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Stagecoach to Tombstone

The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Westerns


Howard Hughes


London: I.B. Tauris, 2008

Paperback. xxix + 274 pp. ISBN: 978-1845115715. £12.99


Reviewed by Michael Coyne




A few years ago, upon reviewing Howard Hughes’s book Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns (2006), I thought it strange that there was no in-depth scrutiny of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), widely considered to be the jewel of that sub-genre. That mystery has since been solved. Hughes includes OUTW in his 2008 companion volume, Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Westerns. There is certainly no shortage of books available on this most quintessentially American of all film genres, but Hughes’s contribution is a lively engagement, and sure to be as welcome to old-time Western fans as the thunder of hoofbeats and the smell of gunsmoke.

Hughes has chosen a magnificent twenty-seven (I’d actually argue a magnificent twenty-five, plus a pair of ‘not-so-hots’) to trace the evolution of the genre, from John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 to George Pan Cosmatos’s Tombstone in 1993. He opts for breadth of scope rather than in-depth interpretive analysis of the movies, but there’s no law West of the Pecos or anywhere else says every book on the Western ought to take just one approach. Most chapters include a synopsis of the film, a concise production history, details of the locations used, and consideration of the movie’s reception, its significance in the genre, and how key actors and themes would surface in later Westerns. That’s enough to be going on with for anyone’s money.

The first few chapters are situated firmly in Ford-Wayne territory. Stagecoach, Ford’s first sound-era Western, his first in Monument Valley, was the film in which (Raoul Walsh’s 1930 epic The Big Trail notwithstanding) he launched John Wayne on his trajectory as the genre’s greatest star. After World War II, Ford returned to Monument Valley for My Darling Clementine (1946), with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. Clementine is the first of three Earp movies featured here – or is it four?: Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), with its law-enforcing Bonnell brothers, comes pretty damned close. Clementine is the most lyrical, most romanticized and factually most nonsensical film version of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Not only does Ford have Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) dying in the gunfight when in actuality he survived; as Hughes notes, the director even gets the year wrong. The marker on James Earp’s grave reads 1882 – but the showdown occurred in 1881. Fortunately, Hughes’s account of the making, reception and importance of Clementine shows much more respect for historical veracity than Ford’s take on the Earp-Clanton vendetta. Much has been made of the celebrated barber shop/church-dance sequence that enshrines Fonda’s Earp and Eastern Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) at the pinnacle of Ford’s idealized frontier community. Yet as an example of Clementine’s gentle lyricism, I prefer the campfire sequence in which the Earps affectionately josh their kid brother about the trinket he has bought for his sweetheart, just before the youth is murdered.

Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) transformed John Wayne from star to superstar. After Wayne’s performance as tyrannical cattle baron Tom Dunson, John Ford said of his protégé: ‘I didn’t know that big sonofabitch could act.’ Ford promptly took advantage of this epiphany to cast Wayne as an aging US Army Captain in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the centrepiece of the famous Ford-Wayne ‘Cavalry Trilogy’, book-ended by Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950). Throughout, Hughes deftly contextualizes key Westerns within the history and thematic evolution of the genre. Naturally, he scrutinizes all three of Ford’s Cavalry films. In his chapters on Red River and Yellow Ribbon, he mentions that there now exist colorized versions of Hawks’s monochrome epic plus Fort Apache and Rio Grande. While these are unlikely to equal Winton C. Hoch’s Oscar-winning Technicolor for Yellow Ribbon, I can’t get indignant about colorization. It’s not as if the black-and-white originals no longer exist, and I’d far rather watch a colorized version of a classic Western than any over-budgeted, under-talented rehash by Tinseltown’s latest ten-cent Wunderkind.

