A New Look at the Old West

From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, the Western genre reigned in Hollywood. Studios were releasing as many as 140 Westerns each and every year. Once television got in on the act, Westerns came to dominate the small screen as well. The image of the heroic Cowboy adhering to his personal code and taming the wild frontier became ubiquitous in American pop culture. This is a simplistic view of the classic Hollywood Western, but relative to the films we’re discussing below, an accurate one.

In the 1960s, the Western fell out of fashion with movie goers. Film critic J. Hoberman, for one, attributes this loss of popularity with the burgeoning Vietnam War. As the conflicts of the 1960s, both at home and abroad, intensified, the notion of America being an exceptional country full of promise just rang hollow. And by the end of the decade, the Western had begun to reflect this new, more cleared-eyed view of history. 

These new Westerns were labeled ‘Revisionist,’ and they offered a grimmer, less morally certain take on the men and women who settled along the frontier. The protagonists of these Westerns are oftentimes anti-heroes, if not outright villainous. Sometimes, the movie will flip the script, and center the story on the Indigenous Americans, making the settlers (should they appear at all) be the ones who threaten to upend a way of life. The physical settings became muddier, the environments became less inviting. In the Classic Western, the West meant wide open plains under a starry sky where a man could be free. Now, the wilderness was full of snow, and rain, and mud, and a wrong move meant slow death.

Though Hollywood will occasionally release a Western in the more ‘Classic’ vein (like Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, or their repeated, misguided attempts at making The Lone Ranger a thing), the ‘Revisionist’ Western seems to have settled in as the default form of the genre, with recent examples like Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight being prime examples.  Listed below is a quick survey of some of these Revisionist Westerns that we’ve heretofore missed and are finally getting a chance to catch ourselves up on.

Jeffrey Knight

Lawman

Directed by Michael Winner/1971

by Robert Hornak

The first face we see that we know is Robert Duvall, in young close up, shooting up a western town with a gang of others for reasons up to then unexplained, but in the jumble of shots of mayhem that follow we also pick out Lee J. Cobb barking orders at them in-media-res, seemingly the slingers’ boss familias. We’re pre-credits, bewildered, dropped into the center of the dust-cloud of blood and guts raised up by Peckinpah a couple years before. The boys are cattle drivers on leave and they’ve torn a fiery streak through Burt Lancaster’s town – and he’s gonna follow them back to Sabbath under color of law to collect the toll for killing an innocent old man. 

In Sabbath, flute-playing Lancaster (Maddox) rustles up a conflict with his counterpart, lackey sheriff Robert Ryan (playing, possibly, his own grandfather, Cotton Ryan), who’s the bought man of Cobb’s landowner/cattleman Bronson (a premonition of director Michael Winner’s future surrogate in screen bloodletting, Charles Bronson?). As the various ropes of masculine fortitude draw together in Sabbath, a kind of crust forms over the movie, like the story’s turning to stony myth – the verisimilitude of the dirt dusting up around our men as they dance their little war dance chokes us into believing, despite the steady drip of Western tropes, that our screen is not lying to us. And we follow rock-toothed Maddox on his quest to best the pipsqueaks who’d dare to challenge his say. An era-specific push-in to his eyes as he bullets out his threat to shoot ‘em all where they stand (if they don’t return with him to face a judge) lands so precisely on the exact millimeter of absolute moral authority at the center of the movie that the image sticks with you throughout the rest. And you’ll need it as a reminder while we dip deep into the anti-heroic means of his weakly-justified ends. 

