Taking aim at a posse of great Westerns
JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his latest pick of the films coming to TV (from Saturday, Sept 4).
People will often come up to me and say, ’Whatever happened to the Western, John?’ which, when you are in the middle of Lidl does invite the reply, ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone’. This is really not true. The Western is a means by which American film makers can examine the State of the Nation, re-examine the people that live there and their relationships one to another. This is what makes them interesting and durable. This week we have a fistful of Westerns that illustrate this in their various ways and may even persuade the more sceptical among you to revisit the genre with your naturally inquisitive minds open to being intrigued and engaged.
Let’s begin with Winchester ’73 1950 (Film4 16.45 Wed 8 Sep) pictured above, which, like C S Forrester’s The Gun, is the story of a rifle which changes hands but remains the subject of the narrative. In pursuit of it is Western icon, James Stewart, whose Lin Macadam won the weapon, fair and square in a shooting contest. This frontiersman’s obsessive pursuit of his prize manifests the grit and determination to survive and sustain in a hostile environment while he subdues less worthy adversaries. It is an interesting distillation of the genre but also a morality play from which you can deduce the values of the era.
The Westerner 1940 (GMA 13.05 Sun 4 Sep) finds Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) accused as a horse thief coming before the notorious hanging Judge Roy Bean, Walter Brennan, in Texas. His capacity to smooth talk his way around the judge and win support from the community of new settlers allows him to avoid the noose. This is, perhaps, not as overt a story of the civilisation of the West as, say My Darling Clementine, where the retired gunfighter comes to turn the wilderness into a garden but clearly advocates a more liberal attitude than that of the hang ‘em high Judge.
James Stewart crops up again in one of the finest comedy westerns, Destry Rides Again 1939 (Film4 12.50 Tue 7 Sep) as the unlikely sheriff of Bottle Neck where a local magnate runs everything by violence and corruption. Our heroic sheriff takes on the Big Boss without resorting to firearms. Taking on Frenchy, the bar room entertainer (Marlene Dietrich) is another matter altogether. This is one of Dietrich’s most enjoyable Hollywood performances and her rendition of ‘See What the Boys in the Back Room will Have’ lingers long in the memory.
High Noon 1952 (Paramount 17.30 Sun 5 Sep) is an unqualified masterpiece. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, a refugee from Nazism, this is a Western for the McCarthy era of political witch hunts in Hollywood. Gary Cooper (again) faces down a marauding gang. Isolated and abandoned by the townsfolk, this is existential stuff. It is shot in ‘real time’ – it is an 80 minute hour – and is a masterclass in visual storytelling with arresting camera angles and agile editing which racks up the tension to the explosive final showdown. It is a simple, emblematic story elevated to genius and universality by its director.
Cheyenne Autumn 1964 (ITV4 13.25 Sat 4 Sep) was the final movie by the master of the genre, John Ford. Ford had slaughtered more than his fair share of Native Americans on screen in his time but as the 1950s wore on, so his attitudes softened. Dialogue supplanted gunfire in films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 1949 and a fascinating curiosity, Sergeant Rutledge 1960, about the trial of a black cavalry man accused of rape. Cheyenne Autumn is the story of broken promises from the government, a nation heading away from the reservation and back to the traditional homeland with the active support and assistance of a US cavalry officer. This is the era of ambiguity and re-assessment of the relationship of cavalry and Indian, government and original settlers.
Then, in 1992, Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven (Paramount 22.00 Wed 8 Sep) for which he won four Oscars. As with most of Eastwood’s Westerns, the subject matter is dark and its characters have ‘idiosyncratic morality’. Clint plays a retired gunfighter who, in partnership with Morgan Freeman and a young pretender, Jaimz Woolvett, tracks down the perpetrator of a vicious assault on a prostitute in Big Whiskey. Corruption is rife and retribution is equally unstinting. The representation of the state of government and justice in America is not complimentary but this is one of Eastwood’s finest films and raises serious questions.
We skipped the Freudian Westerns of the 1960s, the Vietnam Westerns, the Watergate corruption parables and the burgeoning feminist Westerns of the 1980s. But in further answer to the question ‘Whatever Happened to the Western?’, one answer would be that it morphed into certain cop movies or a fusion of the two such as Hell or High Water 2016 (Film4 21.00 Fri 10 Sep) in which Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) fight the law to save the family farm. They cross swords with wily old sheriff, Jeff Bridges, in majestic form. Directed by David MacKenzie (Hallam Foe, Starred Up) it is a taut and economical thriller with three dimensional characters, tension, and no shortage of wit.
Ever since The Seven Samurai 1954 was adapted as The Magnificent Seven 1960, there has been regular borrowing from Japanese samurai movies to reapply in the context of the Western. Whether this will prove the fate of Takeshi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal 2017 (Channel4 01.00 Mon 6 Sep) remains to be seen. Here, a swordsman cursed with immortality is tasked with avenging the death of a young woman’s father. It is a stylishly choreographed action movie from the remarkably prolific Japanese director which merges the supernatural with visceral violence. It is surprisingly satisfying!
Now, will somebody please explain to me the romantic appeal of Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 (GMC 21.00 Mon 6 Sep). Shakespeare in Love 1998 (BBC1 22.35 Fri 10 Sep) I get, with charm, sly references and posh frocks. Jerry Maguire 1996 (W 21.00 Sat 4 Sep) I could be persuaded by because Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in it, Rene Zellwegger is a responsive foil and it has a cute kid. But B@T?!! I don’t get it.
If you are a Raiders fan or, like me, have never seen any of the franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark part 1,2 &3 screen on Film4 starting at 18.40 on Sat 4 Sep.
In complete contrast, Animals 2019 (Film4 23.15 Sun 5) will take you on a wild ride through Dublin’s night life where Laura (Holliday Grainger) finds herself torn between fiancé and best mate (Alia Shawkat). Be grateful that these are not your young adults!
Playing Away 1986 (Film4 01.55 Wed 8 Sep) is a Channel 4 comedy of culture clash on the cricket pitch where an English village team invites a black South London team captained by Norman Beaton to a charity match. It proves an education for all concerned.
Three Identical Strangers 2018 (Channel4 23.00 Sun 5 Sep) is my documentary of the week. It explores the lives of triplets separated at birth who are reunited after more than 35 years. Each has their own story to tell as they try to find what they have in common: nature over nurture.
For younger viewers and those of us that enjoy kids’ stuff, Steven Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl with BFG 2016 (BBC1 15.45 Sun 5 Sep). Mark Rylance plays the Big Friendly Giant and breathes life into what might have been a rather pedestrian account. My preference, however, is for Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists 2012 (ITV2 16.20 Sun 5 Sep), a claymation by Aardman Studios, the company behind Wallace and Gromit and the magnificent Chicken Run. In this yarn a shipload of incompetent pirates crosses paths with Charles Darwin’s scientific expedition. It is just as daft as it sounds and filled with crafty details that will have the adults laughing in entirely different places to the children.
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