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Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre Paperback – May 1 2005
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'Philip French's study 'Westerns' must be the definitive so far on that endlessly productive cinema genre.' Margaret Hinxman, The Sunday Telegrahph. 'Mr French has done a dazzling job...a generally brilliant and enterprising series of shots at rehabilitating and respectabilising the Western.' John Coleman, New Statesman. 'I envy Philip French his erudition - even more, the ease, style and wit with which he sustains it through his new book, 'Westerns'...Reading this book is like panning for gold in a lively current and never failing to come up with nuggets.' Alexander Walker, Evening Standard. '...an entertaining book, written with his customary wit and erudition...He wears his learning lightly and isn't afraid to bring politics and history relevantly in. It is a pleasure to read an expert film book which doesn't seem to have been written by a man who thinks the world stops when the house lights go on again.' Gavin Millar, The Listener. How the West was won George Perry, The Sunday Times, 17th April 2005 They are as old as cinema itself. The first film drama was a western. In 1903, Edwin S Porter's The Great Train Robbery ran 12 minutes and audiences flinched when the kerchiefed bandit leader fired his revolver straight at the camera. Cliches, such as someone made to dance while his feet are shot at, were born. "Bronco Billy" Anderson, the film's star, lived until he was 88, and witnessed the ascendancy of William S Hart, Tom Mix, Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Cinema formalised the old west, creating conventions as ritualised as Japanese kabuki. Face-offs on dusty streets between lone gunfighters. Bad men in black hats, always first to draw. Bartenders sliding loaded bottles along the counter, and taking down the mirrors at the first sign of trouble. We've seen it a thousand times. In the days of double bills, the B-picture studios churned "oaters" out on production lines. Further up the ladder, top stars such as James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Burt Lancaster and, of course, Wayne gave their best to westerns. Certain directors, such as John Ford, Raoul Walsh, John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, excelled. Michael Cimino's expensively ambitious Heaven's Gate (1980) is usually blamed for the decline, but as Kevin Costner's Open Range showed last year, the genre is not extinct, just less popular with the money men. Books on the western would fill a library. The British contribution is strong, including two encyclopaedic volumes edited respectively by Phil Hardy and Ed Buscombe, plus excellent overviews by Jim Kitzes, Peter Cowie, Kim Newman, and a study of spaghetti westerns by Christopher Frayling. My own choice of an assimilable, near-comprehensive guide is a small book by Philip French, first published in 1973, and reissued, slightly expanded, in 1977. The book, Westerns, seemed to encapsulate all that one needed to know, at least until then. Now comes a welcome new edition, preserving the original content, but doubling its size and worth with a new section titled 'Westerns Revisited'. French's book is still wonderfully concise and digestible. To cover so much territory, with knowledgeable commentary supported by perceptive, wide-ranging analysis and references to hundreds of films and directors, while adroitly avoiding looking like a laundry list, is a substantial feat. Ideas cascade in torrents, with clear signposts pointing the reader onwards for further enlightenment. The book is unillustrated, although mental images of big skies leap from the page. Perhaps, in this age of the DVD, stills are unnecessary. As French notes, so many great films are now readily available, which was not the case when he started the book when he was in his thirties. His text is stimulating, witty, and occasionally provocative. Disarmingly, he sometimes disagrees with himself, revising his thoughts with experience. In 1973, he dismissed the spaghetti and paella forms of the western as not worthy of inclusion. Sergio Leone's work persuaded him to change his mind. Initially, he undervalued John Ford's The Searchers (1956) -- "much charm and great crudity". Further viewings of Ford's superb film elevated it into his personal top 10. Like French, I grew up on westerns. I saw them as the American equivalent of Greek myth and medieval legend, a consciously created New World mythology, using a brief period of recent history as the landscape for heroic encounters and epic deeds. Notable participants in the manufactured myths, such as Wyatt Earp, actually ended up in Hollywood subscribing to the folklore. His real gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 was over in fewer than 30 seconds, but Hollywood would never want you know