|Drawing by Rita Rosenberger Protani Pollock|
Critics say that westerns fell out of favor because they were too morally simplistic for the increasingly sophisticated audiences. I disagree. As my list below shows, westerns could be just as morally sophisticated as the other dramas and action films of the period. Instead, I would propose that westerns fell out of favor because the emerging directors of New Hollywood, i.e., Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, had neither the proper feel or inclination to make westerns. When the top filmmakers abandon a genre, it withers. I believe the box office shows that a good western still brings in an audience.
Here's my list of (mostly) good westerns.*
SPOILERS - SPOILERS - SPOILERS
(5). They Call Me Trinity (Lo chiamavano Trinta). 1970
Written and Directed by Enzo Barboni
A good-natured drifter named Trinity, who has quite way with a gun, wanders into a town torn by a range war between a rancher and a religious sect of farmers. Trinity is surprised to find his estranged older brother, Bambino, a recent prison escapee, masquerading as the sheriff while he waits for his gang of rustlers. Trinity manages to convince his gruff brother to come to the aid of the farmers.
Originally, this post was about my ten favorite Westerns, but I was too busy revising my novel to deal with ten films. On that list, this film was originally number ten, behind McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Red River, The Long Riders, The Magnificent Seven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All five of those films are objectively better than They Call Me Trinity. So why is this western spoof on this list?
First, it is a sentimental favorite. I saw this film often at my neighborhood theater, The Arcade, during my youth, often in conjunction with its sequel. Secondly, late at night when I'm in the mood for a western, this tends to be the DVD I throw into the player. (No Blu-Ray available yet.) Why? I really enjoy the chemistry between Terence Hill's easy-going Trinity and Bud Spencer's gruff Bambino. The film is not consistently funny, but the tone remains enjoyably, goofy throughout.
Hill and Spencer would be teamed in many films, but never to this effect. Terence Hill would also play a little more ambitious variation of the Trinity character in the 1973 film My Name Is Nobody, also starring Henry Fonda. I recommend that film as well.
(Some other guilty Western pleasures from my "Arcade" period include Big Jake, 1971, starring John Wayne and Richard Boone, Bandolero!, 1968, starring James Stewart and Dean Martin; 5 Card Stud, 1968, starring Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum; Chisum, 1970, starring John Wayne and Forrest Tucker, and The Train Robbers, 1973, starring John Wayne and Ann-Margaret.)
(4). The Wild Bunch. 1969
Director Sam Peckinpah/Writers Sam Peckinpah & Walon Green
Story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner
An aging band of outlaws take one last job, stealing guns from the U.S. Army for a Mexican general, in this masterful western about the end of the west. This film is director Sam Peckinpah's true classic. It is a perfect mix of director, script, timing, and ultimately, casting. Since this is a film about men, Peckinpah's trademarked misogyny is less pronounced than in many of his other films, and he never had a better canvas for his explicit yet poetic violence. It is, in some ways, an exploration of the nature of violence, and how it is handed from one generation to another as symbolized by the American children who replay the violent bank robbery in the bloody street, and the young Mexican boy who joyfully watches the battle at the side of the Mexican general Mapache.
The script is wonderfully understated. It's truest and most brilliant moment comes when William Holden's character makes his suicidal decision to rescue his tortured comrade. He simply says, "Let's go." No speeches. No explanations. There is a certain grandeur in the simplicity of that moment. The timing of the film was important in two ways. This film was one of the first to be edited with tape rather than glue, and that innovation in and of itself made it much easier to edit. That, in no small part, can be credited for the frenetic cutting of the gun battles. The editing of this film was tremendously influential. Also, the film was relevant in terms of theme during the Vietnam era. Many saw this violent tale of armed Americans interfering in a third world civil war highly-symbolic of America's bloody loss of innocence. Still, despite any real or implied meaning, the film would be irrelevant if it didn't work. And it does thanks in no small part to the excellent cast led by William Holden.
William Holden is truly stunning as Bishop Pike, the aging, disillusioned leader of the gang. He is a great actor, too little acknowledged today, and this is one of his very best performances. His character reminds me more of a film noir detective than a normal western outlaw. Like a film noir anti-hero, (imagine, in comparison, Bogart in The Maltese Falcon,) Pike lives outside society's corrupt morality yet maintains an inner dignity and superiority by living by his own ironclad code of conduct. There's only one problem: Pike really doesn't live by his code. He readily speaks of it, but he really only uses it to maintain a hold over his unruly bunch. Despite the code, he is willing to sacrifice member after member, even his old friend Sykes, in the shabby name of self-preservation. Pike, more intelligent than the other members of his gang, realizes his life is a lie. His decision to rescue gang member Angel, or die trying, is a true moment of redemption that gives the ensuing orgy of violence meaning.
The rest of the cast is very good too. Ernest Borgnine gives an excellent performance as Dutch, the conscience of the group. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are excellent as the rowdy Gorsch brothers. Robert Ryan is also very good as a former outlaw compelled by the railroad to bring Pike back face down over a saddle.
