MOMA’s ambitious retro casts a wide net, encompassing 60 films ranging from Edwin S. Porter’s landmark 1903 The Great Train Robbery to Jim Jarmusch’s eerie voyage into the American wilderness, Dead Man (1995), both shot in gorgeous black-and-white.
The western has traditionally juxtaposed images of the sacred with the profane, the real with the fabricated, transporting us from transcendental natural locations to the theatrical space of the familiar horse-opera “town” set with its saloon, hotel, bank, and brothel. An early classic, D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913), his best work in the genre, was shot on a hillside in the San Fernando Valley, where the director’s carpenters had built a small frontier town. Its simple plot involves an Indian attack—the “savages” want to kill the settlers and eat their puppies. The cavalry rescues humans and canines in a fluid final sequence, a masterpiece of nervous cutting that looks very much like a preliminary sketch for the climax of The Birth of a Nation.
Lambert Hillyer’s The Testing Block (1920) and Lynn Reynolds’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) are vehicles for the screen’s first two outstanding western personalities—William S. Hart and Tom Mix, respectively. The typical Hart hero was a good badman, ruthless in the first reel, later moved to reform through the love of a pure woman; the emphasis in his films was on plot and characterization. The Testing Block was shot by the great cinematographer Joseph August in a gold mining town in the Sierras and contains a peculiarly surreal scene in which Sierra Bill (Hart) and his gang of masked bandits, hard up for entertainment, force the members of a nomadic blackface minstrel show to perform in a forest clearing shadowed by giant redwoods. By the time of Riders, Mix had overtaken Hart as the most popular oater hero. This snappy new-style cowboy for the Jazz Age adopted the flamboyant costume of the rodeo star; his films emphasized daredevil stunting and action.
The two biggest films in the series are also a study in contrasts. James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), the first truly epic western, tells the story of a mass emigration to Oregon in the 1840s. Ploddingly directed, it’s burdened with a vapid love story. That didn’t stop it from becoming a great hit, one of the highest grossing of all silent films. Raoul Walsh’s underrated The Big Trail (1930), made in a wide-screen process called Grandeur and stunning in its pictorial beauty, was shot on location in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, a region that had remained largely unchanged since wagon-train days. Walsh’s brilliantly directed film, in which John Wayne appeared in his first starring role, was in the style of, but far more exciting than, The Covered Wagon. It was a box-office disaster.
The Big Trail‘s failure condemned Wayne to a decade in cheapo flicks; his second big break came when John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939), the first film the director shot in Monument Valley, the terrain that became his signature location. The fantastically shaped sandstone buttes and mesas in northern Arizona give the impression that they’ve always been there—permanent and sacred. With them, Ford created a dream landscape for the American past. He made 10 films in the Valley; four are in the show at MOMA. In My Darling Clementine (1946), its far-spreading landscape is used to dwarf the violence of the familiar story of Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang. In The Searchers (1956), a film without towns—human habitation is limited to outposts and lonely homesteads—Monument Valley becomes an interior landscape as Wayne pursues his long quest. Its towering outcrops have never looked so bleak and melancholy as in Ford’s greatest and grimmest western. When the director worked there for the first time, Monument Valley was one of the least accessible places in the United States. Now, you can pull up to a Holiday Inn.