that. I shared French's disappointment on visiting the original Tombstone to find it located in uninteresting terrain entirely devoid of the giant saguaro cacti and spectacular buttes of Ford's film My Darling Clementine. Ford, perhaps the most intuitive of all western directors, moved Tombstone to the dramatic Monument valley in Navajo country, where he shot many of his films from Stagecoach onwards, one of my early favourite films. I saw it as a child in the first year of the second world war. British audiences in 1940 would have appreciated the parallel of the outnumbered, beleaguered travellers abandoning their social differences to unite against a powerful enemy, although the opportune arrival of the 7th Cavalry may have been harder to take. Almost all westerns are metaphorical, intentionally or accidentally. It is easy to see the anti- McCarthy stance of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, and its antithesis, Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo, the one tautly enacted within its actual time frame, the other sprawling for two-and-a-half hours, and written as it went along. Style reveals the production context -- the Kennedy westerns, the Nixon westerns, the Carter westerns. French claims he can, with reasonable accuracy, identify within a few minutes' viewing not only when a film was made, but its studio. Today, Costner (Dances with Wolves) and Eastwood just about keep the flame flickering. One yearns for more. Sadly, in 20 years, Eastwood has directed and starred in only two westerns -- each a classic. In Pale Rider (1985) he is the archetypal figure who rides in from nowhere, sorts out an oppressed township and moves on. Like Shane, he is so mysterious he might not even be real. In Unforgiven (1992) he is the retired gunfighter who once again straps on his weapons to avenge a wrong. But justice is no longer a simple black-and-white matter and, as French persuasively argues, Eastwood's great film symbolises the confused, tangled state of America as the 20th century draws to its close. This is a masterly, highly commendable guidebook. Jonathan Beckman, The Observer, 17th April 2005 Considering the limited variations on the accepted conventions, a large number of westerns have been made that continue to be enjoyed. Ludwig Wittgenstein saw more westerns than he read philosophy books. This re-issue of Philip French's classic 1973 study of westerns is accompanied by an essay of equal length tracing the development of the genre. His expansive knowledge is made all the more dazzling by the fact that the first half of the book was based on hastily redacted notes from single viewings. French, The Observer's film critic, has a discriminating ear for the political implications of these films: his thesis, that westerns made in the 1950s and 1960s can be classified within the ideological umbrella of either John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson or William Buckley, is never forced and invariably illuminating. At times, the ease with which he leaps from film to film can be disconcerting but even the briefest of analyses manage to capture the atmosphere and tone of dimly remembered movies. The Guardian Review, 23rd April 2005: Updated from its 1973 edition - or rather, supplied with a substantial sequel that tracks the genre forward from Robert Altman's cold, wet, grubby McCabe and Mrs Miller as far as HBO's very new television series, Deadwood (a dirtier riff on the Altman). French is prepared to revise his opinions when the evidence changes - he thinks the DVD of the uncut Dances With Wolves far better than the featherbrained yet pious version that showed in cinemas, and his case that the abuse the critics poured on Heaven's Gate was unjustified is almost persuasive. He's still a true believer, too, rightly choosing to praise films that others rode by heedless, such as Ang Lee's civil war horse opera, Ride with the Devil and Walter Hill's gloomy Wild Bill; and he understands that the faces of the great character actors - for example, eternal sidekick Richard Farnsworth - contributed more to the landscape of the screen west than ever did mesas and buttes. Clive Sinclair. The Independent, 20th May 2005 Cowboy culture's comeback On April 28 1980, Sam Shepard wrote the following in Santa Rosa, California: "I keep praying/ for a double bill/ of/ BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK/ and/ VERA CRUZ." Philip French quotes it with an approving chuckle. I repeat it because it describes his book. Westerns is an old-fashioned double-bill, the main feature a reprint of his seminal 1973 study of the genre, the support its sequel, Westerns Revisited. The whole is dedicated by its author to his late father, "who took me to my first Western", and to his sons, "who saw their first Westerns with me". This alone is enough to make me love it. I too saw my first Western with my father, and still recall the unbearable