But Maddox’s ramrod righteousness is touched by cynicism when he admits to the judge he’ll bring the gang to can be easily bought – it’s the flailing of a do-gooder who only does good to keep his conscience clean, and let the rest be damned. But by this ethos his action can only be the empty semblance of a legal retort. It’s the law without the commensurate magnanimity and wisdom. And when presented with Cobb/Bronson’s earnest wish to settle out of court for the drunken tragedy, Maddox remains as sternly by-the-book as a church lady. We see early on how the movie is shifting the guilt of any future bloodletting onto the good guy who won’t budge from the letter of the law: while the unknowable Maddox buffs his self-admitted atheistic virtue on a halo made of steel, we get a sideways tenderness from Bronson, one time seeing him pray over his slain companion and another waxing internal re: life, death, and the turning of the earth. (By the end of this highly literate script, everyone’s had his philosophical say.) Soon we’re thinking maybe we put our ante on the wrong card – and therein churns the guts of this Western’s revisionist push: good is only good on paper when the guilty are let to be made human.

A twist repositions the pieces on the board: Maddox shoots Bronson’s favorite gun-belted stooge in a moment of pure self-defense, bringing the all-but-repented rancher up to the line of justified frontier revenge, and effectively putting him and Maddox on a playing field that absolves them both of guilt. And across town, sheriff Ryan is ousted from the bad guys for pointing out Maddox’s gun mastery, then full-on sides with Maddox when a main street row disturbs the town and his own rising sense of duty to keep it safe. That mirrors the upscaling of monolithic duty in Maddox, the kind that prompts admissions that he doesn’t care about the men he’s killed – he’s a lawman and “that’s what’s called for.” Now we know that he’s as programmed as Yul Brenner in Westworld, or perhaps as supernaturally twisted as Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (both two years later) – and has become so unstoppably upright and duty bound that he’d allow the continuing escalation of violence to teeter atop the spindly justification of a single dead old man back home. The film, as it pulls us, in the last act, into a squelching charnel house of that very vengeance, never winks on the thesis. When Maddox leaves town, his job done, there’s not a sense that justice has been done, but that the very essence of good has been shot down in the street, a victim of one man’s subversion of duty for his own righteous gratification. Who can be the good guy when the legal sours so completely into murderous legalism?

The Stalking Moon

Directed by Robert Mulligan/1968

by Justin Mory

I must admit I picked this one mainly for the title, which I first encountered as a slim mass-market paperback while shelving other dog-eared Westerns at the used bookstore where I work. Passing by, my boss noticed the lean volume, by Wisconsin author T.V. Olsen, and pointed it out as a favorite of his late father’s, mentioning that he’d seen the Gregory Peck movie of the book with his dad as a kid. The title stuck in my mind for several years until I came across a discount DVD Western collection, which includes the more topic-relevant Sam Peckinpah Westerns Ride the High Country (1962) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), John Wayne in Chisum (1970) being the odd one out, alongside Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon.

All told, it’s been fourteen years since I bought the two-dollar paperback Western for a buck, and five years since I bought the ten-dollar DVD collection for a fiver, so I’m glad I’ve finally had the excuse to get around to the movie. In the Wild West of the used book trade, it may take a while to wrangle and wrestle down every literary object of interest, but we story-herders do try to round up all those wandering titles, on pages and discs alike, in the end.

In this case, I’m happy to report the total six-dollar investment was worth it. (And I may even get around to the book someday.) Plotwise, The Stalking Moon concerns an army scout and tracker named Sam Varner who finds a white woman named Sarah Carver living with a roving tribe of Apache in Arizona territory shortly after the Civil War. Kidnapped by the tribe several years before, her settler family killed and she forced into marriage with a warrior named Salvaje, Sarah leaves with Varner and the scouting party, taking along her unnamed half-Apache, half-white son. Pursued by Salvaje, the boy’s father, as Sam escorts Sam and the boy across Arizona, a brief stay at an isolated stagecoach inn results in every white occupant being quickly and savagely killed by the ghost-like lone warrior. 

Finally bringing the escaping pair across the desert to the apparent safety of a train station on the edge of Indian territory, Sam impulsively offers Sarah and her boy refuge at his ranch in beautiful if desolate New Mexico. There, however, the developing idyll among the towering butte formations and lush foliage is broken for Sam, Sarah, and the boy when Sam’s fellow army tracker Nick Tana brings the unwelcome news that Salvaje has tracked the trio to their remote ranch and is on his way to reclaim his son in strictly and starkly Apache terms.

