A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and
little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born,” the Wild West was still – just about – in living memory. And a little British Asian girl growing up in 70s suburbia could read the opening lines to Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Little House on the Prairie, or turn on the TV and enter the frontier lands of the movie Western. One day the little girl grew up to be a journalist and a campaigner on feminist issues, and still loved Westerns so much that she sat through Heaven’s Gate dubbed in German; for the chance to see it on a massive East Berlin cinema screen. This is the story of my journey.
I am 8 years old and find myself at home walking in on the end of a Saturday TV movie matinee. John Wayne is on horseback trying to shoot his beautiful, apparently Indian niece, Natalie Wood. The niece that he’d come to rescue. I am deeply confused. She’s saved by handsome Jeffrey Hunter but it doesn’t feel like a happy ending. I am deeply unsettled.
Now, it was about 15 years later when I actually got around to watching The Searchers from start to finish (when it was screened at the National Film Theatre) , so don’t think I had a highbrow, film critic-style relationship with Westerns from the start. I remember sitting at an uncle’s house in Hillingdon, possibly celebrating Eid, with lots of Hyderabadi relatives, and we were all – kids and adults alike – gathered round the TV watching the end of the original True Grit (more on this later). But the point is these films were shared moments of mythic story telling. I saw scores over the years of my childhood and they were formative.
I fell in love with their stars; (Anthony Perkins in Friendly Persuasion, long before I’d heard of Psycho) the landscapes (notably John Ford’s lovingly filmed Monument Valley); and the weird and wonderful women and their ranches full of outlaws (Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious). I especially loved the strong Indian and Mexican women (Katy Jurado in High Noon, as opposed to anaemic Grace Kelly). And there were always strong women in Westerns; holding their own in a deeply macho world.
Then there were those secretly gay, camp, polysexual or just plain wacko Westerns (Johnny Guitar – the French critics’ favourite. And Calamity Jane. And my personal calamitous favourite – The Singer Not the Song, featuring Dirk Bogarde’s highly unlikely Mexican bandido in black leather jeans and gloves, and Johnny Mills as the Catholic priest he lusts after.)
As I grew older I was intrigued by how they re-told simple, gripping medieval tales of greed (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and dark tales of Shakespearean complexity about racial hatred – especially the fear of miscegenation (The Searchers, Flaming Star, The Unforgiven); lust (The Outlaw, Desire Under The Elms, Duel In the Sun); sexual violence (The Bravados, Man of the West); and the deep seated twin culture of gang violence and the legal or illegal lynchmob (The Missouri Breaks, The Unforgiven, Warlock and countless others). I still regularly find myself watching extreme violence in the middle of the afternoon on the network TV matinees – Richard Widmark having his hand stabbed to a table in Warlock, or Jimmy Stewart being shot through the hand in The Man From Laramie.
Wonderful actors known best for different work, proved their magnificence to me if they could carry off a Western; especially if they played Indians. (Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven; Elvis in Don Siegel’s Flaming Star). I formed double bills in my head. A King Lear like relationship between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River nearly end in Shakespearean tragedy, but pulled back at the last minute by Howard Hawks. And then in a poignant companion piece, a few years later, there was Monty again, his beauty scarred by the car accident, now struggling against a different kind of old American, to rescue Lee Remick from the Depression era Tennessee Valley in Wild River.
I grew up to study English Literature at A-level and then at Oxford University; and I started to see more clearly the “rules” and “form” that liberated, rather than restricted, the Western to critically explore the politics and moral dilemmas of its time; just as much as the “rules” and “form” of the Elizabethan sonnet or court play. Within the “rules” of the settings (ghost town or boom town or graveyard or homestead) and the rules of engagement (white man versus Injun; Easterners versus the frontier; farmers versus cattlemen; outlaw versus sheriff), it was all there: McCarthy era witch hunts (High Noon); Vietnam and a belated recognition of American Indian genocide (Little Big Man). There was the end of the West (The Wild Bunch, Lonely Are the Brave, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and, as in so many of Clint Eastwood’s films, a darkly satirical Gothic take on machismo in the age of Women’s Lib (The Beguiled).
You may notice the lack of post-1960 Westerns in my listings. Perhaps it’s being forced to watch spaghetti Westerns so often as my big brother and his teenage friends monopolised our Betamax VCR, but they seemed too mean and coldly macho. Michael Crichton’s thriller Westworld is the exception, and that’s because it is a model of the great 70s genre – sci fi. For me, the Golden Age ended before the 1960s. The Westerns of the 30s, 40s and 50s are liberated by the repression. The coiffed hair and neat gingham outfits a decoy from the dark and twisted content.
I’ve watched many Westerns through the 80s and 90s to the present day, and those that work best are those that embrace or parody the baroque structuring of the formal Western and its strong repressed sexuality; not those that wallow in realism. Hence I prefer Sam Raimi’s sexy sharpshooting tribute to the spirit of Dietrich/Crawford/Stanwyck, The Quick and The Dead (Sharon Stone shagging Russell Crowe in a priest’s habit – in chains!) to Clint’s decent, but depressing and masochistic, Unforgiven.
Recently I’ve had many discussions with 40-something contemporaries about whether we were the last generation to grow up with a full appreciation of the genre. But we can choose to change that. I’ve got my own children keenly watching Westerns. There’s one on TV nearly everyday. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon was the first. Then The Shootist – a film so sad it ought to be the last Western one ever watches. But perhaps it is as well to mourn the last gunfighter early on, and then spend a lifetime celebrating the glory days. Back To the Future III is a nice way in, for kids, by the way.
And then the Coen Brothers’ True Grit gets nominated for every major award going and it gives you hope. The co-editor of the Spectator Arts Blog suggested Bridges’ acting revealed just how hammy John Wayne’s was. But I believe that’s missing the point of John Wayne. A man who was Westerns. And I’d suggest he watches The Shootist.
No Country For Old Men and O Brother Where Art Thou? were of course Westerns, anyway. And what is a Western but the Odyssey, as in O Brother Where Art Thou?, or the Aeneid or the Mahabarata or Monkey’s journey to the West – a mythic journey through symbolic landscapes where we all know instinctively that we are exploring the human condition.
So where does my journey end? Well. I had my own encounter with an old man in the West. Sitting in San Francisco’s magnificent Mexican cathedral-style Castro Theatre in 1995, he came up to me:
“Where you from, Stranger? And what brings you to this screening of Once Upon A Time in the West?”
“Well,” replied this Stranger from the East (Europe). I’ve never seen it before and found it was on here in 70 mm.”
The old man’s eyes moistened. “I’m jealous, girl. I’m so jealous that you’re going to see it for the first time like that.”
And he smiled. And the lights went down. And suddenly I found myself at a dusty train track in the middle of a wide open plain; amidst a group of steely eyed gunslingers. Waiting.