In 1957 TIME magazine, an unfailing barometer of Middle America, observed that adult Westerns were among ‘the dizzying spires of cinematic art’. The acknowledged classics of the genre, even during the 1950s, were Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and George Stevens’s Shane (1953). They’re both here, of course, along with some intriguing revelations about initial casting suggestions. Who knew, for example, that Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando were all mooted for High Noon’s beleaguered Marshal Will Kane, before Gary Cooper won his second Oscar for the role? Or that Shane was originally envisaged with Montgomery Clift as the eponymous buckskinned drifter, and William Holden and Katharine Hepburn as the sodbusters he befriends? However, no fewer than ten of the twenty-seven Westerns in this book were released during the 1950s. Sufficient testament in itself that the Eisenhower era was the genre’s golden age.

Nicholas Ray’s baroque, proto-feminist Johnny Guitar (1954) climaxed with a shoot-out between free-spirited Joan Crawford and repressed puritanical rabble-rouser Mercedes McCambridge (whose Emma Small is a genuine Wicked Witch of the West). Hughes’s account of the making of the film reveals that the two actresses loathed each other as intensely off-screen as on, and that relations between them deteriorated to the extent that their showdown scenes were filmed separately, then subsequently matched. Hughes points out that the plot of Johnny Guitar was recycled for Once Upon a Time in the West. Similarly, Sergio Leone and his confrères certainly owed a debt to Robert Aldrich’s trend-setting ‘American adventurers in Mexico’ Western Vera Cruz (1954), featuring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as ‘friendly enemies’ who inevitably square off. In his magisterial 2000 biography of Leone, Something To Do With Death, Christopher Frayling identified Cooper’s Southern Colonel Ben Trane as a forerunner of Lee Van Cleef’s lethal Colonel Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More (1965). Equally, Vera Cruz’s mercenaries prefigured John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), Buzz Kulik’s Villa Rides! and Andrew V. McLaglen’s Bandolero! (both 1968), and Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic The Wild Bunch (1969).

Hughes declares The Man from Laramie (1955), the last and arguably the best of Anthony Mann’s five taut revenge sagas starring James Stewart, to be ‘the most violent fifties western’ [74]. Who can forget the scene in which Alex Nicol shoots Stewart in the hand at point-blank range? Hughes also terms The Man from Laramie ‘one of the most significant fifties westerns in the development of obsession, redemption and violence that became the key ingredients of the genre in the mid-sixties’ [77]. Next up, appropriately, is the most obsessive Westerner of all: John Wayne’s monumental performance as Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s dark masterwork The Searchers (1956). While this would certainly have to be included in any ‘Guide to the Great Westerns’, The Searchers has already been so extensively written about, it’s difficult to come up with hitherto unknown nuggets about its production. The chapter on the Burt Lancaster / Kirk Douglas smash hit Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), directed by John Sturges, reveals a few ill-considered proposals for the role of Wyatt Earp before Lancaster saddled up: Humphrey Bogart (only months from death when Gunfight was being filmed); Van Heflin (not tough enough); Richard Widmark (possible as Doc Holliday, though he would not have been as intense or flamboyant as Kirk Douglas); and Jack Palance (no way! – but he’d have made a terrific Ike Clanton or Johnny Ringo). Hughes also reveals that Marilyn Monroe coveted the part of the ‘high-ridin’ woman with a whip’ essayed by Barbara Stanwyck in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957).

Ride Lonesome (1959) is highlighted as the exemplar of the cycle of tight, terse Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, at heart as grim and vengeful as the Anthony Mann-James Stewart films. Hughes rounds off the decade with Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), a vigorous riposte to High Noon, which had offended John Wayne’s patriotism and Hawks’s cherished ethos of professionalism. He opens his examination of the genre in the 1960s on another high, with another paean to professionalism: Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. ‘[T]he heroes are liberals,’ Hughes notes, ‘better suited to more socially enlightened times’ [126]. Indeed, as Philip French pointed out in his groundbreaking Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, way back in 1973, The Magnificent Seven is very much a ‘Kennedy Western’. Yul Brynner’s Chris and his compadres are Knights of the New Frontier. One-Eyed Jacks (1961) was initially a Peckinpah project. Yet what began as Bloody Sam’s script – long before he was Bloody Sam – wound up as a bloated (finally trimmed from five hours to 141 minutes), flawed, quasi-Oedipal Method melodrama helmed by and starring Marlon Brando. Peckinpah came into his own as a first-class Western director with Ride the High Country (1962), a beautiful study of old age, of fall from grace, of redemption, and of the quest for integrity and dignity in a venal world. Ride the High Country proved to be a perfect swan-song for veteran Western stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, with both men reduced to tears when they filmed its poignant finale.

