The movie genre that went west

Back in the Saddle Again

August 20, 1999

The hero of Kingsley Amis's early novel I Like It Here is praying for the death of Graham Greene because he is writing a book on Greene and his demise would draw a line under the enterprise.

The 15 contributors to this British Film Institute symposium are in the happy position of dealing with a subject that is at best moribund, at worst in a vegetative state from which it occasionally awakes only to return to a deeper slumber. The Western movie in fact more or less parallels Greene's life, the first memorable cowboy picture, The Great Train Robbery (1903), appearing the year before he was born, the last notable one, Unforgiven (1992), the year after he died. The genre's Golden Age - from John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939 to the early 1970s - coincided with Greene's professional maturity and significantly enough one of his most dangerous American innocents, Holly Martins in The Third Man , was the author of simple-minded pulp cowboy novels. In 1971 Greene, while being interviewed on stage at the National Film Theatre, was asked which recent movies he had most admired and named Ingmar Bergman's The Silence and Sergio Leone's then highly unfashionable Italian Western, Once Upon a Time in the West .

The decline of the Western is the result of many factors: the end of Hollywood's production line studio system; the increasing remoteness of the frontier experience; young moviegoers' preference for science fiction, horror and urban-based stories; the recognition that the traditional Anglo-Saxon thrust of the Western neglected or distorted the role of Indians, Hispanics, blacks and women in shaping the country's heritage; the erosion of American confidence in a shared national purpose; the genre's increasing self-consciousness; the over-production of television Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the Western began to vanish, so writing about a once despised form became fashionable. Although there were a handful of serious books on the Western in French, until the 1970s there was only one book of quality on the subject in English, the plodding The Western: From Silents to Cinerama by George N. Fenin and William K. Everson (1962), which took the somewhat eccentric view that the great Westerns were made before the coming of sound and that the majority of these silent classics starred the wooden William S. Hart. Now there is a decent shelf of histories and monographs on individual directors - though the editors of Back in the Saddle Again claim rather surprisingly that "considering its key role within the American film industry, the Western is still a critically neglected genre, still, one suspects, the victim of academic snobbery".

The editors state that their aim is "to suggest some directions in which future studies of the Western might progress" and all contributors but one are academics, mostly in media studies. The enthusiasm for the Western among those who wrote about the genre in the 1960s and 1970s arose largely out of a love of the undervalued genre and a desire to celebrate its major practitioners as artists. An influential work of the time, Jim Kilses's study of Mann, Boetticher and Peckinpah, Horizons West (1969), was subtitled "Authorship in the Western". Judging from their selection, Edward Buscombe and Roberta Pearson see the future as lying largely within the field of cultural history rather than the delineation and study of some Leavisian Great Tradition of the Western, and their deliberately provocative title is taken from the signature tune of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy despised by advocates of the Adult Western.

Steve Neale reassesses the pro-Indian pictures of the postwar years, arguing that their true subject is the Native American condition rather than present-day racism or the cold war, and Noel Carroll looks again at the pictures of the 1950s and 1960s involving Americans intervening in Mexican affairs. Less familiar territory is explored by two writers on political aspects of the silent cinema. Galen Studer discusses the way Douglas Fairbanks Westerns of 1917-20 reflect American anxieties about the decline of manhood in urban society; Richard Abel examines the hostility in the trade press to cowboy movies produced by French companies.

Moving outside the cinematic mainstream Peter Stansfield writes a well-argued and documented essay on the way the southern bluegrass singers adopted Western dress to become singing cowboys (producing Autry) and William Boddy shows in fascinating detail how the B-Western entered television as fodder for kids and suddenly became the staple prime-time fare on all three American networks.

The book's most enticing item, an analysis of the way John Ford uses the buttes, mesas and aiguilles of Monument Valley by the French scholars Jean-Louis Leutrat and Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues, is also the most disappointing. Difficult to follow without a map or illustrations (perversely it is accompanied by a still from Once Upon a Time in the West), this speculative piece is unsupported by any evidence from either Ford or his collaborators. The most encouraging and positive essay is by Rick Worland and Edward Countryman, both teachers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, who relate the new Western historiography, a flourishing area of academe, to the thin trickle of distinguished Westerns of the 1990s ( Dances with Wolves , Unforgiven , Geronimo , The Last of the Mohicans ) and talk hopefully of the genre's future.

Philip French is film critic for the Observer. His books include Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre .

Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western

Editor - Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson
ISBN - 0 85170 660 6 and 661 4
Publisher - BFI
Price - £42.50 and £14.99
Pages - 218

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