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The Romance of the American West

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The Great Train Robbery
The Massacre
Go West
The Gay Cavalier
Cattle Queen of Montana
Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!
Boss
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It was almost preordained that Westerns would become a central element in U.S. film production—if only because the film industry, like the country itself, fast developed beyond East Coast beginnings to “go west.” Movies are inextricably bound with “Hollywood” in the popular imagination. But the film industry’s identification with Southern California was far from organic during its nascent beginnings—when New York’s ready access to a large theatrical community made it cinema’s primary home. The flight west began as early as 1906, however, as filmmakers wanted to get some distance from asset-seizing agents of patent holders for early motion-picture cameras and other equipment.

By the mid-1910s, their new, then barely-developed Los Angeles-area home had displaced other outposts as the designated origin point for American “flickers.” Hollywood and its surroundings offered more than just an immediate haven from would-be creditors; it had work-friendly temperatures and camera-friendly sunshine all year ‘round. It also had ready access to spectacular, rugged landscapes that fed moviegoers’ bottomless thirst for the romance of the American West. That taste proved so contagious that this most American of genres would eventually be echoed or imitated in many surprising forms, from the sixties’ European “spaghetti westerns” to the seventies’ “blaxploitation” vogue.

By Dennis Harvey

The Great Train Robbery

(1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter, 12 minutes

The earliest “westerns” were shot “back East.” A landmark of the era, The Great Train Robbery, filmed in New Jersey in 1903, was such a sophisticated novelty at the time that it had audiences literally ducking from a bandit’s camera-aimed pistol. Edwin S. Porter’s hugely influential twelve-minute action thriller greatly ramped up the technical sophistication of movies by breaking away from their essentially theatrical nature up to that time. Films moved out of the studio and into outdoor locations, trading the stationary camera for a mobile one and using editing to far more dramatic narrative effect.

The Massacre

(1912) directed by D.W. Griffith, 30 minutes

Substituting the opposite coast for the Wild West is this early featurette from D.W. Griffith, who would shortly thereafter revolutionize filmmaking with epics The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, forever shifting the industry’s emphasis to feature formats. Showing the greatly advanced technical and storytelling vocabulary the industry had developed in the decade since The Great Train Robbery, the ambitiously-scaled production offers both American Indian stereotypes and a surprisingly sympathetic view of the suffering of the “conquered” as white settlers and the military square off against indigenous peoples. Such had the art of moviemaking magic evolved that you would swear that those New Jersey locations were at least somewhere west of the Mississippi.

Go West

(1925) directed by Buster Keaton, 68 minutes

In their second and third decades, Westerns had become enough of a cinematic convention to be routinely parodied. Highlights including the marvelously robust athlete/comedian Douglas Fairbanks’ 1917 vehicle Wild and Woolly and 1922 Buster Keaton short The Paleface. The apex of silent-era western satire, however, was probably Keaton’s Go West, in which our stone-faced hero heeds the call to “go West, young man,” only to find the female most sympathetic to his cause is one very affectionate bovine named Brown Eyes. The climactic cattle stampede through downtown Los Angeles is surely one of cinema’s most inspired collisions between actual and urban cowboy reality.

The Gay Cavalier

(1946) directed by William Nigh, 65 minutes

In the sound era, Westerns remained quite popular. But despite occasional “A”-level efforts, such as classics High Noon or The Searchers, they became a staple of Hollywood’s second-rung “Poverty Row” studios due to their potential for low cost and all-ages appeal. An “outlaw caballero” character created by famed short story writer O. Henry in 1907, the Cisco Kid became a then-rare Mexican figure of mainstream U.S. affections when portrayed by dashing Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona (for which he won the second Academy Award® for “Best Actor”). He played that role again and again, with consummate rakish charm, including The Gay Cavalier, a sprightly, rather beautifully crafted Monogram Pictures “programmer” in which he typically tries to both save a sweet señorita’s honor and thwart some robbers. Much of the U.S. southwest was yet-to-be-annexed Mexican territory when this film’s fictive mid-19th-century action occurs.

Cattle Queen of Montana

(1954) directed by Allan Dwan, 84 minutes

Big-studio American Westerns both suffered and benefitted from the technological advances of the 1950s. The incoming threat of television cut into their big-screen audience share while Hollywood fought back by offering such can’t-get-this-at-home enhancements as Technicolor and CinemaScope. Straddling the difference was this 1954 programmer with two veteran stars on their way out. Not long after making Cattle Queen of Montana, Hollywood “Golden Era” luminary Barbara Stanwyck and second-rung leading man Ronald Reagan would exit movies (Stanwyck for the television western series The Big Valley; Reagan for politics). Beautifully atmospheric today despite its dated racial politics (note the brassy minor key sounded when “injuns” initially appear), this star vehicle remains memorable for its rich color, gorgeous locations and star charisma. Ultimately, it demonstrates a newly enlightened attitude toward the conquering of Native Americans, one that would gradually shift the tenor of Westerns in all popular media. If you want to see Ronnie slapped by a “brave” in a teepee, here is your big chance.

Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!

(1968) directed by Tonino Cervi, 94 minutes

As numerous television series like Have Gun—Will Travel and Bonanza became hugely popular, big-screen Westerns began to lose their hitherto reliable box-office pull. But the genre got a shot in the arm in the unexpected form of Sergio Leone’s 1964 Italian A Fistful of Dollars (which made an international star of Clint Eastwood). Low-budgeted and obviously dubbed, it nonetheless has a striking style, minimalist in every sense save rampant bloodshed, that thrilled audiences and laid a path toward the imminent violent extremes of Sam Peckinpah and others that followed. Not the most stylistically or thematically radical of the many “spaghetti westerns” that followed, Tonino Cervi’s Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die from 1968 is still a model of the form’s intensity and cynicism, as a black-hatted mystery man (Montgomery Ford a.k.a. Brett Halsey) gets released from jail and hires equally mercenary-cool sidemen to carry out his mission of revenge. It’s a lean, mean movie faithful to the darkest Americana western mythologies...even if it was shot in Spain. Today We Kill… was co-written by Dario Argento, later famous as the maestro behind such stylish horror classics as Suspiria.

Boss

(1975) directed by Jack Arnold, 93 minutes

By the mid-1970s, no one was making westerns. Not even the Italians! The few exceptions were infrequent revisionist efforts that aimed to remake the traditional movie West in contemporary political-cultural terms. A fine example is this late entry in the original “blaxploitation” cycle (kickstarted by the very modern, urban likes of Shaft and Superfly) in which the strapping ex-pro-footballer Fred Williamson plays the titular character, a one-man-justice system as terse and chiseled as any spaghetti-western antihero. He’s a leather-clad, mustachio’d funky-bass-accompanied prairie bounty hunter not all that far removed from Jamie Foxx’s character in Django Unchained.