Director Robert Mulligan reunited with then producer Alan J. Pakula – the team had directed/produced the film of To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) five years before – for a low-key Western emphasizing character and mood. The theme of this group of Film Admissions, again, is Revisionism, and after watching The Stalking Moon one might not immediately associate or group this film with any radical challenge to the established account of the Old West. In terms of the heroic and villainous roles of settlers and natives being switched or the resulting conflict erupting in hyper-realistic bloodletting, Mulligan and Pakula’s vision may appear relatively sedate, but the film’s painstaking aesthetic of life-like editing rhythms and longer-take, open-lensed photography, the latter courtesy of the great Charles Lang, lends The Stalking Moon an emotional reality that addresses/redresses the historical record in a different way.

Call it revisionism with a soft “r”. As a nice example, co-stars Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint play a quietly amusing scene across a sturdy wood table in a manner approaching the awkwardness of two frontier people simply starting out in life together, as opposed to two hardy pioneers taming a new land or carving civilization out of the wilderness. Perhaps the main surprise, if not quite a thematic revelation, that The Stalking Moon offers, and as casual readers and viewers like my boss and his dad may have first responded, is some sense of the day-to-day of life in a picturesque if forbidding locale, in a period of rapid development and change. The Old West was soon no more, but its legacy stalks us to this day in the still-shining moon of legend.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Directed by Robert Altman/1971

by Paul Hibbard

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a mesmerizing Robert Altman film. Golden in hue and gently coasted along by the rhythmic songs of Leonard Cohen, which carry this proto-western along until it’s explosive, third-act face-off.

Warren Beatty gives the performance of his career (or at least one of his best) as McCabe. At times he’s cocksure and arrogant. And at times overwhelmed, scared and a little pathetic.

Altman is ultimately making a treatise on capitalism, a system that is about freedom and negotiations, but only as a facade, because your part of that freedom is gone if you don’t play along. It reminds me of the abusive usage of imminent domain if your mom-and-pop shop is in the way of an Ikea parking lot. If people weren’t so full of lust for the dream of capitalism, and fought back, as Beatty attempts, things may be more promising.  Promising but also futile… as “promisingly futile” feels like the perfect way to sum up the way things go in McCabe & Mrs Miller.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean  

Directed by John Huston/1972

by Taylor Blake

To know Paul Newman is to love him, which is why he now claims the honor of starring in two of my all-time favorite Westerns. Heck, if Paul Newman starred in every Western, it’d probably be my all-time favorite genre. Thanks to him, to know Judge Roy Bean is to love him as well. He may be no White Hat Hero like the icons John Wayne and Gary Cooper played—in some scenes you even wonder if he’s the Black Hat Villain—but his sombrero-clad protagonist is just too fun to be denied. 

If you had any doubt The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a Revisionist Western before starting, the opening title cards clue you in on the story you’re about to enter: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.” The bank robber Roy Bean rides out of the sunset, as if he’s already finished his first adventure, and he begins his new one: Instead of being an outlaw, he’ll uphold the law. He cleans up a town full of miscreants, declares himself a judge, and becomes a legend. In his years overseeing justice west of the Pecos River (where “only bad men and rattlesnakes” live), he grows a town from a small seed and hangs many a lawbreaker. He writes letters to the actress Lillie Langtry, and he befriends a bear. Ned Beatty, Jacqueline Bisset, Ava Gardner, John Huston (also directing, NBD), Stacy Keach, Roddy McDowell, and Anthony Perkins all stop by, and Andy Williams sings him a theme song. 