Hughes’s chapter on Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) is somewhat curious. The chapter is not really about the film (discussed in only a couple of pages), but about its star. Katie Elder is a convenient hook to hang a chapter on the 1960s and 1970s output of John Wayne. As such, Hughes may as well have headed his chapter on John Wayne’s own dream project The Alamo (1960); Michael Curtiz’s The Comancheros (1961), an enjoyable actioner with the Duke at his best; Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock! (1963), which perhaps comes closest to encapsulating Wayne’s real-life philosophy; Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), for which Wayne won his only Oscar; Mark Rydell’s elegiac The Cowboys (1972), which featured Wayne’s most brutal death scene; or his quasi-autobiographical hero in Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976).

Following the success of his ‘Dollars Trilogy’, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West had a lukewarm reception on its opening in 1968. Hughes observes: ‘Hang ’Em High, Eastwood’s first western without Leone, took $6.8 million; Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone’s first western without Eastwood, took $1 million’ [167]. Over the decades, however, Once Upon a Time in the West has become regarded as one of the glories of the genre, a horse opera in which the operatic element is just as important as the horse.

It’s hard to understand why Burt Kennedy’s genial but inconsequential Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) warrants mention on a short-list of ‘Great Westerns’. Comedy Westerns always were a chancy proposition, though Hughes accurately points out that by the 1970s these had contributed to a diminished respect for the genre. Contemporaneously, the Western reached its voluptuously violent apogee with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the ultimate ‘die-hards’ of the genre, while the big box-office success of the time was a lighter, counter-cultural, ‘Pop Art’ riff on a similar scenario: George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Hughes devotes a chapter to each, tracing the genre pedigrees of William Holden’s co-stars and the tortuous history of disparate ‘cut’ versions of Bunch, and concluding that Butch, which grossed close to $46 million on its US release, is ‘a western that is loved by filmgoers who don’t even like westerns’ [198].

On a purely subjective note, I’d argue the worst film examined here is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), a nasty, vacuous little ‘mud-and-rags’ Western with an undeservedly inflated reputation, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Apparently, John Wayne and Raquel Welch were considered for the title roles. Thank God those suggestions came to naught! It’s hard to envisage deromanticizing the West by casting either the mythic-heroic Wayne or the glamorous Welch. Hughes’s reading of Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is an intelligent interpretation of the evolution of Cavalry v. Indians Westerns beyond John Ford’s roseate patriotic certainties. Still, it is surely worth noting that his chapter on Ulzana concludes with one of the truly dreadful puns to which this book is occasionally prone: ‘requiescant Apache’ [217].

As Hughes wends toward the end of the trail, he reflects on two Westerns directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is Eastwood’s most ambitious and dare I say most humane Western, a fine cinematic contribution to the Bicentennial healing of America in the wake of the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. While his Pale Rider (1985) was an uninspired rip-off of Shane in the style of his High Plains Drifter (1972), Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) was an Oscar-winning return to top form, with his William Munny an erstwhile vicious killer truly regretful of his violent ways, yet inevitably drawn back into a maelstrom of death-dealing gunplay. Hughes finishes with George Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993), far superior to its temporal rival, Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994), with Kevin Costner, which the author dismisses as ‘a muddled, meandering saga’ [238]. This last chapter moves beyond discussion of Tombstone to an examination of Westerns filmed in the years since; but happily, the enduring effect of this book is that it kindles the urge to catch a fistful of classics from the days when they really knew how to make Westerns.


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