"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Western in the 1960s and 70s

Nostalgia and deconstruction

The 'top ten' lists I posted of 1960s and 1970s Westerns made me reflect a while on those decades in Western cinematic history.

1960s Westerns had been rather ‘autumnal’ in tone. They harked back with nostalgia to the Old West of yesteryear, perhaps in the same way that their makers harked back to the Westerns of their childhood (boyhood, mostly). The decade started with old-fashioned John Ford and John Wayne pictures like Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Alamo (1960) which were very 50s in tone but soon gave way to more commercial vehicles like The Magnificent Seven (1960). And The Magnificent Seven is about a dying breed of gunmen, out of place in a new West, preferring to die as they have lived, with gunfire, some of them, rather than carry on as displaced persons in an age they don’t understand.

Even some of the titles reflected this (The Last Sunset, 1961 or The Misfits, 1961) and key films like Lonely Are The Brave (1962), Ride The High Country (1962) and, especially, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) are explicit in treating this theme. See also The Rounders (1965) or Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). The decade ended with The Wild Bunch (1969) which was in many ways a hymn, or rather a funeral elegy, to the Old West.

This ‘end-of-the-West’ theme carried on all through the 1970s and if we look at some of the principal cinematic milestones of that decade we can see this:

Monte Walsh (1970) is about two aging cow punchers with nowhere to go; The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) shows us the owner of a stage station dying beneath the wheels of an automobile; Valdez Is Coming (1970) has the aging hero donning his old Army uniform and out-doing his pursuers in Western skills; Wild Rovers (1971) is about an old cowboy and a younger partner making one last, desperate throw of the dice; Junior Bonner (1972) is a modern Western about a rodeo star on the downside of his career; Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973) is full of lines about times changing (“Times, maybe,” says Billy, “not me.”); The Last Hard Men (1976) is a story of a retired Charlton Heston spurning motor-cars and saddling up once more on a rescue and revenge mission; and, most of all, The Shootist (1978), which deals with the death of a gunfighting legend of the Old West and the end of an era.
All have this nostalgic and retrospective thread running through them. These films are about aging gunfighters or cowboys, older men (Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Jason Robards, Burt Lancaster, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, John Wayne) out of place in a new world of automobiles and telephones. They hanker for the old days and sometimes get the chance to turn back the clock and show us how the Old West really was – in their memories or imaginations anyway. The two decades 1960 - 1980 had a tinge of last rites about them. And this was reinforced by the idea constantly lurking in the background that the day of the Western film was over. There would be few more, if any. Tastes were changing and Hollywood studios were more and more reluctant to invest in them. In the 1970s even the TV Western seemed to be fading.

But the 1970s also began a time of a new kind of Western. 'Anti-Westerns', almost, started to appear. Movies which parodied Westerns like Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys in 1968, Zacariah (1971), and of course the glorious Blazing Saddles (1974) were considered by true hard-boiled Western fans to be faintly sacrilegious.

Other Westerns began to ‘deconstruct’ the genre or debunk the legends. All those old movies with the US Cavalry arriving at the last minute to save the settlers or the wagon trains, which had been a staple ever since the Western was invented, gave way to films like Little Big Man or Soldier Blue (both 1970). Now the Cavalry butchered women and children and was officered by crazy drunks. The great gunfighters and lawmen of legend were ‘debunked’ too. In Doc (1971), Wyatt Earp was a devious killer. In Dirty Little Billy (1972), so was Billy the Kid. In A Gunfight (1971), two famous shootists stage a classic showdown for money. The Last Movie (1971), directed by Dennis Hopper in Peru, is a satirical diatribe against the materialism and need to dominate that characterizes the American.

Of course, alongside these ‘new’ Westerns the straightforward classics continued, and movie theaters of 50-something Mid-West males still filled up when they were shown. Such films as Chisum (1970), Joe Kidd (1972), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1979), all good or quite good films in their way, were mainstream Westerns in the classic tradition. The last-named even reached out and was popular with audiences who didn't normally go to Westerns.

The decade ended with Michael Cimino doing his best to kill off the Western movie single-handed with his elephantine Heaven’s Gate (1980) which ushered in a period of famine when studios would not make A-Westerns at all. It took until 1985 before fine A-Westerns appeared again, in the form of the terrifically good Silverado and Pale Rider. But that’s another decade and another story.


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