[I've been writing a piece on the subject of Westerns for a few years now, and it just keeps growing. So I've decided to break it down into five parts and publish them sequentially over the next few weeks [months, more likely].
"What are we to do with Westerns nowadays?" (Stanley Kauffmann)(1)
In his marvelous book, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, Kevin Brownlow quoted a survivor of the Old West who was asked to identify the difference between the West he remembered and the Western film. "What's the difference between daylight and dark," was his response.
To hear Hollywood tell it, the Old West, which existed from the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1804-06 until about 1900, was some kind of moral crucible in which good and evil, painted in monochromatic black and white, grappled in a contest on whose outcome the rest of the the world somehow depended. If the historical record tells a different story, that abounded in human depravity, peopled with armed simpletons, it made little difference in the outcome.
The death of the Western is announced every decade or so, but I don't believe the genre that is almost as old as the American film, has breathed its last. Once or twice in every decade or so, one comes along to remind us that it has enough life left in it to endure another permutation. Some of the first American films were westerns, and the genre quickly became a staple for audiences which lasted into the 1960s, with stars like William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Randolph Scott appearing in westerns almost exclusively.
The very artificiality of the Western has been a guarantee of its endurance. Adherence to its conventions is a kind of testament of faith for filmmakers. In his essay "The Westerner", scholar Robert Warshow defined the hero of movie Westerns:
"The Western hero is necessarily an archaic figure; we do not really believe in him and would not have him step out of his rigidly conventional background. But his archaicism does not take away from his power; on the contrary, it adds to it by keeping him a little beyond the reach of common sense and of absolutized emotion, the two usual impulses of our art."
"But it is exactly here that a problem arises," writes Stanley Kauffmann in rejoinder to Warshow's comments.
"Time has in some measure passed both the Western and Warshow by. The archaicism persists; its relevance diminishes.The Western was always drama simplified. It began in the nineteenth century popular theater, where, as a type of melodrama, it pitted crystalline good against crystalline evil. Film added the motion and the scenery that made these simplicities even more welcome. What a relief it used to be to turn from the daily complications of character and morality to a terrain where such matters were plain. But the last half of this century, piled on top of its first fifty years, has made the Western's simplicities seem reductive, not clarifying."
Of the four most recent films broadly classifiable as Westerns that I've seen, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Appaloosa 2008), and True Grit (2010) only the first has enough distinction to make it a worthwhile effort, not least because it is not, strictly speaking, a Western.
I'd like to begin my personal sojourn through the Western with a bit of nostalgia. Peter Fonda's lingering look at the Old West, The Hired Hand, is experimental in ways that only seemed possible - for a studio film - when it was made in 1971.It is so carefully uninsistent, so measured and loving, it's no wonder it was overlooked when it was first released. It was the best of a string of "hippie" Westerns (Dirty Little Billy is another notable example) that saw the Old West more as a social experiment than the moral crucible I mentioned earlier. Thirty years after its disappointing premiere, The Hired Hand was restored and, given the near-death by that time of the genre, it found a more appreciative audience on limited re-release and on DVD.
The film is a kind of anti-Western, a Western Odyssey, in which Harry Collings - played by Fonda - decides to stop wandering from pillar to post looking for his fortune when a young friend is brutally killed for no good reason in some Nowhere town. He informs a man he's been riding with a long time, Arch Harris (Warren Oates) of his decision to return instead to his abandoned wife, played by Verna Bloom. Arch decides to accompany him. He finds some papers on the young friend's body, and the film dawdles as he reads some lines from the lost gospel of St Thomas:
A disciple said to Jesus, "When shall the kingdom come?" Jesus said, "It will not come by expectation. It will not say, 'See here or see there." But the kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it."
When Harry and Arch arrive at Hannah's ranch, they find her resistant to Harry's proposal to resume his place as her husband. Alone with their daughter (and the occasional "hired hand"), Hannah has learned the value of true independence. StanleyKauffmann recognized an element of the characterization of the wife that he overlooked at first: "When the returned husband hears gossip about her [Hannah's] sexual behavior during his absence, and confronts her with that gossip, she denies nothing. In a response that may have been startling even as late as 1971, she affirms her right to live as she pleased, to bed whomever she wanted, when she was left alone - forever, as she thought. Solely responsible for her life, she has lived it as she chose."
Just looking at the film now is heartening to those of us who have to be reminded of how beautiful America is in places. That extended, five-minute closing take of Arch (Warren Oates) returning to Hannah's ranch with Fonda's body, accompanied by Brice Langhorne's uncanny music is quite unforgettable.
(1) The New Republic, September 8, 2003.