My heroes had always been cowboys, or “Hey, westerns, remember me?”

cowboys

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.

 Pictorial History of WesternsOne 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.

The_Searchers

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.

Ox-Bow IncidentEven 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.

mystery-photo-image-1-6-8-121

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.

0 Response My heroes had always been cowboys, or “Hey, westerns, remember me?”
Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : December 8, 2012 2:16 am

Mr. Smith, thanks for this post! I’ve also recently realized how much I love westerns, especially the oldest ones. And, as you note, many of those earliest westerns featured guys who were “the real deal,” like Tom Mix. The cowboy culture made a deep impression on the dawn of the movies. Many western stars, from John Wayne to Leo Carrillo, also became western collectors or amateur West historians. Even William S. Hart, a veteran stage actor long before he was ever hired to wear a ten gallon hat, became so enamored of “Wild West” mythology that he had something of a “cowpoke conversion,” eventually even becoming one of the earliest collectors of important “westernalia,” or whatever it’s called. The the tail end of “The Old West” and the earliest days of Hollywood were not only virtually concurrent, but, I think, somehow significantly connected. Heck, one of the first American films, The Great Train Robbery, was a western, wasn’t it?

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : December 8, 2012 2:16 am

Mr. Smith, thanks for this post! I’ve also recently realized how much I love westerns, especially the oldest ones. And, as you note, many of those earliest westerns featured guys who were “the real deal,” like Tom Mix. The cowboy culture made a deep impression on the dawn of the movies. Many western stars, from John Wayne to Leo Carrillo, also became western collectors or amateur West historians. Even William S. Hart, a veteran stage actor long before he was ever hired to wear a ten gallon hat, became so enamored of “Wild West” mythology that he had something of a “cowpoke conversion,” eventually even becoming one of the earliest collectors of important “westernalia,” or whatever it’s called. The the tail end of “The Old West” and the earliest days of Hollywood were not only virtually concurrent, but, I think, somehow significantly connected. Heck, one of the first American films, The Great Train Robbery, was a western, wasn’t it?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 8, 2012 2:51 am

You are welcome, John Mundt. And I’m overdue for a cowpoke conversion myself!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 8, 2012 2:51 am

You are welcome, John Mundt. And I’m overdue for a cowpoke conversion myself!

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 3:21 am

I have never heard or read such a wonderful description of The Searchers. It is not only my favorite western, but it is also my second favorite movie of all-time.

I happen to have a copy of The Pictorial History of the Western Film right here on my book shelf. It is a different book than yours, but it is a wonderful slice of film history seeing all of those old stills from the oldest westerns and reading about their origins.

What were the 5 westerns included in the boxed set?

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 3:21 am

I have never heard or read such a wonderful description of The Searchers. It is not only my favorite western, but it is also my second favorite movie of all-time.

I happen to have a copy of The Pictorial History of the Western Film right here on my book shelf. It is a different book than yours, but it is a wonderful slice of film history seeing all of those old stills from the oldest westerns and reading about their origins.

What were the 5 westerns included in the boxed set?

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 3:27 am

I was born in ’74, well past the western’s heyday and right as westerns were dying, but I grew up to appreciate the western. I gew up watching Lone Ranger reruns, John Wayne movies and the occasional old Roy Rogers or Gene Autry movie that my parents loved. I keep hoping for a return to greatness of the western, but I don’t think that will ever happen. The western hero has been demythologized much too much. It will never be like it was.

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 3:27 am

I was born in ’74, well past the western’s heyday and right as westerns were dying, but I grew up to appreciate the western. I gew up watching Lone Ranger reruns, John Wayne movies and the occasional old Roy Rogers or Gene Autry movie that my parents loved. I keep hoping for a return to greatness of the western, but I don’t think that will ever happen. The western hero has been demythologized much too much. It will never be like it was.

Posted By Jenni : December 8, 2012 8:12 am

Westerns are great films and I recently dvred Apache Territory and watched it. Rory Calhoun starred in it and while I recognized some of the supporting players, he was the only actor in the film who I had name recognition of. It was a good western to watch. Not as great as The Searchers but it got right down to business in laying out the plot, explaining who the characters were and what they were going to be up against-being caught in Apache Territory, all trying to just get to Ft. Yuma, AZ. The minor sub-plots weren’t confusing, and I loved that scene where Calhoun, while on a rock ledge spying on 3 Apache watchmen at night, has to lie stockstill while a Gila Monster climbs onto the ledge and slithers and creeps around him. I don’t know how long that scene took to shoot, but it really looked like a real reptile was used for that scene. At first I didn’t think that a Gila would be as bad as a rattle snake slithering around but my 14 year old son informed me that Gila’s do have a poisonous bite-yikes! Apache Territory-a good little Western, not too long, gets the job done, and enjoyably so.

Posted By Jenni : December 8, 2012 8:12 am

Westerns are great films and I recently dvred Apache Territory and watched it. Rory Calhoun starred in it and while I recognized some of the supporting players, he was the only actor in the film who I had name recognition of. It was a good western to watch. Not as great as The Searchers but it got right down to business in laying out the plot, explaining who the characters were and what they were going to be up against-being caught in Apache Territory, all trying to just get to Ft. Yuma, AZ. The minor sub-plots weren’t confusing, and I loved that scene where Calhoun, while on a rock ledge spying on 3 Apache watchmen at night, has to lie stockstill while a Gila Monster climbs onto the ledge and slithers and creeps around him. I don’t know how long that scene took to shoot, but it really looked like a real reptile was used for that scene. At first I didn’t think that a Gila would be as bad as a rattle snake slithering around but my 14 year old son informed me that Gila’s do have a poisonous bite-yikes! Apache Territory-a good little Western, not too long, gets the job done, and enjoyably so.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 8, 2012 11:41 am

The five westerns that will comprise the box set are all named in the piece: Horizon’s West, Saskatchewan, Dawn at Socorro, Backlash and Pillars of the Sky — all Universal-International productions starring that studio’s great roster of contract players. Mind you, the set is still in production and, as westerns have taught us, anything can happen between St. Louis and San Francisco… so stay tuned.

