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American cinema’s unique creation – the Western

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Weapons on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about the Western originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

Monument Valley, picture, image, illustration

John Ford’s favourite outdoor location is Monument Valley which spreads over Utah and Arizona

The hot, dusty street is deserted, the stillness broken only by the creak of a rusty saloon sign, gently swinging.

A lone cowboy, hand poised over gun-holster, walks slowly into view. From the shadows emerges a dark, menacing figure.

The classic Western confrontation scene, the showdown, is about to be played – a scene so familiar that it has often been parodied, yet it remains part of an action pattern, a ritual which seldom fails to grip an audience.

The story of the Western is nearly as old as the Cinema itself.

In 1903 a short film was made by the Edison Company which was to become one of the most famous landmarks in film history. It was the first attempt to tell a complete story. Called “The Great Train Robbery”, it was set in the Wild West (though actually filmed near New York). It is interesting that this, the first narrative film, should also have been basically a Western, complete with cowboy characters.

One of the players was G. M. Anderson, who later appeared as “Broncho Billy” in many Western one-reelers made in the state of California.

The first great cowboy star of silent films was William S. Hart. He was also the most authentic.

He grew up in two states which were still inhabited by the Blackfeet and Sioux who had fought General Custer in the Indian Wars. At an early age he was able to speak the Sioux language and as a teenager worked as a ranchhand.

He enjoyed the tough, exciting frontier life and found it hard to settle when the Hart family moved east.

Looking for other interests, he turned to acting and was spotted by Thomas Ince, a pioneer producer of silent films who asked Hart to join him in California.

It was 1914 and by that time so many of the crudely-made Western shorts, consisting of little more than a chase and a fight, had been churned out that they were fast losing their popularity. Hart considered them ridiculous and completely unreal. He began making two-reelers for Ince which gave a completely new and more true picture of frontier life.

He also created the first real Western Hero, born out of his own memories. His character, often called The Good Bad Man, was an outlaw who later partly reformed, and who always retained the sympathy of his audience.

Hart worked hard to get the details in his films absolutely accurate and it would be many years before such authenticity would come back into Western pictures.

Looking at “stills” from Hart’s movies, many could be mistaken for photographs taken by a travelling photographer in the real West of the 1880’s.

In the early Twenties, despite his own personal popularity, Hart found that the cinema-going public of that time was rejecting his interpretation of the West as it really was in favour of a more romantic, glamourised version provided by rival studios. Rather than lower his standards, he cancelled his contract with Paramount Pictures.

William S. Hart’s successor as the top Western star was Tom Mix, whose early life was similar to that of Hart’s. While still a young man, he was a sheriff in the states of Kansas and Oklahoma; a Deputy U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger. In spite of this background, it was he who created the “too-good-to-be-true” cowboy hero in large white Stetson hat, elaborate costume and fancy boots, riding through a “never-never” land far removed from the realities of the old West.

Mix’s immense popularity led to the appearance of other cowboy stars in the same mould – Buck Jones, Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson being the most successful.

The great popular success of the Western was temporarily halted with the arrival of sound films in the late Twenties. Early sound recording could not cope with outdoor scenes and these locations were absolutely essential to Westerns. Gradually, however, technical processes were improved and the cowboy stars were back in business.

After a series of bad falls from his horse, Tom Mix retired from films in 1932. The other cowboy heroes continued but their films were cheaply made and for smaller companies. The plots were invariably predictable, made more so by the appearance of the hero in his large white hat and fancy-dress outfit while the villain always wore a moustache and dressed in black.

The decline in the Western film had begun. In cinemas all over Britain and America they were relegated to the position of supporting films. One series, however, continued to find favour with cowboy enthusiasts – the films of William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.

By the late Thirties, colour, and particularly the Technicolor process, was firmly established. It was probably this more than anything that prompted the major studios in Hollywood to return to the Western with its colourful outdoor location scenes.