This is one of the truly great westerns. There would not be another truly great American western until 1992's Unforgiven. One complaint. The Blu Ray only features the "director's cut." The theatrical version of the film was superior. None of the restored scenes were truly needed. They only slowed down the narrative.
(3). Unforgiven. 1992
Director Clint Eastwood/Writer David Webb Peoples
After a prostitute in the town of Big Whisky is mutilated by two of her customers, her co-workers raise a thousand dollar reward for the man who kills the cowboys when no justice is delivered by the sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman). William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a formerly ferocious killer and outlaw who had been reformed by his late wife, is lured out retirement by the young, boastful Scofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the nephew of one his former associates, to go after the reward. After securing the aid of his former partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), William agrees.
This film practically oozes with moral ambiguity. Sheriff Little Bill Dagget, who definitely views himself as a good and just man, indeed provides the town of Big Whisky security but at the price of uneven and often sadistic justice. Dagget's dark side is shown when English Bob (Richard Harris), a notorious killer seeking hero status, comes to collect the reward with his wide-eyed biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow. Dagget treats English Bob with a viciousness he hopes will discourage other bounty hunters, and wins over Bob's biographer in the process. William Munny also wrestles with moral ambiguities. He truly believes he has been reformed from evil-doing by his late wife, but nonetheless finds himself on a journey to kill two men. The prostitutes desire to seek justice for their friend is also admirable on one level, but they have no idea how much bloodshed their actions will cause.
Thematically, Unforgiven can be viewed as the antithesis to John Ford's 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The theme of that film was "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This film is also very much about building the legend, at the expense of the fact, and all the characters pay a price for it. Practically everyone in the film from English Bob to Little Bill Dagget to The Scofield Kid are constructing their own self-aggrandizing legends. Everyone except Bill Munny. Munny pointedly deflects or downplays any references to his legendary, larger than life past. If anything, Munny is trying to build a counter legend that he's changed until he is pushed too far and can no longer maintain the charade.
"You'd be William Munny out of Missouri, the killer of women and children," Dagget says to him at their showdown. "That's right," Munny replies. "I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And now I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned." Only now do we finally see the legendary William Munny and the people of Big Whiskey will never be the same.
This Academy-Award winning Best Picture currently remains the last great American western. Hopefully, there will be another! (The Corn Brother's True Grit came close....)
(2). Once Upon A Time In The West. 1968
(C'era una volta il West)
Director Sergio Leone/Writers Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati
story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci & Sergio Leone
Once Upon A Time In The West is perhaps the most beautiful western ever filmed. Employing his signature style, director Sergio Leone uses the wide screen format with the skill of a master painter, alternating breath-taking vistas with stunning close-ups against the magnificent score by Ennio Morricone. Leone lets the story unfold slowly. Characters surrender their motivations only grudgingly, all the while slowly building to a powerful conclusion. The pace of the film, which I credit as one of its strengths, may also be its main drawback today. Many members of the post-MTV generation accustomed to quick editing may not have the patience to let themselves be swept up by this film. That is a pity.
Once Upon A Time In The West stands as Leone's homage to great, and not so great, western films that came before him. Johnny Guitar certainly springs to mind and the opening sequence makes an undeniable nod toward High Noon. However, unlike Quentin Tarantino's homage to his roots, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, this film not only stands on its own two feet, it expands the genre.
These characters are more than a group of western archetypes. Jill isn't your traditional victimized widow. A New Orleans prostitute who took a chance on a new life on the frontier with a man who owns valuable land in the path of the railroad, she's an independent woman who knows men only too well. If sleeping with Frank, her husband's murderer, is the only way to save her life, she will do so, knowing that after a hot bath she'll be the same as she was before. Frank, in a brilliant performance against type by Henry Fonda, is also a man in transition. A killer hired by railroad magnate Morton to clear obstacles from the line, Frank envies the power flowing from his boss' money. He desires to be like Morton, but his propensity toward baser evil deprives him of the discipline he needs to become a businessman. Outlaw Cheyenne seeks revenge for being framed for the murder of Jill's husband. He pretends to interested in the wealth the Jill's land will bring, but he is mainly motivated by growing feelings for the widow. He's the most sentimental character in the film. He's a bandit with a heart of gold, which is more than can be said for Harmonica. Harmonica, the man with no name, develops a liking for both Jill and Cheyenne, but one gets the feeling he would sacrifice either or both of them if there was no other way to get Frank. He is not the classic, selfless western hero of old.
When I originally saw this film, I was disappointed by Bronson as Harmonica. I didn't think he made the most of a role obviously tailor-made for Clint Eastwood. I was mistaken. Bronson brought nuance to the role I doubt Eastwood would have at that stage of his career. In his three films with Leone, Eastwood's "Man with No Name" character tended toward smug amorality motivated only by self-interest. Harmonica has a little more depth and introspection than Eastwood's characters. He plays him with a certain sadness in his eyes; a doomed self-awareness. Harmonica realizes that when he kills Frank the remainder of his life will be devoid of meaning or purpose. He doesn't speak much, but he tellingly attempts to wax philosophically with Frank about the nature of men of like themselves in the changing West. In a sense, he knows Frank is the only person who could understand him, since he had to become a gunman like Frank in order to achieve his well- deserved revenge. The characters Eastwood played for Leone were less troubled about their place in the universe than Bronson's Harmonica. This might be Bronson's best performance.