Judge Roy Bean was a real person, and while Huston’s film does take liberties, you’ll be surprised at how many details are plucked from life. But with voiceover and direct-to-camera commentary from the people who meet him, The Life and Times is really about the legend of this mythic figure and every version of his story people have told. With its whimsical tone and the charming-as-ever Newman at the center, it only takes a little imagination to start writing your own version, too. Who’s to say Butch Cassidy didn’t somehow ride out of the sunset, live for a brief time as Roy Bean, and then reunite with Robert Redford in The Sting? This little fan fiction works chronologically within the film and with the films’ release dates, and I couldn’t help but wish for a happy ending for every one of Newman’s lawbreaking icons. Of course, one of the points of Huston’s film is that beautiful things never last, and sometimes they’re better in our memory than they were at the time. But to know Judge Roy Bean is to love him, and I’m choosing to remember him in the most rose-colored glasses I own.

Major Dundee

Directed by Sam Peckinpah/1965 (Director’s Cut: 2005)

by Jim Tudor

Despite no shortage of genuine film-history-curiosity and opportunities over the course of the past sixteen years, I’d never gotten around to catching up with Charlton Heston in the 1965 Civil War-set Cavalry Western, Major Dundee. Considered a grand misfire of its maker, the lionized Sam Peckinpah, the studio-minced film had finally been recut, restored, and rescored as closely in accord with the director’s original vision as possible.  

The film’s problems started at its inception, with producer Jerry Bresler recruiting the still-fresh Peckinpah to direct. The mix was oil and water.  Bresler was known for his bubblegum Gidget films, and apparently looking for a good old rah-rah U.S. Cavalry adventure.  Peckinpah, though, was already well on his way to becoming Peckinpah, the ferocious talent of violence mixed with complicated male sensitives.  Peckinpah, who would solidify the notion of the “Revisionist Western” with his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah, who would famously implode in the decade-plus to come, who was, even at this early phase, over-indulgent and self-destructive.

I hated having to miss the press screening of the new face-saving “director’s cut” of Major Dundee, but I had a very trail session for a video editing job that day.  I won’t go into the dire personal specifics of that day other than to say that it ranks as one of my worst.  I not only didn’t get the job, but I humiliated myself over the course of many slow, torturous hours.  As for Major Dundee, when the recut made it to DVD a few months later, I eagerly snapped it up. But then… I couldn’t ever bring myself to watch it.  Without thinking too much about why that might be, I can only now assume that it has been due to the film’s association in my mind with that day.  Finally, all these years later, I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with the lauded recut of Major Dundee

Above all, the late Peckinpah’s mangled maybe-masterpiece is an ornery assembly.  Whether one sees it in its original 1965 version or its comparatively more common 2005 extended version, the film can’t help but emerge a shambles.  Much has been written, recorded, and audio commentaried about the resulting imperfect and at times fragmentary state of the film, though even today, conclusive proof of anything remains elusive.  The significance for such extensive attention lies in the fact that this is director Peckinpah’s third-only feature and first grand-scale epic.  

With hindsight being 20/20, it’s tempting and/or astute to consider Dundee a telegraphed confessional portrait of the director himself.  Peckinpah visually glories in the title character’s staunch obsession, a quality acted as noble as it is acursed by a sterner than sterner-stuff Charlton Heston.  With his jaw permanently clinched and his Cavalry cap never quite fitting properly, the whole of the film comes down to Dundee’s singular obsession with tracking down and stopping a murderous Apache called Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate).  With his own soldiers stretched thin by the war, Dundee must resort to a dubious assembly of local ruffians, lowly cowboys, and Confederate prisoners (this faction headed up by a dynamic Richard Harris, ever at odds) to make up his war posse.  (Which also includes the likes of a one-armed James Coburn, Warren Oates, Michael Anderson, Jr., Brock Peters, BEN Johnson, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, and more Western luminaries).  As the Major charges his “troops” headlong across the Rio Grande into desolate Mexico (true Peckinpah territory), his madman-across-the-water pursuit prices to embody the height of American hubris.  Major Dundee is often referred to as a retelling of Moby-Dick on horseback.  Even more apt of 1965, it foretold of the consequences of the U.S.’s invasion of Vietnam, violently chasing an idea, a fear, moreso than a solid enemy.

