Old West

Friendship, Courtship and the Big Sky

The phrase “Bro’s before ho’s” has several drawbacks. The most obvious, of course, is that you really can’t say it without feeling like you should be living in a 90’s exploitation film. Almost as bad is that you expose yourself to public censure and accusations of everything from cultural appropriation to rampant sexism. We live in delicate times.

But the worst part of all is that it’s never, ever true. Not in real life… and not even in that ultimate man and another man against nature genre, the Western. At the very least, not always.

The Big Sky (1952) is yet more proof that Kirk Douglas was taking over Hollywood. Apart from being immortal (or at least immortal enough to survive into his 104th year), the man was clearly also precisely what film audiences of the time wanted to see. Maybe his sneering attitude was a nice change of pace for audiences sick and tired of things being too wholesome. Or maybe they just knew a macho man when they saw one. Whatever the case, he seems to star in about half the decent movies from the era.

This one is a love triangle where bro’s most certainly do not come first. The alluring woman is the prize, and the trading journey and the wealth the men are chasing–the reason they’re crossing the country in the greatest of western traditions–is strictly secondary (even if it does provide most of the film’s entertainment value).

The interesting part of this one is that the “wrong” man wins the triangle, and his redemption–or lack thereof–is what keeps the tension going in the film after the initial objectives of the expedition have been met.

It’s a good film, gently paced but with enough action to keep it moving, and I found it amusing that not only did Douglas live to a truly advanced age, but that his main co-star and the other male corner of the love triangle, Dewey Martin, also lived into his mid-nineties, and died in 2018. The should have called this one The Immortals.

This is one I can recommend without qualms, even though my western-hating wife fell asleep within minutes during both of our attempts to watch it together (for one she enjoyed, see here).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write westerns. What he does write are science fiction stories that challenge stale ideas of where we’re going and what we’ll do when we get there. His vision of humanity’s far future is best expressed in his well-received novel Siege. You can check it out here.

All About a Gun… Kinda

Winchester '73 Film Still - James Stewart

So we’ve reached the 1950s, and that means Westerns.  Lots and lots of Westerns.

While I don’t normally enjoy the Western as a genre, probably because it was a TV staple when I was a kid (anything that wasn’t a cartoon was considered, by 5-year-old me, to be a waste of air time but Westerns were particularly odious because they go so slow), the ones on the 1001 movies list are purported to be essential watching, so I’m giving them a fair shot.

We’ve had a few in there before, some good, some really, really bad, but the one thing that will shock modern audiences is the reason for the ever-present sense of danger whenever anyone is traveling from one place to another: them there hills are full of indians.  Always.

In a way, I’m glad the 1001 movies list I have dates from 2004.  Though I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure any new editions would remove any film with a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for reasons of political correctness (it might be interesting to see what else would get removed.  I doubt Birth of a Nation would survive).  That is, of course, modern audiences’ loss, since some of these films are true gems.

Perhaps the constant threat of indians waiting to strike at any moment is what made me hate them as a kid (I loved the gunfights on horseback, of course, but not waiting for them).  Westerns could pace the action in a leisurely way because adults never knew when the attack would come.

Winchester '73 Movie Poster

The plot of Winchester ’73 doesn’t center around the indian threat.  It’s about two men who have a history between them and the pursuit of one by the other.  It also deals with a gun, the Winchester of the title, which changes hands a surprising number of times, and is used as the key to making men show what they’re truly made of.  But the big battle scene is basically a standard “brave cavalry surrounded by masses of indians” stock trope.  It’s a good fight, and it is necessary–if not central–to the plot.  I suppose you couldn’t have a Western without it.

The film is tense for other reasons, too, with a cast of villains and morally ambiguous characters (including the leading lady), serving to contrast with James Stewart‘s inflexible do-gooder.

If you can set aside your modern sensibilities for a while, this one is worth watching.  Not hugely memorable, but certainly an entertaining hour and a half, and better than most Westerns.

The funniest aside on this one is what the lead actress thought of the movie.  Shelley Winters basically said that she could have walked off the set and no one would have noticed, as the movie was about a bunch of men pursuing the perfect gun and paying very little attention to the beautiful girl.

She may have been right but, like the indians, the plot would have suffered had she not been there.  The balance was just right for this particular film, which is why it earned its spot on the list.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has hundreds of short stories in print (even a Western / Scifi / Monster mashup, his only Western).  His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death a series of linked tales that make up a single narrative.  You can buy it 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!