The American Western has come to hold a very special place in my cinematic heart. This certainly took some time. As an adolescent, I couldn’t appreciate the pacing of these films, nor the almost mythic archetypes and characterizations. And, having not immersed myself in cinema quite yet, was incapable of comprehending the beauty of the compositions– how these filmmakers made the setting of the west a character in and of itself.
Today, I count many westerns among my favorite films. I’m reminded of a quote from Clint Eastwood:
“There are not too many American art forms that are original.. Other than the western and jazz or blues, that’s all that’s really original.”
The Man from Laramie (1955) dir. Anthony Mann
The last of the Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann collaborations, and it certainly puts a nice button on their work together. Mann’s western cinema was emblematic of the time period they were created in: the 1950s. The characters in his films were often emotionally and psychologically broken, plagued by past tragedies and losses. Very much in the same vein of the great film noirs of the time, and reflective of the psyche of America post World War II. The rugged, mountainous and expansive western setting acts as a perfect backdrop. Going west may be our destiny, but the journey will force us to confront the demons of our past.
Rio Bravo (1959) dir. Howard Hawks
Yes, it has the saloon. Yes, it has the gunfights. Yes, it has the sheriff. Yes, it has the girl. It’s a western and one of the best. But what I love most about Rio Bravo, why I return to it so often, is how Hawks plays the characters off one another. It’s really just a movie about a group of four different men trying to do a job, in this case fending off a local gang from freeing their leader’s brother from jail. The relationship between John Wayne’s Chance and Dean Martin’s Dude (in Martin’s greatest performance) is so well drawn. Watch the opening, wordless scene. Dude, a once respectable lawman and now the town drunk, arrives at the local bar. The gang of outlaws tease and deride him, tossing a coin intended for a drink into a spittoon. When Chance arrives, instead of immediately coming to Dude’s rescue, he kicks away the spittoon in disgust. Dude jumps him, petulant and angry and embarrassed. No dialogue is necessary. Hawks lays out the clues to these relationships through the movement of the camera. It really is quite something.
Stagecoach (1939) dir. John Ford
Orson Welles once said, “Hawks is great prose; Ford is poetry.” Take in a just a few Ford pictures and you’ll understand. For now, “Stagecoach.” Ford had been working the Hollywood system for more than two decades, but it wasn’t until this film (released in 1939), that he found his first monumental success. The film was also his first western in over 10 years and it was a genre Ford would not leave for the rest of his career. It’s easy to understand why. The landscapes of the west are a director’s dream. Take for example the legendary shot of John Wayne in “Stagecoach” (pictured above). Wayne’s Ringo Kid is not introduced until after the first act of the movie, but the way his appearance is shot immediately declares that he is an important character to pay attention to and one we should follow closely the rest of the film. The stagecoach company crosses a tiny river passing when we hear shots fired. We cut to Wayne waving his gun in the air, his figure looming over the western peaks and valleys. The camera quickly dollies in, and Wayne takes up the entire frame. As an audience, we’re hooked. Who is this man? Filmmaking at its finest.
Here’s that scene from Stagecoach in full. Beautiful, isn’t it?