Once Upon A Time In The West deserves an esteemed place among the canon of great westerns.
(1). The Searchers. 1956
Director John Ford/Writer Frank S. Nugent
(From the novel by Alan LaMay)
Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards goes on a long quest to find his niece Debbie who was kidnapped by Native Americans in The Searchers. However, Ethan's goal isn't to rescue her. He plans instead to kill her to spare her the indignity of assimilation into her captor's culture.
Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese have both declared The Searchers to be the greatest American film. It's easy to see why. It was directed by the great John Ford at the peak of his powers from a literate script by Frank Nugent. It also boasts beautiful photography in Monument Valley, Ford's favorite location. However, the true greatness in this film can be found in the monumental performance of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards. It is the performance of his career. John Wayne is the quintessential good guy of American cinema. He always wore the white hat. In this film, he plays a complex character consumed by a hatred of Native Americans. As a result, many people in our more politically correct times want the film banned. They are, in my opinion, idiots. In their zeal to banish anything resembling racism, they are overlooking the themes and moral of the story.
Ethan Edwards despises Native Americans, but the cause is actually personal and not inherently racist. In the cemetery scene, we see the graves of Ethan's parents which indicate they were murdered by Commanches. To me, that makes Ethan's suspicion and rage more understandable and acceptable in the context of an action film. The death or kidnapping of a loved one is a time honored catalyst for the protagonist in such films. You wouldn't call Liam Neeson's revenge spree in film Taken racist simply because most of his victims are Albanians. Is Neeson's character a hate-filled Albanipobe? No, he didn't choose his victims because of their ethnicity. He chose them because they kidnapped his daughter.
Ethan Edwards is doing the same thing here. He is hunting a band of Native Americans who massacred his family and kidnapped his niece. The fact that he had an existing grudge against the Indians because of their massacre of his parents only further fuels his rage. Does the film celebrate or endorse this rage? No. Not at all. Ethan's rage against the Indians is troubling to everyone else in the film. In the very poignant ending, Ethan's life of anger prevents him from being part of the joyful reunion. The door to normal loving human relationships is closed to him. He must wander alone. The film is hardly an endorsement of racism. Quite the opposite.
The film is not without its flaws. John Ford was a fan of broad comic relief, and he displays that sometimes lamentable tendency here. Additionally, many of the performances might be considered too broad for today's tastes. More troubling to me was Ethan's change of heart went he finally comes face-to-face with his kidnapped niece. His goal throughout the film is to murder his niece to spare her the indignity of assimilation into the Indian tribe. However, when he finally gets her, it simply grabs her, lifts her up and then tells her that they're going home. I could not accept that ending the first couple of times I saw the film. However, I eventually accepted the ending as a triumph of love over hatred. When Ethan finally held Debbie, he could no longer objectify her as something alien and enemy. She was family, the only family he had. He accepted her, even if his underlying rage made him unacceptable to the civilized world.
A truly excellent and poignant film.
Honorable Mentions, in no particular order: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, 1969, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. A very well-written, often comic film enlivened by compelling star turns. The Magnificent Seven, 1960, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Classic, badass good vs evil western. The recent remake doesn't hold a candle to it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Sometimes I hate this cynical Robert Altman film, but sometimes I find it very compelling. Red River, 1948, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Perhaps John Wayne's best performance prior to The Searchers, but the film falls apart in the last act. The Long Riders, 1980, David Carridine and Stacy Keach. The stunt casting of brothers in this depiction of James/Younger gang elevates this film. True Grit, 2010, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Sorry, I liked this version better than the John Wayne one. Little Big Man, 1970, starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway. An epic, tragicomic walk through the history of the West told through the eyes of a white man adopted into a Native-American tribe. Shane, 1953, starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur. A classic, with a great supporting performance by Jack Palance as a gunslinger, but I prefer a little more action. High Noon, 1952, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Entertaining, but a bit one-note. The Outlaw Josey Wales, 1976, Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke. One of the better late westerns, but I subtract a point or two for the exploitative nature of footage of the near rape of Sondra Locke. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, 1949, starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru. Classic John Ford western populated by his normal cast of characters. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 1966, Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach. Compelling, but I find its background depiction of the Civil War in the west unhistorical. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. The leads are all too old for the roles, but the film is elegiac and benefits from an excellent score by Bob Dylan. Rio Bravo, 1959, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin. If you don't like this one, see the near remake El Dorado. Dances With Wolves, 1990, starring Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell. I enjoyed the film, but found it over-rated. Tombstone, 1993, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Overblown but entertaining. I wish it had some of the seriousness and historical accuracy of the nearly concurrent Wyatt Earp. Between the two of them, there was one excellent film.
*I repurposed some of my reviews previously posted elsewhere for this blog.
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