Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Garryowen

Charles Schreyvogel’s “A Sharp Encounter”

There are many stories braided into the history of the American West. There were the settlers, the outlaws, the railroads, the Chinese, the Mexicans—and there were the Indians in their battle against the U.S. Army. I have just finished reading Robert M. Utley’s Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973). According to Utley, there were “more than 1,000 combat actions, involving 2,000 military casualties and almost 6,000 Indian casualties.”

And yet, most of us know about the Indian wars from a handful of Hollywood Westerns, such as Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On (about Custer) and John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (about the Apache wars). In most of these films, we heard the military bands playing “Garryowen,” which was adopted by Custer for his Seventh Cavalry.

From Ford’s films, one would naturally assume that most of the cavalrymen were either Irish or unreconstructed Johnny Rebs. In fact, far more of them were black. Several entire regiments consisted of 100% black enlisted men—and, of course, 100% white officers. (In all fairness, John Ford covered the subject in his little-known Western Sergeant Rutledge.)

Frederic Remington Photo of Black 10th Cavalry Troopers

The Black Troopers, popularly known as Buffalo Soldiers, had a distinguished history, which, today, is largely forgotten. They were every bit as brave as the White troopers, and they were more likely to re-enlist.

If you want to see depictions of the U.S. Army in the West, I recommend to look at the photos and paintings of Frederick Remington and the paintings of Charles Schreyvogel.

Favorite Films: Stagecoach (1939)

The First Shot of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach

The First Shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach

Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.

Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.

Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.

In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.

This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.

Silents, Golden and Not So Golden

Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe in John Ford’s Upstream (1927)

Silent movies are not for everyone. Because of the times in which most of them were produced, the results can be off-putting because of hokiness or a tendency toward melodrama. This week at Cinecon, I have seen silents that were great, some that were merely interesting, and some that were just plain bad.

The best of the lot was John Ford’s backstage drama, Upstream (1927), a film which was thought to have been lost. In 2009, however, a print was discovered by the New Zealand Film Archive. Although many scenes were spoiled by rotting of the nitrate stock, enough came through to make this one of Ford’s best silents, better even than the more famous The Iron Horse (1924).

The story was about a down at heels Shakespearean actor named Eric Brasingham (Foxe), who is courting Gertie Ryan (Nash), the partner of vaudeville knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers). He gets his chance for the big time because a London theater is willing to take a chance on him because the Brasinghams are a famous acting family (even though Eric himself is a nonentity). His fellow denizens in a theatrical New York boardinghouse give him a big send-off, but he leaves Gertie in the lurch.

In London, he manages to succeed. He becomes conceited and supercilious, and omits writing to Gertie. She, tired of waiting, marries the knife-thrower. Then, suddenly, Brasingham descends on the boardinghouse as a publicity stunt and finds his reception is not what he had hoped.

Director John Ford does here what he specialized in: Characters who are well developed and interesting. Even the vaudevillian song-and-dance Callahan Brothers are unforgettable, as is the  “star boarder,” played by actual Broadway star Raymond Hitchcock. Even though the theatrical subject matter is not typical Ford—better known for his Westerns and Irish films—the director is at home regardless what he does. And certain stylistic touches link it with films as different as the Hamlet scene in My Darling Clementine (1946), in which Grant Withers is one of the Clanton boys.

More typical of the silents I saw was the excellent The Goose Woman (1925), directed by Clarence Brown and starring Louise Dresser. Graphically, it was a gorgeous film, but the melodramatic plot comes across as risible today: A famed Italian opera star has to make a choice between having a child and continuing to sing at La Scala. She has a child, and her voice goes kaput. What kind of illness is this? Was the baby delivered via the vocal chords? In any case, the singer becomes a goose woman on a farm and a full time lush, until she must make a Sophie’s Choice type of decision regarding her son, who is accused of murder.