Westerns were born in 1903 with an 11-minute silent movie shot in New Jersey.
The tale was simple: Bandits rob the express train. Bandits jump on horses waiting for them up the line. Bandits ride away. A pursuing posse kills the bandits.
It may have been an inauspicious beginning, but Edwin S. Porter’s little movie, “The Great Train Robbery,” created a genre that would have a global reach — and remarkable staying power.
Westerns have been mocked, glorified and intellectualized. They’ve been condemned as inherently racist and sexist. They’ve been cynically inverted by “post-modern” filmmakers.
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They were trivialized in the 1930s when they were reduced to serials and vehicles for singing cowboys. They became stale and repetitive in the 1950s and ’60s as they were cranked out in vast numbers for TV. After the Vietnam War, their popularity waned as the rugged individualism they projected fell out of favor. And along the way they were appropriated by international filmmakers who had no concept of American geography or sensibilities.
Despite all that, they’ve never gone away.
And they came roaring back to movie screens in 2015.
Leonardo DiCaprio headlines the “The Revenant,” a mega-budget survival adventure about mountain man Hugh Glass. Quentin Tarantino gave us “The Hateful Eight,” a star-studded postmodern parlor mystery dressed up as a Western. And earlier in the year, writer S. Craig Zahler made an auspicious directing debut with “Bone Tomahawk,” an offbeat Western invested with horror elements — a marriage, more or less, of “The Searchers” and “The Hills Have Eyes.”
Coming in 2016 are HBO’s reboot of “Westworld” as a science fiction series based on Michael Crichton’s movie about a theme park with real shootin’ and fornicatin’, and director Antoine Fuqua’s nontraditional remake of “The Magnificent Seven” with Denzel Washington and a multi-ethnic cast.
Bottom line: Westerns are nothing if not malleable. You can twist them, turn them inside out, slice them to other genres, set them in the past, present or future — and still make a memorable film. We, the audience, are now so far removed from the American frontier experience that we’ll accept almost any permutation as long as it holds our interest and finds new ways to re-energize the genre’s most satisfying ingredients.
That wasn’t always so. In the silent era, Westerns depicted an experience that was within living memory of the potential audience. When the “The Great Train Robbery” was released in 1903, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was still looking for Butch Cassidy. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona were still territories. And only about 100,000 people lived in Los Angeles, the future home of the dream factory called Hollywood.
Clint Eastwood, who spent a considerable stretch of his acting career on a horse, once said there were only two true American art forms: jazz and the Western movie. Who can argue with the Man With No Name? Not me.
Just as musicians around the world, from France to Japan, were drawn to American jazz, so too were filmmakers. We’ve seen Westerns shot in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico and South Africa.
Strip away the trappings and examine the narrative root of the most successful Westerns, and you’re left with a few simple variations of basic narratives: (a) a protagonist facing seemingly insurmountable odds; (b) a revenge saga; (c) an embodiment of frontier values crushed by the impersonal, modern world. Some of the best films combine all three.
Here then is my short list of Westerns that one way or another advanced the genre as an art form.
▪ “The Big Trail” (1930). Director Raoul Walsh took his crews to remote locations all over the West — Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and others — to shoot his wagon-train epic that featured John Wayne in his first starring role. The story is melodrama, and the Duke hadn’t learned how to act yet. But the black-and-white visuals look so authentic that it’s as if you’re watching a Matthew Brady photograph come to life. An amazing sequence shows pioneers lowering real covered wagons by rope over a sheer cliff. Look for the DVD that includes both the 35 mm general-release version and the 70 mm print shown in a handful of theaters.
▪ “My Darling Clementine” (1946). Some folks might choose “Stagecoach” as John Ford’s best Monument Valley movie, but I’ve always had a problem with the depiction of American Indians in that prototypical Western. Same goes for his cavalry movies. But this retelling of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday facing the Clantons at the O.K. Corral has a simplicity that makes you long for Ford’s version of the Old West — when lawmen and criminals knew who they were and weren’t about to apologize for it. Henry Fonda as Earp embodies basic decency, and musclebound Victor Mature, of all people, is excellent as the poetic, tubercular Holliday.
▪ “High Noon” (1952). Gary Cooper is at his best as a marshal who has to face a vengeful gang without help from the townspeople he’s sworn to defend. The romantic subplots involving the marshal’s bride (Grace Kelly) and former lover (Katy Jurado) actually reinforce the film’s moral point of view. Ultimately this a masterpiece of tension as the clock ticks down to high noon and a meditation on fear and courage.
▪ “Seven Samurai” (1954). The Samurai genre was the Japanese counterpart to American Westerns and just as pervasive in Japan as Westerns were in this country. Director Akira Kurosawa conceded in interviews that he was influenced by American movies, and his “Seven Samurai” was an epic-length tribute to the values of Westerns as well as a film of transcendent artistry. It’s a poetic, elegant tale of a band of itinerant warriors who defend a village against bandits.
▪ “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). John Sturges’ remake of “Seven Samurai” lacks the original’s poetry but succeeds on its own terms. Yul Brynner led a cast of young actors on the way up — Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson — as down-on-their-luck gunfighters who help a Mexican village against a gang of outlaws. The dialogue is priceless. (McQueen: “You elected?” Brynner: “Nah. I got nominated real good.”)
▪ “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962). Kirk Douglas turned to journeyman director David Miller when the star/producer decided to adapt Edward Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy.” The resulting “modern Western” is a poignant, visceral tale of a cowpoke who intentionally gets thrown in jail to help an old friend bust out, only to be pursued by a posse with jeeps and helicopters into the mountains. It’s the best film in the “Death of the West” subgenre.
▪ “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). The third and final collaboration between Eastwood and director Sergio Leone is many things: a Western, a Civil War saga, a comedy. This picture achieves a a kind of loony cinematic glory with Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as competing cutthroats in search of buried gold. Nobody bothered to point out to Leone that no Civil War battles were fought anywhere near the Mojave Desert — or the Spanish deserts where some of it was shot.
▪ “The Wild Bunch” (1969) Sam Peckinpah created the ultimate “Death of the West” movie with this blood-spattered, deeply cynical story of American bank robbers who go south of the border and enter an uneasy alliance with a Mexican warlord. It was released the same year as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which basically told the same story. “Butch Cassidy,” a Hallmark card by comparison, was popular. “The Wild Bunch” wasn’t — but ultimately attained cult status. Peckinpah’s dialogue leaves much to be desired, but the performances by William Holden, Ernie Borgnine, Emilio Fernandez and others gave the movie integrity.
▪ “The Long Riders” (1980) Director Walter Hill probably got his financing with the gimmicky notion of having brothers play brothers — James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James, the Carridines as the Younger Brothers, etc. But the resulting film was both exciting and elegiac as it showed the cost of existential freedom while celebrating and mourning the genre itself.
Some movie buffs may not agree with this list. But I don’t care. The genre’s longevity suggests that its pervasive themes — loneliness, fear, vengeance, justice, fate — are still part of the modern psyche. They probably always will be.