex.

Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971) is now recognizable as the first 1990s western. Its ambivalence about its characters and rueful atmosphere are striking even now. The killing of the cowboy on the rope bridge is the most heartbreaking moment in all westerns.

It may be heresy to Ford devotees, but "Ulzana's Raid" (1972) is the greatest of all cavalry movies. Tough-minded and honest, it has Robert Aldrich directing Burt Lancaster in one of his most heroic roles as a scout for the soldiers.

Eastwood's "The Outlaw--Josey Wales" (1976) is a long, funny, improbable, violent, expertly made odyssey about an outlaw on the run who gathers a ragtag entourage. This is the standout of Eastwood's many post-spaghetti westerns.

Steve McQueen's role as "Tom Horn" (1980) was also ahead of its time. The political overtones in this movie about a bounty hunter bidden to kill by some wealthy ranchers who does his job too well are intriguing. Tom Horn is the ideological granddaddy of G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North.

Two westerns came out in 1993 that are quintessentially post-modern, "The Unforgiven" and "The Ballad of Little Jo."

In the first, Eastwood deconstructs the heroic posturing, the thrilling gunplay, and the mythmaking media and reveals it all as a shabby historical lie. This is virtually an anti-western.

In the latter movie, "inspired by a real life," a woman left without protection in the Old West disguises herself as a man and prospers (and even takes a couple of male lovers). Add "gender outlaw" to the great western roles.


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