First in a series of posts on Western cinematographers
Robert Surtees (1906 – 1985)Bruce Surtees (1937 – 2012)
The Western is a genre which depends on its setting. It might be in a claustrophobic stressed-out town with dark interiors and intense light without (think of the cruel, stark, bright exteriors and moody intense indoor shots in High Noon (Floyd Crosby) or the first 3:10 to Yuma (Charles Lawton Jr), or it could be the great outdoors - those monumental Westerns which Winton Hoch, Joe MacDonald, Bert Glennon, Archie Stout or William Clothier did for John Ford remain indelibly fixed in our memories as much for the visual as for the action and words. Or think of that stupendous 360° camera shot Russell Harlan did for Howard Hawks at the start of Red River. Yes, decidedly, the Western benefits from – almost relies upon – great photography of epic settings. And a good cinematographer was worth his weight in gold.
Robert L Surtees, père, did some good Westerns, certainly, and most notably, for me, Escape From Fort Bravo (MGM, 1953), a 4-revolver picture partly because William Holden was superb in it but chiefly because of the quite beautiful photography. The location scenes are shot in ‘Anso Color’ in New Mexico (you can tell because it’s so beautiful) and in Death Valley, and what could be more suitable - for this pitiless, arid landscape is entirely appropriate to the brutal struggle for survival that takes place there in the film. Of course, movies shot in New Mexico have an unfair advantage over those filmed elsewhere. It would be hard to make the landscape look anything other than beautiful. Still, in Escape From Fort Bravo you really do notice the quality. Look, also, at John Bailey’s camerawork in Silverado (Columbia, 1985) another movie in which New Mexico positively glows in pink light.
Robert Surtees worked on ‘big’ panoramic Westerns like Cimarron (the MGM 1960 Anthony Mann one with Glenn Ford) and the John Sturges-directed The Hallelujah Trail (Mirisch, 1965). Both these were in fact poor Westerns (in the case of Hallelujah, very poor) but they were visually attractive. Surtees also did Oklahoma. But he worked too on smaller pieces such as a couple of Clint Eastwood pictures, Coogan’s Bluff (Universal, 1968) and Two Mules For Sister Sara (Universal, 1970) and the 1972 Warner Brothers John Wayne vehicle The Cowboys (nice film, including visually).
So Robert Surtees was the business.
But for me, it was his son Bruce who was the real master as far as Westerns go. He is listed on IMDb as having worked on eleven Westerns, the first three as camera operator working with his father: The Hallelujah Trail, Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sara. Then as cinematographer he did:
* The Beguiled (1971)
* The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
* Joe Kidd (1972)
* High Plains Drifter (1973)
* The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
* The Shootist (1976)
* Honkytonk Man (1982) and
* Pale Rider (1985).
So you can see that he did most of his Western work, over 70%, with or for Eastwood.
He was an enormous talent (nominated for an academy award for his work on Lenny in 1974). Whatever you think of the merits or otherwise of some of the movies he worked on, and few would claim Northfield or High Plains as the greatest Westerns ever made, the films were all visually excellent. Joe Kidd is wonderful to look at, with those bright, cold mountain scenes shot up in the Inyo National Forest. But if he had only produced one oater, his last, that would be enough to single him out as one of the greatest Western cinematographers of all time.
I’m talking about Pale Rider, of course. Both Surteeses (if that's the plural) excelled at what the Western excels at, wild landscapes. And in Eastwood’s remake of or homage to Shane, itself photographically one of the greatest Westerns ever (despite the way Paramount hacked away at Loyal Griggs’s artistry) Surtees fils had the greatest possible scope. Those shots in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho are quite stunning. Seen on the big screen, Pale Rider takes your breath away.
The death of Bruce Surtees earlier this year is a great loss to the Western lover. But his work will stand and can be ranked alongside the greatest cinematographers of all.