Jenni, that scene in Apache Territory jumped out at me too. Yes, gila monsters can be quite ferocious but unlike rattlesnakes they are not fast. The bit reminded me a little of the tarantula scene in Dr. No, where big, tough 007 cowers while the harmless creature crawls on him. (Sean Connery was so squeamish about doing the scene that they put a plane of glass between the actor and the tarantula.) It’s funny how the movies will go out of their way to demonize certain critters!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 8, 2012 11:41 am

The five westerns that will comprise the box set are all named in the piece: Horizon’s West, Saskatchewan, Dawn at Socorro, Backlash and Pillars of the Sky — all Universal-International productions starring that studio’s great roster of contract players. Mind you, the set is still in production and, as westerns have taught us, anything can happen between St. Louis and San Francisco… so stay tuned.

Jenni, that scene in Apache Territory jumped out at me too. Yes, gila monsters can be quite ferocious but unlike rattlesnakes they are not fast. The bit reminded me a little of the tarantula scene in Dr. No, where big, tough 007 cowers while the harmless creature crawls on him. (Sean Connery was so squeamish about doing the scene that they put a plane of glass between the actor and the tarantula.) It’s funny how the movies will go out of their way to demonize certain critters!

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 2:47 pm

I’d be freaked out by a tarantula too.

I have never seen any of the five westerns listed for the set. Nice.

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2012 2:47 pm

I’d be freaked out by a tarantula too.

I have never seen any of the five westerns listed for the set. Nice.

Posted By tdraicer : December 9, 2012 4:39 pm

>or CASABLANCA a great restaurant movie

But I love that idea. (Casablanca vs. My Dinner With Andre.)

My favorite westerns are The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Big Country, The Cowboys, and Lonely Are The Brave. I think what they have in common is a feeling for men who see their era passing.

Posted By tdraicer : December 9, 2012 4:39 pm

>or CASABLANCA a great restaurant movie

But I love that idea. (Casablanca vs. My Dinner With Andre.)

My favorite westerns are The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Big Country, The Cowboys, and Lonely Are The Brave. I think what they have in common is a feeling for men who see their era passing.

Posted By Doug : December 9, 2012 5:12 pm

For your enjoyment:
Pat McManus wrote a great story: “Meanwhile, Back At The B Western” in his book,”They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?”
http://books.google.com/books?id=rQLXHA2FhWsC&pg=PA70&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Posted By Doug : December 9, 2012 5:12 pm

For your enjoyment:
Pat McManus wrote a great story: “Meanwhile, Back At The B Western” in his book,”They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?”
http://books.google.com/books?id=rQLXHA2FhWsC&pg=PA70&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Posted By swac44 : December 10, 2012 11:40 am

I was a cowboy kid too, growing up on the prairie of Alberta (okay, a Calgary suburb on the edge of the prairie that has since been swallowed up by city 40 years later), with a buckskin jacket, capgun holsters and a felt cowboy hat for half-pints. Some of my fondest childhood photos come from this period, and probably explains why I get a bit wistful watching A Christmas Story: I wanted a Daisy air rifle too, but never got one, probably for the same reason that Ralphie was initially denied his Red Ryder model.

Then we moved back to the East Coast, and I had to ditch the cowboy stuff pronto, for fear of getting laughed at, and as I became a junior cinephile, I avoided westerns for the longest time, maybe due to this deep-seated rejection of my past (although I enjoyed listening to old time radio repeats of The Lone Ranger on a local station for some reason, go figure).

I can’t remember what ultimately turned me around, probably a combination of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Orson Welles’ declaration that his biggest cinematic influences were “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” These days I can tell my de Toth from my Boetticher, and enjoy everything from Tom Mix and Harry Carey silents to Sergio Corbucci and Deadwood. There’s something comforting in that familiar form that can still be so full of surprises and contemporary themes. Looking forward to that DVD set!

Posted By swac44 : December 10, 2012 11:40 am

I was a cowboy kid too, growing up on the prairie of Alberta (okay, a Calgary suburb on the edge of the prairie that has since been swallowed up by city 40 years later), with a buckskin jacket, capgun holsters and a felt cowboy hat for half-pints. Some of my fondest childhood photos come from this period, and probably explains why I get a bit wistful watching A Christmas Story: I wanted a Daisy air rifle too, but never got one, probably for the same reason that Ralphie was initially denied his Red Ryder model.

Then we moved back to the East Coast, and I had to ditch the cowboy stuff pronto, for fear of getting laughed at, and as I became a junior cinephile, I avoided westerns for the longest time, maybe due to this deep-seated rejection of my past (although I enjoyed listening to old time radio repeats of The Lone Ranger on a local station for some reason, go figure).

I can’t remember what ultimately turned me around, probably a combination of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Orson Welles’ declaration that his biggest cinematic influences were “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” These days I can tell my de Toth from my Boetticher, and enjoy everything from Tom Mix and Harry Carey silents to Sergio Corbucci and Deadwood. There’s something comforting in that familiar form that can still be so full of surprises and contemporary themes. Looking forward to that DVD set!

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