It was a time – as any subscriber to TCM will know – when Westerns were ubiquitous, each Hollywood studio churning out dozens of ‘oaters’ or ‘horse operas’ every year. The formula was simple and wildly popular: a white man with a gun (generally wearing a white hat) shot down the lawless bad guy (black hat) who was threatening civilisation; or, in cavalry uniform, he dispatched hordes of whooping ‘Indians’ to the ‘Happy Hunting Grounds’. Political correctness and historical accuracy were at a premium in these halcyon days, as millions flocked to see their idealised perception of the strong, confident pioneering American confirmed in bullets and blood.
John Ford was the King of the Westerns, frequently casting John Wayne as his leading man in classics such as Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers. Stagecoach (1939) represents the high water mark of the earliest incarnation of the Western, as the Ringo Kid (Wayne) boards a stagecoach for a journey fraught with danger, not least because Geronimo and his marauding Apaches are on the warpath. On the face of it a standard shoot-’em-up already growing stale in Hollywood, Ford turned Stagecoach into a parable for redemption, in the process making the Western a genre to be reckoned with.
It was in the early 1950s, however, that the Western truly came of age. Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) represents the apotheosis of the solitary hero, as Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper), deserted by the fearful townsfolk, finds himself facing down a gang of outlaws alone. A year later, Alan Ladd starred in a similar role in Shane (1953), although there was one crucial difference: Shane was a reformed gunslinger, who was forced to accept that his heroism in defending homesteaders against rapacious ranchers couldn’t redeem his violent past. When John Ford came to direct The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne again stars, this time as a man obsessed with finding a young woman stolen by the Comanche, the hero is irredeemably flawed by his bigotry, hatred and lust for violence.
That kind of reimagining of the conventional hero – and particularly such an iconic leading man as John Wayne – would have been unthinkable in the pre-WWII era, but Shane and The Searchers sowed the seeds for a radical rethink about the Western genre. By the early 1960s, Ford was making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a newspaper editor – reflecting on the violence, decades earlier, that had civilised his town – declares, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The irony, of course, is that by then the audience knows that venerable senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is the man who shot the vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and that the white-washing legend that protects his reputation puts the finger on Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).
If it was John Ford who was largely responsible for using the Western as a vehicle to question America’s perception of the Old West’s heroically pioneering spirit, the 1970s is credited with introducing a raw realism into the Western genre, the decade’s revisionism dedicated to revisiting the old glories in order to right (or rewrite) the old wrongs. As late as 1969, George Roy Hill could still make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman in a comically nostalgic tale of loveable outlaws, but he was doing so against the backdrop of the new Western form.
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) revelled in a balletic, slow-motion violence that left very little room for heroics, although by then Sergio Leone was leading the spaghetti Western charge, A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) typical of the amoral approach to violence that subsequently fed into a host of films that attempted to portray the Old West as a cesspit where might was right. Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) was a blackly humorous rewrite of General Custer’s last stand, Robert Altman’s Mccabe & Mrs Miller (1971) an epic tale of mud, blood and lots more mud, while Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) charts the last days of cancer-ridden gunfighter John Wayne. And on it goes, a litany of brutally grim depictions of the Old West and its supposed heroes: Richard Harris living amongst the Native Americans in A Man Called Horse (1970); Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash facing off in the stripped-down narrative of A Gunfight (1971); Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973) and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974); Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973); Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976); and Dick Richards’ The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), with its tagline “How many men do you have to kill before you become the great American cowboy?” The success of that wonderful spoof, Blazing Saddles (1974), was in itself a death knell for the conventional Western and its clean-cut, uncomplicated heroes.
Walter Hill’s The Long Riders and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) kick-started the 1980s, but they were 1970s Westerns for all intents and purposes. Clint Eastwood directed Pale Rider in 1985, but for the most part the decade played the Western for fun: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), Silverado (1985), Lust in the Dust (1985), Three Amigos! (1986), Young Guns (1988). It took Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) to return credibility to the traditional Western, the movie – which won four Oscars, including the Best Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for Eastwood – a beguiling blend of the gritty realism of the 1970s and Eastwood’s revising of that decade’s revisionism, including his own work in spaghetti Westerns.
Even so, it took Andrew Dominik’s sprawling masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) to spark a belated mini-renaissance for the Western genre. In the years since, we’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010), the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ‘sequel’ Blackthorn (2011), The Homesman (2014), The Salvation (2014), Slow West (2015) and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). And who could possibly forget the wacky animated Western Rango (2011), with Johnny Depp playing a chameleon desperado?
It remains to be seen whether Antoine Fuqua’s invigorating remake of The Magnificent Seven is a one-off homage to one of the most iconic Westerns in Hollywood’s history, or whether it’s the first offering in a retro revitalisation of the Western genre. For now, fans of the original The Magnificent Seven – and classic Westerns generally – can breathe a sigh of relief: Antoine Fuqua understands that there will always be an audience for those uncomplicated heroes who do dirty deeds for all the right reasons.
Top 10 Classic Westerns
Top 5 Best Black Hats
- Only minutes into Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Frank (Henry Fonda) has already shot a child in cold blood. Boo, hiss, etc.
- Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is a captured outlaw in James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), but he’s an irresistibly charming devil.
- Amidst a host of black hats – Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are to the fore – Robert Ryan is malevolence personified in the neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).
- Clint Eastwood plays the mysterious ‘Stranger’ in High Plains Drifter (1973), a gunfighter, rapist and whip-cracking sadist – and he’s the hero.
- Deranged by racist bigotry in The Searchers (1956), Ethan Edwards is both John Wayne’s finest role and the most terrifying villain in the entire Western canon.