The genre started right at the beginning of movie making with The Great Train Robbery, a silent Western. These mostly imaginary films had a great run right through the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, earning cowboy actors vast sums. One of them made it in both films and television, though it is mostly his horse and his wife who are remembered. I refer to Roy Rogers, Trigger and Dale.
I have chosen seven favourites. Thousands of Westerns have been made, even in Spain and Italy, and it looked as though the Western would carry on for ever, but then producers introduced psychology into the scripts instead of shootouts in saloons, and now the Western movie is nothing but myth.
One of these films involves John Wayne of course, though it should be remembered that though Stagecoach gave Wayne his first real starring role, he was already 32. It was directed by John Ford, and Oscars were collected for the music and by actor Thomas Mitchell playing himself; as did John Wayne: “I’ve been doing all right, haven’t I?” the Duke asked. He was doing all right, though his walk was superbly parodied by Nathan Lane in a Mike Nichols film called ‘The Birdcage’.
In Stagecoach (1939) Ford made Wayne TALK and THINK, and show he was doing both. It should have been a minor Western, but became a classic instead. The ‘John Wayne Repertory Company’ started with this film, and there some of them are: John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine, Donald Meek etc. Ward Bond hadn’t joined then, nor Woody Strode, nor Victor MacLagen.
Dances with Wolves was made in 1990 and is full of typical western material – horses, Indians, guns, death and the frailty or strength of human relations. It won five Oscars including one for director and actor Kevin Costner who goes from strength to weakness with each film he makes. This was one of his best films, hampered by John Barry’s music, which is always exactly the same. The film was three hours long, and an even longer version is available on DVD (243 minutes). It has unforgettable moments – the grand buffalo hunt, two spectacular ambushes and a few pitched battles including the opening scene of a battle between Northern and Southern forces during the Civil War that can leave you breathless. There is little humour (a filthy man who farts is later horribly killed); the Native American is glorified beyond reasonable measure; the Native Americans converse in genuine Siouxan . . .it is undoubtedly one of the greatest Westerns.
Bend of the River (aka Where the river bends)was made in 1952 and directed by Anthony Mann. James Stewart is not of this world and nor is his extraordinary voice; the bad man is played by one of the very best American character actors – Arthur Kennedy. The film has a wagon train and feisty women and very little gunplay. It holds your attention for ninety one minutes.
Tombstone is one of three films built around the real gunfight at the OK corral. It was made a year before (1993) the Kevin Costner story of the Earp brothers whom we meet later and was directed with skill and verve by George B. Cosmatos.
Instead of spending too much time on describing the Earps, Cosmatos concentrates on the peculiar friendship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday – a real ‘killing gentleman’. Kurt Russell does his best in the Earp role, while the excellent Val Kilmer brings the bad dentist directly to life, something that Kirk Douglas failed to do in the next of the seven.
Gunfight at the OK corral was directed in 1957 by John Sturges. I think it was one of the new breed of westerns in which people think too much, and philosophise about their thoughts, until you want to shoot them with their own guns.
The gunfight actually comes at the very end and the spectator has to sit through about seventy minutes of talk, talk, talk. But it is worth the wait. Totally realistic, the fight is based entirely on the writings of witnesses of the original shootout. Watch out for the brief appearance of a very young Dennis Hopper as the youngest of the Clanton family. The stars are Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp) and Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday). The music is strident (Dimitry Tiomkin), with the lead song performed by a screechy male voice.
Wyatt Earp was directed in 1994 by Laurence Kasdan, with Earp played by his friend and business partner Kevin Costner. The film must end with the gunfight at the OK corral of course, but before then during 189 minutes the writer makes us aware of the Earp brothers.
This is their story. ‘There comes a time when a man needs to be a man’ etc. The film often works on an epic scale, but is not quite as good as the film it did down at the box office, Tombstone. In one of those typically Hollywood silly chess moves, though the latter film was made twelve months before, both films were released together, at least in Europe. Costner was more popular than Russell. The result was that Tombstone flopped. The same thing has happened many times before. They did it with two biogs of Oscar Wilde released at once (1959). They did it with two biogs of Robin Hood released at once (1991). I suppose they will do it again. That’s Hollywood.
My last choice is my favourite of favourites and I make no bones about it. I think this film introduced new thoughts about how Westerns should be made and look like. It also introduced to the movie bigtime several little known actors: Steve McQueen, Horst Buckholtz, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Brad Dexter did not stir the castings director’s stony hearts before they joined Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach and Robert Vaughn in a film which was actually a copy of an earlier film made by the Japanese! That one was called Seven Samurai, but my favourite is called The Magnificent Seven, an awful title for a marvellous film. You start with the music, written by Elmer Bernstein. This kind of composition started a whole new theory of what film music (especially for Westerns) should be. There have been hundreds of near copies since.
Then there are the gunshots. Before TMS gunshots were recorded next to a mike, and thundered theatrically. In TMS they sound in the distance, with a louder ricochet and a number of shadowy echoes. It was new. It was popular.
Then there is Yul Brynner’s walk. Half-panther, half-oriental prince. Unique. No-one else could do it. No-one else would want to do it. The script sometimes veers towards the sentimental but stays on the right side. There are only two gunfight set pieces in the whole film, but somehow you stay gripped, by the acting (Robert Vaughn as an aging gunfighter losing his nerve, Bronson as the incorrigible tough who becomes a hero for children, Buckholtz as a young farmer who simply has to be a gunfighter and has more guts than the other six put together), the photography (Charles Lang Jr.), that extraordinary music . . . this is the Western to put the rest to bed. And in a way, it did, because the western genre began dying after TMS. It became terminal, and now no-one wants to put half a dollar into a Western. That’s Hollywood again.