western films

Too Slow and too Telegraphed

In our perusal of the 1001 Films to Watch Before we Die, every single Bogart vehicle so far had been met with my acclamation and my wife’s yawning wondering of what the fuss was all about.

So, of course, as soon as I thought one of the movies was drawn out and predictable, the film equivalent of getting a tooth pulled, she goes and enjoys it.

I mention that just to say that some people (the ones who choose the 1001 films, evidently) will feel differently about this film than I do.  Also, since I’m about to commit sacrilege by panning a classic, I wanted to make it clear that my wife isn’t to blame.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Film Poster

Yes.  That one.  I didn’t like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Why?  It’s been said that guys like for a lot of people to die very quickly in their films while women enjoy one person to die slowly over the course of a two-hour movie.  While I have no idea if that’s true, it’s certainly true for me–I consider those “uplifting” cancer films about as much fun as I do a good protracted dentist’s appointment.

I got the same vibe from this movie.  It was clear from the moment they set out to look for gold that Bogart’s character was going to end badly, specifically because the gold fever and the paranoia would get him–so all that was left was to watch the descent into madness.  Some people enjoy this sort of thing and look on, amazed, as the virtuoso acting therein.

It’s not my cup of tea in the least, even though the final half hour of the film does pick up the pace as the action comes to a head.

I always like to shout out to any of the cast members still alive today on the extremely unlikely chance that they might be reading.  Today’s actor is Robert Blake, who played a young boy in the film and who later went on to become a murder suspect (acquitted) and is in his eighties.  Talk about an eventful life…

This one is considered a classic, of course, and probably deservedly so.  It’s just that I didn’t enjoy it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known work is Siege, which, he hopes, doesn’t telegraph the ending as much as The Treasure of Sierra Madre does.  You can check the book out (and buy it!), here.

 

Despite Bob Hope and Jane Russell, this one Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The next film in our 1001 movies quest was The Paleface (1948).  This one is interesting, and entertaining, but not really as good as some of the other flicks we’ve had the pleasure of watching.

The Paleface Film Poster

It pales (yes, that was intentional) beside Red River, which we discussed here just a few weeks ago.  One can argue that that is because The Paleface is a comedy… but that’s not it.  After all, the screwball era had just passed in Hollywood, releasing such classics as Bringing up Baby, My Man Godfrey and The Thin Man.  

The problem isn’t that Hollywood had forgotten how to do comedy, but that public tastes were changing to what we would now recognize as 1950s wholesomeness.  And it’s… well, it’s not as fun as the edgier stuff from the 30s and earlier in the 40s.

That’s not to say this movie isn’t fun.  It is. But it feels hopelessly innocent, like something made for kids.  The cynicism, the acceptance that adults could deal with more of an edge seemed to be seeping out of Hollywood at the same rate as it would disappear from American society.

That’s probably a natural reflection of the way Americans had changed after the war as they entered the golden age of the nation, and I assume we’ll find a lot of this as we watch the 1950s unfold through the lens of Hollywood (I’m also sure Hollywood will find a way to get a little darkness in there, so looking forward to that, too).

This is one of those films which couldn’t be made today because of the way native Americans are portrayed.  While everyone is made fun of in the film, the mere fact that some of the jokes are about Native tribes would preclude its being redone.  Also, the fact that the conflict between settlers and natives is told from the settlers’ side would make it unacceptable to the modern arbiters of cultural acceptability.  If anything, the fact that it’s unrepeatable might make it worth watching even if it isn’t perfect.

Of course, most viewers won’t care about any of that and simply enjoy the film for what it is: a goofy western with excellent actors in a transitional era.  Perhaps not a defining classic worthy of 1001 film inclusion, but an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His work spans several genres, from literary to science fiction, and has even set some stories in the old west.  His latest book is a collection of stories entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.

A Strong Case for the Best Western Ever

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp

It’s not as famous today as it was back then, and it doesn’t star John Wayne, which has worked against it.  On top of that, it is extremely liberal with the facts (read: it would have been easier just to base it on a work of fiction with no real names) and it starts with a cliché (which never actually happened in real life, so could have been avoided without loss).

And yet, My Darling Clementine (1946) is, by far, the best western I’ve ever seen.

Why?  Well, maybe it’s just the fact that it wasn’t a noir film or something from the Italian neorealist school that made me enjoy it as much as I did, but, more probably, it was the interplay of the male and female characters–there are about six different storylines woven into this one–and the development of the town around them that makes the film so watchable.  It develops the central theme (the events around the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) while showing the rich tapestry of the developing west around it.

From about fifteen minutes in until the end, the movie becomes much more sophisticated and interesting than the Western norm and Henry Fonda gives a different take on Wyatt Earp than what you’re expecting.  When you read about it like that, it’s a recipe for disaster, but it’s a tribute to director John Ford that it comes together as well as it does.

So we’ll recommend this one highly, not just to people who are looking for a good shoot-’em-up (there’s plenty of that, thankfully) but also to those who enjoy a film with surprising depth.

The only people we emphatically wouldn’t recommend it to  are those who are obsessive about the history of the American West, unless you can turn that part of you off.  In the first few minutes of the film, James Earp whom in real life, survived until 1926, is killed.  And it’s all downhill, accuracy-wise, from there!

Ox-Bow and Modern Sensibilities

The Ox-Bow Incident Movie Poster

I once had a professor at school who, when teaching The Merchant of Venice, told us that it’s nearly impossible to mess up a trial scene.  Shakespeare, of course, didn’t mess it up, but the fact that it’s not an impossibility is clear when watching the movie The Ox-Bow Incident, which is the next in our series of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

This movie fails on many levels, but mostly because it goes for tired trope of the revisionist gut-punch: take a scene from a time that is different (generally far in the past, although more recent in this film), show the human suffering that was caused by how life was back then, and use that to create an emotional reaction from modern audiences used to more gentle times.

So, we essentially have a Western, in which a bunch of innocent men are put on trial by a posse, and eventually lynched.  At the end the posse members learn that they were innocent, and are remorseful.  How sad.

Audiences in the day (1943) lapped it up, of course.  Audiences today will probably lap it up.  The reason is that they never stop to think about context, so if something is unacceptable in 1943 (or 2014), it was also wrong when it happened.  So they are ripe for the spoon-feeding of emotions which leads them to a sense of moral outrage at what they see.

The Ox-Bow Incident Hanging Scene

No one will argue that a witch hunt or a posse is the best way to get justice.  We know it isn’t.  But the truth is that the reaction of most of this posse’s contemporaries would have been a shrug and something along the lines of “well, that’s life, I guess*”.

Sadly, the tendency of audiences (and everyone else) to judge earlier times by modern standards is growing as opposed to diminishing.  Most people, instead of using the amazing amount of information available at the click of a button to try to understand context, simply ignore the fact that things are now different and judge with modern values**.  I suppose it’s easier for the lazy hordes and useful for the people who like to use them to further their own agendas, so it won’t be going away any time soon.

In general, I deeply enjoy most of the movies on this list but this is one of the few movies on the 1001 movies list which is so bad in this respect that it could have been filmed today.

*The correct phrase, “Shit happens” had yet to be invented back then.

**Don’t believe me?  Have a look at the latest flap among the Fantasy writers crowd.  Idiotic revisionism at its best – and now with more thought-police involvement!