In the end, such as it is (Major Dundee is a film without a proper ending.  It literally just stops, and then the closing credits), the Major is beset on all sides.  That was how I felt on that Monday back in 2005 when I supposed to see this film, but didn’t.  Thankfully, just as the troubled Dundee eventually arose like a good-enough phoenix, I too landed on my feet well enough as a video editor.  Arrow Video has recently released an awfully attractive two-disc limited edition Blu-ray edition stocked with hours of smart bonus features that tackle the myth and legacy of this deeply distraught production.  The end result- even in the case of the significantly longer and polished extended edition- is an ultimately unsatisfying experience.  As for Peckinpah, who would soon go on make the seminal Revisionist Westerns The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as the oft-overlooked gem The Ballad of Cable Hogue, any triumph here is his.  Such as it could ever be.

Ride With the Devil

Directed by Ang Lee/1999

by Jeffrey Knight

Ride With the Devil wasn’t a movie I was thinking of when I chose this month’s topic. Still, when I saw that Ang Lee had directed a Western, it became my first and only choice. However, it turns out Ride isn’t what anyone would normally think of as a Western. Sure, there is plenty of horse riding and shooting and whooping and hollering, but it’s not a story of the taming of the frontier. Rather, it is set on the Missouri-Kansas border during the Civil War. It’s the story of two young boys who swear vengeance against the Union loyalists (Jayhawkers) after one of them sees his family killed, and his house burned down. The boys hook up with a loose band of Southern sympathizers (Bushwackers) and proceed to ambush and kill as many Union troops, and pro-Union folk, as they can. But as the war goes on, the fighting begins to take its toll. The boys begin to question what it is and who it is that they’re fighting for. They come to question their fight, because their fight is costing them the very thing they claim to be defending – home and family. 

The boys in question are Jake Roedel and Jack Bull Chiles, respectively played by Tobey Maquire and Skeet Ulrich (who’s first billed here; was there ever a time that would’ve made any sense?). When they join the Bushwackers, they fall in with a man named George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his friend and former slave Daniel Holt. Holt is played by Geoffrey Wright, in the movie’s most gripping performance, in a movie full of good performances, including one by pop star-turned-actress Jewel. They also meet Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who takes an instant distrust of Roedel, seeing as how he’s of German descent and most Germans are decidedly pro-Union. 

Despite this (or perhaps because of this), Roedel has a lot to prove to the men with whom he’s taken up arms. He gets involved in this struggle because his friend Jack was wronged. Jake has no personal stake in this fight. This is perhaps why he develops such a strong bond with Holt. Holt, too, fights for a cause and a people that wish him grave harm. He does so because he feels he owes Clyde his life. Holt’s progression as a character throughout the film is curious. He appears first as mere background – it’s a long time before he has any dialogue, and for an actor of Wright’s caliber it seems an odd choice of casting. As the story unfolds, however, Holt’s place in it becomes more central. So much so that by the end of the film, an argument could be made that he was the main character. 

This is an example of the rich tapestry Ride weaves over the course of its runtime. Lee moves his story along at a leisurely pace, a fact that was much criticized at the time of the film’s release.  As fans of his can attest, he’s less interested in the violence than he is in the inner lives of the people who commit it. But he doesn’t shirk from the action when the story calls for it. He punctuates his quiet scenes with moments of sudden and shocking violence. 

On its initial release, Ride didn’t make any sort of impact at all. Contemporary reviews were mostly mixed on it, and the film bombed at the box office (totaling $635K in its six-week run, against a $35 million budget). In time, however, the film’s estimation has risen. It’s been the subject of scholarly articles and Criterion has released an extended director’s cut on DVD and Blu-Ray (I watched the theatrical release for this writeup). I didn’t mean for it, but I’m glad this subject has given me both the opportunity to catch up on Lee’s film, and to bring it to y’alls attention as well.