western

Rawhide S1: Incident of the Tumbleweed

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Rawhide (occasionally popping up on cable on the likes of TMC) dates back to the end of the 1950s and into the early 60s, when things were so much simpler. The top ten TV shows were routinely packed out with Westerns such as The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke and American audiences just couldn’t get enough of them.

Happily for the TV networks, they were also cheap and easy to produce – all you had to do was get your actors, kit them out with costumes and props left over from the Western movies being churned out, and then decamp to the Californian desert and brush land for some good old-fashioned running around, shooting and punch-ups.

A plot would be useful, but really these sort of ‘oaters’ wrote themselves. In this episode, series star Eric Fleming playing Gil Favor has to step in escorting a wagon full of convicts to the nearest Fort after the marshalls are incapacitated (the Tumbleweed of the title is the prison wagon); his sidekick Rowdy Yates helps out. Rowdy is of course played by Clint Eastwood, but here he’s just a young kid with a big dumb-ass grin whose brains turn to jelly as soon as a beautiful woman shows up (in this case, the improbably-named female convict Dallas Storm.) Gil and Rowdy’s sense of proper security procedure is laughable (they leave locks undone, guns lying around where the convicts could get them) and they’re all together pretty poor at the stand-in job.

Surprisingly the pace is rather slow for a Western (although there’s a good couple of shoot-outs and punch-ups, never fear) and that allows the large supporting cast to make a proper impression and establish proper characters. It would be stretching it to say that the characters ever do anything genuinely surprising or are really changed or redeemed (save for the aforementioned Dallas), but they certainly emerge as more fleshed out and rounded characters than the usual “good guy/bad guy” cardboard cutout you’d expect of the era or the genre; predictably the one truly nasty character is an Englishman, played by 40s movie star Tom Conway who was George Sanders’ brother and took over from him in the role of The Falcon in a B-movie series of that name. In fact the only characters who don’t have any time spent on them are Gil and Rowdy themselves, but then they had another 22 episodes that season to get the job done.

The black-and-white film stock of this early episode of the series gives it a classy look and even stops the California backdrops from looking tired and familiar as they would become from TV show after TV show (mostly cop shows by then) in the 70s, and give a genuine sense of history to the whole affair.

It’s definitely a slice of history, and whether you’ll either roll your eyes with every cliché and the slow pace of the affair, or revel in its comfy, familiar embrace is very much up to the individual viewer. Personally I found it quite delightful – at least for a change.

True Grit (2010) – a bleak sunset in the West

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I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.

It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.

But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.

Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)

Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.

Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.