Saturday, February 11, 2012

The death of the Western

Like the rest of y'all, I'm looking forward to Brandon's reporting to us as he explores the 1960s. Maybe more than the rest of you, I'm interested in the Westerns he'll write about.

I just now finished watching The Gunfight at Dodge City. Directed by a "b" movie workman. Featuring a screenplay by one of the guys who cooked up the story for The Narrow Margin. The DP worked on B-pictures and settled in TV work. I'm not sure what sort of box office draw McCrea had in '59, but I doubt that he was at the top of the list at this time. All this to say, Gunfight is firmly a B oater. As such, it is, of course, thoroughly enjoyable.

More than this, though, I was struck by how self-aware the script is. This isn't quite some pop po-mo meta-Western. It's really not that at all. But, it does play with the genre in a self-conscious way. It suffers some as a talky picture. There's a lot of talk about what makes a man and what constitutes a position of authority and different types of people. There's a really obvious moment when the saloon mistress talks about the corrupt sheriff switching his hats from white to black depending on whom he's interacting with.

The thing resolves neatly in a standard street gunfight, but the unalloyed heroism of the moment is undercut by an unusual voiceover narration that repeats an important pre-credits monologue about killing men that the film starts with.

At another moment, McCrea's Bat Masterson gives a speech about his take on law enforcement being that "there's a law" and that it "will be enforced." Later, however, when the law is used maliciously against a friend, Masterson turns his back on enforcement in favor something right apart from and against the civil law.

I'm just pecking out impressions. I don't think that Gunfight is much more than an enjoyable (and in so many ways typical) standard Western film. I do find it interesting as a signpost on the road of the Western no longer believing in some of its tropes in an entirely unexamined way. Mann and Boetticher and old masters like Ford and Hawks were similarly challenging the foundations of the Western in a grander way. Peckinpah and Leone would eventually continue the dismantling through the 60s (even as dudes like Hathaway would stubbornly assert the old ways).

I'm not sure what I'm getting at. I'm rambling. I guess that I'm just agreeing with Brandon that something transitional was happening around '59-'60. Take a look at the 500 Westerns page. Look at the old masters still making Westerns in '59, then look at the lists from the following years. There's a sea change. How the West Was Won is the big bloated end of the old Western in '62. The new style and new themes had already been intimated throughout the 50s, but they explode in the 60s and 70s as the former "purer" unselfconscious ways fade away. By '69, the Western had completely died. Of course, I believe in resurrection. The Western was reborn and transformed even as it was dying. It lives strong now. There have been multiple deaths and resurrections since the 70s (just as there were in different ways pre-50s; transition to sound, maturing of themes, etc). Quantity may be lacking at this point in film history, but we've been blessed with quality. The Coens' True Grit is about as good as it gets. Meek's Cutoff is a tremendous achievement in transforming and maturing the genre in a direction that has never fully been explored. No film project has me more excited than thinking about Aaron Katz shooting a Western. The genre has died many times. It is alive and well in 2012.

End ramble.

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