Posted by Richard Harland Smith on December 7, 2012
I’m a horror guy. The older I get, the less I want to watch or write about any other kind of movie. It’s a juvenile, kneejerk response, and of course I will watch and enjoy other kinds of movies… but in my brainmeats I think I’m much more restrictive and exclusive than I really am. I recently was asked to write the liner notes (for want of a better word) for a DVD box set packaging five Universal-International widescreen westerns in one collection. I took the job because that’s what freelancers do, they live in the realm of the infinitely possible (calendar and clock be damned), in the land of Yes, county of Never Turn Down Work. “Westerns,” I thought to myself. “I’ve seen tons of ‘em. I can do this.” As I dug in, however, I found that not only did I enjoy the work but it seemed to feed me in a way, as if I’d been hungry all along and never even noticed.
One of my first film books was Michael Parkinson and Clyde Jeavons’ A Pictorial History of Westerns, published in 1972 by Littlehampton Book Service. I was by that time already an F-TROOP and RIFLEMAN fan, as both series were then in syndication and broadcast early enough each morning for me to watch both (with my cereal) before school. I had seen BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) multiple times at my local cinema, my favorite long playing album was Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and my favorite toy was the Johnny West articulated cowboy figure manufactured by the Louis Marx Company from 1955 until 1975. (In my boyhood imaginings, Johnny West and G.I. Joe would often team up to fight bad guys. These adventures got pretty violent, with many a fall and the occasional impalement, but Johnny never died. Never.) I totally bought into the whole six-gun mythos — the hat, the boots, the vest, the holster (my Dad made me one out of an old inner tube) with the tie-down, the unmistakeable tell of a fast draw. For Christmas 1971, I got a replica Colt .45 Peacemaker BB gun pistol and replication Winchester rifle — strap a hunting knife to my belt and I was good to go. (Not long afterwards, I got the gift of a Civil War set-up, with plastic rifle, saber, and a Navy Colt that came in one of those cool covered holsters that Union and Confederate soldiers used to wear into battle.) I also had a year’s worth of horseback riding lessons, western-style, of course. Though horror movies would soon overtake me, luring me to the dark side and claiming what seemed like 99 44/100% of my heart, there always was and always will be a place for prairie tales and of the men who won the west. It may have been as late as last week that I finally realized how much of a purchase westerns have on my psyche.
Just over the past couple of weeks I have watched THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943), SANTA FE (1951), HORIZONS WEST (1952), SASKATCHEWAN (1954), DAWN AT SOCORRO (1954), BACKLASH (1956), THE SEARCHERS (1956), PILLARS OF THE SKY (1956), THE LAST HUNT (1956) and APACHE TERRITORY (1958) — an assortment of good and great western dramas that enriched my life as I watched them, for the first or nth time. Though the horror genre is pitched at the gut, its aim to evoke in the viewer a visceral response, it’s astonishing sometimes how arm’s length the movies are — terrible things happening to awful people, most of whom deserve their fates, and even if they don’t the characters are so thinly sketched that the attendant abominations visited upon them barely register. Revisiting the western, I remembered why I loved it so, it’s just so palpable, so tangible. Sound plays a far more important factor in westerns than it has ever gotten credit for. Some of the first talking westerns capitalized on simple sounds — bacon frying in the pan, the sound of shell casings hitting the dirt, the slap of holster leather — and the best titles in the genre never forgot this. At their best, westerns reduce complex human experience to essentials, focusing on one or few men cut off, unprotected, surrounded by harsh nature or malicious humanity, and protected only by their wits, their reflexes, and their tools. In modern horror movies, a lot of characters are just there, inessential, fodder for the bogeyman. In westerns, everybody has a job and a purpose.
Even in our enthusiasm, we can sometimes do our favorite films a disservice. Few would argue that THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is a great western but a great western is not just the apex of its subgroup — it’s a great film, a great drama that happens to be laid against a western backdrop, one to be compared across the board. Nobody says CITIZEN KANE is a great newspaper movie or CASABLANCA a great restaurant movie so why should we ghettoize westerns because of the clothes the characters wear and the period in which they live? Though set in the old west, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT has an immediacy, an energy, and an attention to personal detail that evokes the unforgiving microscope of film noir (cinematographer Arthur Miller would go on to shoot two of the best of that subgenre, Otto Preminger’s WHIRLPOOL and Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER). The same is true of THE SEARCHERS, which is so iconic that one tends, even while praising the film, to hogtie to other John Ford westerns starring John Wayne… but THE SEARCHERS is so much more than “Meanwhile back in Monument Valley…” Watching it again the other day I reconnected with those characters, with the horror of Ethan Edwards at finding his family slaughtered and his abiding anger, with the loneliness of Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as days turn to weeks and months to years, with the anguish of the greenhorn Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) at learning what became of his fiancee at the hands of the Comanche, and with the indefatigable honor of the silly Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis), who pines for Laurie even though her heart belongs to the absent Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). This was not a film made exclusively for fans of cowboy pictures but for people who live, who struggle, who get knocked down and have to pick themselves back up so they can keep on trying and struggling and surviving with the hope that some day it will all pay off, that some day it will all make sense.
After I turned in my box set copy, I got busy with a biographical piece on Peggy Montgomery, aka Baby Peggy, Hollywood’s first female child star. Peggy’s father, Jack Montgomery, had been in his youth an open range cowboy whose livelihood dissipated with the modernization of the west after the turn of the 20th Century. Instead of heading for Bolivia like Butch and Sundance, Jack Montgomery came to Hollywood, where he earned a modest living doubling for Tom Mix. I’m fascinated now by that connection, that crossroads, of the death of the Wild West and the birth of motion pictures. I’ll be interested, moving forward, in looking at those silent and early sound westerns, in which the cowboys were played by actual cowboys, men who could ride and rope, who could drive a buckboard and fire a gun… men who were born too late to win the west but who played an integral part in defining American culture at the dawn of a new age.
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