There's an assumption - and this is not about proprietary disciplinary boundaries - that anyone can write about film. As many studies attest, this is manifestly not the case. He Was Some Kind of Man is, in many ways, a fascinating study, but it should not be seen as a book about film. While its subject matter is the Hollywood B Western, it ranges far more widely and is, in fact, part memoir and part study of masculinity and boyhood. This is fine, but the film analysis leaves the film scholar in me wanting more - a good deal more, to be honest.
The book covers the generic codes that governed the B Western and explores the importance of the gun, the hat, the boots and the horse for the cowboy hero. McGillis deals also with the whiteness of these films and examines the masculinity they promoted, especially among boys in the 1950s who were able, for the first time, to access these films on television (although there is little exploration of its importance for this generation).
All of this is covered solidly. However, I am somewhat perplexed as to who the intended audience is. This is clearly not a textbook, nor does it appear to be aimed at undergraduates, although at times the level of exposition might suggest this. As a research text there is possibly too much time spent articulating material that will be well known to the informed academic reader, particularly those from a film and media studies background - the term "text", for example, is introduced and explained as a literary term applicable to the specific study of film, surely unnecessary in this context.
McGillis' love of the cowboy film, indeed the overwhelming importance of the genre for his childhood identity, is evident throughout the book, which is full of personal anecdotes and nostalgic recollections. At times these border on the unwarranted: frequent asides - "Heigh-ho, Silver, away!" and numerous nostalgic references to the fact that the celluloid cowboys of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties have "ridden into the sunset" - irritate rather than amuse. Structurally, material is repeated across chapters and the reminiscences from McGillis' youth are often replicated too. He is most effective when discussing masculinity and boyhood and he analyses costume in the B Western well, but much of the work done here on the plurality of masculine identity has been covered elsewhere in more depth and with more theoretical rigour. The book contains plenty of interesting observation and commentary, along with a good deal of film plot summary, but it lacks a sustained and developed argument. Certain theoretical paradigms, such as psychoanalysis, are made use of but any apparent thesis remains fragmented across the personal recollections and surface observations that characterise this book; the text is concerned more with assertion and alliteration than with complex reasoning.
I share some of McGillis' fond memories for these films and I picked up this book with a real sense of expectation, but it is ultimately too broad-ranging in its scope to work well as a film study of the B Western and it remains, for me at least, rather too caught up in nostalgia for its subject matter. While the author uses scholarship on nostalgia to legitimise, in academic terms, his own sentiment for the genre, I'm not convinced that the book is ultimately much more than a personal account of the films that were important to a young and impressionable McGillis.
He Was Some Kind of Man: Masculinities in the B Western
By Roderick McGillis. Wilfred Laurier University Press 222pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781554580590. Published 15 July 2009