suspense as High Noon reached its climax. A year later he took me to see Shane, from which I learned that being dead involves much more than falling down. In my turn (again like French) I introduced my son to Clint, Kevin, and Johns Ford and Wayne. He must have liked what he saw because he wrote a dissertation on "The Psychology of the Western". Not everybody is so successfully wooed, especially nowadays when (as French wryly notes) it's OK to dress like a cowboy but taboo to consider seriously what it means to be one. To the fashionable they are all Bushes that burn. This is to miss a great deal. Taken as a whole the gigantic body of work which goes under the collective noun "Westerns" is both America's Torah (its bundle of foundation myths) and its Talmud (a continuing commentary upon them). Movies and TV shows told and retold how the West was won. These retellings (as French demonstrates) were never innocent; some were triumphalist, some racist, others detailed the cost of victory, some maintained that victory was a grave injustice. Writing the first Westerns at the end of the Vietnam tragedy, French argued that all such films could be divided into four categories, each named after a politician: John F Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson and William Buckley (best described as Gore Vidal's dark side). Kennedy Westerns are cool, Goldwater Westerns hot. A Johnson results when cool content is mixed with a hot style; vice versa for a Buckley. High Noon is a Kennedy, Wayne's The Alamo a pure-bred Goldwater. Arrowhead, with Charlton Heston as a justified racist, is a Buckley; Ford's more apologetic Cheyenne Autumn a Johnson. French's book is as much about contemporary America as the Wild West and its many representations. He explains that writing it was a way of exploring his feelings about that perplexing but exhilarating country. Our trailblazer considers landscape, violence, gambling, heroes, villains, women and the dispossessed. Part Two continues to the present, even including an assessment - favourable - of HBO's Deadwood. Many of these later Westerns display a revisionist tone, especially those featuring equivocal heroes like Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Among these sceptical adventures are some bona fide masterpieces: Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven, and Kevin Costner's Open Range. Using his own criteria I'd say that Westerns is clearly a Kennedy: elegant, ironic and laced with wit. There's hardly a movie that French hasn't seen, nor are there many books on the subject he hasn't read. Even so, he gets one thing wrong. Discussing Tombstone (a 1993 version of the Wyatt Earp legend, with Kurt Russell as the heroic lawman), he disputes the movie's contention that Earp met his great love there. Believe it or not, Josephine Marcus (the last Mrs Earp) turned up in Tombstone pursued by Apaches as part of a troupe performing HMS Pinafore. I didn't get this from the horse's mouth exactly, but the next best thing: the charismatic historian Glenn G Boyer, who edited her memoirs and let me handle the pistol Earp used at OK Corral. If French sticks to his guns, I'll be waiting for him with mine on Main Street at noon.
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This book not only gives us French's 1977 version of his original book but contains what is essentially a second book in which French looks at Westerns made between "Heaven's Gate" and "Open Range."
The "second book" is just as enjoyable as the first. It is marvelous to see someone with French's grasp of the history of the genre deal with films like "Unforgiven" and "Dances with Wolves" as well as the two I named earlier. (He covers many more films as well.)
French is simply one of the best writers on film. He writes in a jargon free style that never lets the reader forget that movies are entertaining (as well as conveying a particular outlook.) Highly recommended.
While his insights into Westerns may be valuable, the way he presents them is extremely difficult to read, especially for those who are unschooled in the genre. He assumes much familiarity on the reader's part with every Western ever. Generally, he lists a film that supports his point, then proceeds to summarize the entire film in a tone that may be amusing to some but to me seemed to imply that he was just conversationally sharing his (not humorous) opinion. As this went on, it all started to read like this to me: "In this film, which you've never heard of, all of this happens, and now I've spoiled the entire film for you so there's no point in your seeing it anymore."
The format, too, is daunting. He makes no use of screenshots to illustrate his point or to just break up his overwhelming walls of text. Even the paragraphs are generally all generally the same length, which makes it tedious. In short, this book was a pain to read.
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