In 1939 the Warner Brothers Company made “Dodge City”, a large-scale, expensively produced Technicolor Western, featuring one of their top stars. Errol Flynn, and a strong cast of supporting players.

In the same year, Twentieth-Century-Fox produced “Jesse James”, also in colour, in which the period atmosphere was well captured though it was rather a glamourised version of the life of the notorious, real-life outlaw. This was not helped by casting their handsomest male star. Tyrone Power, in the part of Jesse James.

Universal Pictures’ contribution to the “new look” Western was “Destry Rides Again” which was notable for the first appearance in a Western of James Stewart who in the post-war era was to become one of the great Western stars.

This year 1939 also saw the appearance of one of the finest Westerns of all time, in fact a film classic regardless of its type. It was “Stagecoach”, directed by John Ford who was to become the greatest director of Westerns with such pictures as “Fort Apache”, “The Searchers”, “The Horse Soldiers”, “Wagon Master” and “My Darling Clementine”.

Ford’s favourite outdoor location was Monument Valley which spreads across part of Utah and Arizona, within the Navajo Indian Reservation. Nine of his films, including “Stagecoach”, were shot there and it has become known in Hollywood as “Ford Country”.

His films are all noted for their pictorial beauty and, though in black and white. “Stagecoach” was no exception. Always remembered are the sequences showing the stagecoach wending its way through the breathtaking scenery and the exciting pursuit by a band of Indians, horses and humans dwarfed by the weird, gigantic shapes of the rocks, towering over the scene. The interiors matched in realism and the characters fitted perfectly into their setting. Ford assembled a strong supporting cast of character players and the film set the young hero on his way to world stardom. He was John Wayne.

Born Marion Michael Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, the son of a chemist, Wayne moved west with his family when six years old. He later attended the University of Southern California, intending to become a lawyer. A severe shoulder injury forced him to give up his football scholarship and he found work with John Ford as a “grip” (property man) at the Fox Studio in 1928.

While working at the studio he was given small acting parts, gradually progressing to leading roles in second feature pictures. He had appeared in over fifty of these cheaply made productions before his big break came with “Stagecoach” in 1939.

From this time on, Westerns were to remain top feature films. Leading directors were tempted to experiment with the Western format which led to such classics as George Stevens’ “Shane” (1953), Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948) and Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952), which starred Montana-born Gary Cooper who, after a long and varied career in films, is still best remembered for his Western roles.

With the coming of Cinema-Scope and wide-screen processes, a new dimension was added to the Western. The natural grandeur and scenic beauty of the western states provided ideal backgrounds for panoramic cinematography.

Like Gary Cooper, other big stars began to specialise in cowboy parts. James Stewart, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark and Audie Murphy were but a few. John Wayne, however, stands out as the world’s leading Western star. Physically he is ideal, six feet four inches in height, and his slow drawl is perfect for Western dialogue.

A lighter, comedy touch was later successfully added to such Western movies as “Cat Ballou” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which set a trend leading to such popular recent television series as “Alias Smith and Jones”.

Two things may account for the continuing popularity of the Western film. Firstly, obviously, is its appeal as a straightforward, exciting adventure story. Secondly, audiences of all ages enjoy escaping into a legendary world, far removed from their everyday lives.

Now the Western has grown up, and not always for the best. Now “real” blood flows on the screen, as in the brilliant but very violent “The Wild Bunch”, now the “real” West is shown, with lurid scenes to bring the customers in. In fact, most modern Westerners are no more real than the old ones, and far less attractive.

The only winner is the Indian, for his side of the story is far more sympathetically shown than it was before, except in some silent movies. The change began in the early 1950s with films like “Broken Arrow” and “Apache” and, in the 1960s and 70s “Hombre”, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” and “Little Big Man” took a strong pro-Indian stand. Meanwhile, conventional Western movies go on being made, and old-time stars like Wayne and Stewart are still in action. The truth is that the Western will survive in one way or another as long as the cinema itself.

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