How the West Was Spun


Two rode together: Ford vs. Hawks

In the matter of John Ford’s westerns vs. Howard Hawks’s westerns, consider Ford’s cavalry trilogy exhibit A. Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande encapsulate everything people either love or hate about Ford’s movies: They’re boisterously sentimental, fiercely traditionalist, enamored of military discipline, and unashamed in their portrayal of the American frontier as a level playing field in which good, honest working folk could start anew outside the reach of the duplicitous East. This populism was in no small measure hogwash, of course: Ford was himself a Yankee, and the cavalry movies’ humane depiction of Indians was undercut by a reliance on risible stage-Irish shtick. Yet his utopian inclusiveness (note the strong matriarchal bent in Apache) and ability to capture intimacy and geographical grandeur in the same frame are unmatchable, and even the trilogy’s mugging Hibernians bespeak a warm, expansive regard for all modes of human folly.

Compare this with exhibit B, Hawks’s informal Rio trilogy. The yang to Ford’s yin, Hawks’s westerns explored the fractious internal frontiers of obsessively guarded male characters, and as such were coolly psychological to the point of visual and emotional blandness. Moreover, he repeated himself relentlessly: Not only does the overlong, overpraised Rio Bravo (the only Hawks western Film Forum has seen fit to deem “essential”) climax multiple times, he went on to virtually remake it in two more films (El Dorado and Rio Lobo). The trio was redundant—Hawks’s earlier Red River nailed the formula, er, cold, and that film approaches a rousing classicism not even Ford’s least mawkish westerns could touch. MARK HOLCOMB

A brief history of wizened sidekicks

Every western worth its salt needs its salty old dog: the resident codger, the coot, the geezer, Pops. The Grizzled Old-Timer may sometimes appear as a mere comic-relief utility player, but he actually fulfills multiple family roles—mother hen, kvetching Gramps, avuncular voice of reason—out on forbidding frontier terrain, where domestic comforts run scarce.

G.O.T. axiom Walter Brennan exhibited the most range in the category: from Vicious G.O.T., as nasty Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine, to (more typically) the Dotty and Adorable G.O.T. In Rio Bravo, his toothless and perpetually riled Stumpy is cook, maid, nurse, and babysitter (of the sole local prisoner), yet still finds time to save the day with a few expertly tossed bundles of dynamite. If Brennan was G.O.T. as hero, then Hank Worden (much later the ancient bellhop on Twin Peaks) embodied the holy fool, aiding the obsessive quest in The Searchers in return for the homely promise of “just a rockin’ chair by the fire.” In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, cackling, jig-dancing G.O.T. Walter Huston is a veritable loom of homespun wisdom, from gold extraction (“Gotta know how to tickle her so she’ll come out laughin’ “) to workplace relations (“Got somethin’ up yer nose? Blow it out, it’ll do ya good”). When trouble gallops onto the horizon and lesser men grab their pistols, Huston reaches instead for his cookware, and gets some beans on the fire—his boys can’t fight bandits on an empty stomach. JESSICA WINTER

From the grave: Tony the Wonder Horse

You are probably wondering why I was never stuffed like Trigger even though I was in 181 of Tom Mix’s films and he kissed me on the nose and I was so valuable that I had six doubles because they couldn’t wear me out or anything.

Well, I was never stuffed because Tom, the bon vivant who had five wives—Grace, Kitty, Olive, Victoria, and Mabel—died two years before me. He got hit in the head with a suitcase. I was never even given a grave marker. President Harding adored me. You should see me in The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926) with the shots of the Colorado gorges and steamy trains that look like moving paintings and I’m running alongside this train by myself and, boy, am I pooped. There’s another scene where I have trouble standing still. It’s a silent but who needs to hear me whinny. You know it’s just as well I’m not alive today. Horses hardly mean anything in the business. In the A films, they didn’t even have names. Now it’s worse. I saw the first episode of Deadwood, just men slapping the women around and making their noses bleed. What kind of world is this? Where is the socially constructed violence? What happened to the genre? Anyway, I’m up here watching my body of work. What nobody knows is that when you’re dead, you get to watch movies all the time. TONI SCHLESINGER

The year the western went new wave

And then the western grew sick in the heart and mind, sick with ruined mythopoeia and squandered righteousness and violent lies, and died, awaiting resurrection as a colder, sadder, less forgiving American idea. You mark the time line when this happened wherever you’d like; I’d say it was 1962, when the Cold War became apocalyptically hot over Cuba, when Adolf Eichmann was hanged, when astronauts left the Earth and then returned, when whatever was happening in Vietnam became a war. Pourquoi le western? The genre’s sanctified, manifest-destiny pope-king, John Ford, makes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a pernicious flimflam that maintains that history is rightly a matter of convenience and control, and that justice—the western’s renegade chromosome, dispensed relative to the individual’s whim but still called justice—is just another tale, defined by the teller. It’s an autumnal exhalation, virtually an apologia for Ford’s career of reactionary simplemindedness and eager militarism. (Among his last projects was a pro-intervention documentary for the USIA titled Vietnam! Vietnam!) Suddenly it was apparent what the old frontier had left to offer us: cock and bull.

But two months later, the 37-year-old Sam Peckinpah released Ride the High Country (screening with Liberty Valance March 30 and 31), a western that took the genre’s sclerotic menopause as its subject. New wave-ness had arrived at the western’s doorstep, openly contemplating ambivalence, moral relativity, aging, and the costs of violence. Never again would the western come to be regarded as a national dream. Instead, in the hands of Peckinpah, Hellman, Leone, and Eastwood, it became a chronicle of our sins. MICHAEL ATKINSON