Western Approaches : Episode Two
At the Movies
Going to the cinema was a big event in our family. It happened only twice; once to see a film of the Tokyo Olympic games a good three years after the games had taken place and once to see 101 Dalmations. Family legend allows that this happened somewhere in Scotland in the early 60s and that we took the dog. In fact, everybody took their dog to the cinema and the midnight barking on the film was enjoined by hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves all howling and barking in a Scottish accent. I’m not able to provide conclusive proof of the story but I’m not going to start disbelieving it now. In my mind I have a clear memory of a hundred dogs all with their paws on the seat in front and glued to the screen. The fact that some of the dogs in my image bear an uncanny resemblance to Huckleberry Hound, Scooby Doo and the bulldog out of Tom and Jerry in no way indicates that I’m confusing memory with imagination. Many philosophers and writers would say that they are the same thing anyway.
I never saw a cowboy on the big screen until I was 16. I’ve tried to make up for it since. Unfortunately cowboys had been a staple of the film-maker’s output right up until I was 16. Since then they have become an occasional treat. The problem doesn’t lie with the film-makers. They love westerns. They know that the west is where to head if you really want to tell a story where history and mythology mingle (and where else would a sensible person want to centre a story?) The problem lies with the movie-goer. They want their films to be set in schools (where student types are identifiable – only a little bit older and a sight more beautiful than those from any real school) or modern cities where guns and drugs are in the foreground and people buying newspapers and going to work and chatting about the weather have been shifted into the shadows.
The golden age, or the hey-day of the western was back in the forties and fifties. There have been some very good westerns in recent times (The Assassination of Jesse James, The Unforgiven, There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain, Tombstone… ok I’m stretching the meaning of recent) but they have been strictly filed under minority interest. One of the down sides of this is that we no longer have western heroes either actors or characters. No modern actor is remembered primarily for a western role. Under twenties may have heard of William Bonney or the Sundance Kid but they don’t want to be them. It must be a while since anyone woke up on Christmas morning to find a cowboy outfit at the foot of the bed. Unless, that is, they’d bumped into a festive hen party and got lucky.
Cowboy hats are a niche item of clothing. You’ll find plenty if you go to a festival of Americana or wander the streets of seaside towns on a Friday night. I had a friend (a term used in the loosest sense) who was in charge of stapling cartons of cakes to pallets at a well-known British bakery. He dressed in full cowboy regalia and kept his staple gun in a holster. Some considered him “a bit of a character” and some just thought him an arse. All kept their distance.
As a boy I got my western films on the television which meant that every western I saw until I was 16 was in black and white. It didn’t matter. Many of the best films; Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Ox Bow Incident and High Noon had been made in black and white. We distinguished them from colour films in a way that seems clever to me now. We had views on whether Technicolor or De-Luxe was better even though we’d never seen anything other than monochrome. You can actually tell the difference between a made with black and white film and a colour film shown in black and white. It may seem negligible but it isn’t. I’d compare it to those music lovers who have returned to vinyl and analogue because they say cds and digital don’t have the right sound. The same was true of screen ratios. Television companies couldn’t make up they minds over Cinemascope in those long before wide screen television days. Half the time we had the picture scrunched up to fit the 4:3 screen (an advantage was that diminutive actors like Alan Ladd and Richard Widmark looked more imposing) and half the time we watched the film through a letter box. I much preferred the latter. Not only did we get the full picture but, for someone who longed to go to the cinema but found it beyond the family purse, it gave the feeling of something different. At the end of the film I genuinely felt that my experience had been enhanced by Technicolor and Cinemascope.
These days I’m not too bothered whether the film ratios are respected by the projectionist. I prefer it if they do but it isn’t a big issue with me. They always get it right in the Showroom (Sheffield) where the end of the trailers is announced by an adjustment of the side curtains to accommodate the selected screen size and ratio. They don’t always do this at the multiplex (though they do it more often than Mark Kermode would have you believe) but there the screens are much bigger, the chairs have more leg-room, the Baskin-Robbins Lucky 8 ice-cream is more plentiful and you don’t have to put up with the endless whispered conversations of a bunch of pompous twerps as you settle down to the movie. (If you’ve ever wanted to know if working class or educated middle class people are better mannered I’d suggest trips to multiplex and arts cinemas as a good place to start.)
Right from the beginning there was a big difference between these 2 hour feature films and the episodes of tv westerns. Both absorbed me but in different ways. You had to do a lot more work with the films and I liked that. On the telly most of the exposition had been done by previous episodes. We didn’t even need to do much work with new characters. We only had to wait and see if Trampas and the Virginian liked or disliked them to know if we were going to like or dislike them. On films we had to establish the who, the where, when, what and why. There was a shorthand. If the film had been made before 1950 then any native American was going to be a bad guy, John Wayne was always on the side of right though not necessarily on the right side of the law, as was James Stewart and Henry Fonda; women were always in a subservient role and the cavalry would always ride in to save the day at the last minute (accompanied by a tootling bugle being played by a rider galloping at improbably high speed).
Films divided into categories. The most obvious was according to the star actor. There were certain expectations of a John Wayne film (and the BBC certainly loved the Duke). There were cowboys and indians, gunfighter films, based on a true story films, films involving the army (invariably the 7th Cavalry), log cabin (pioneer and homesteading) films, journey films which included cattle drives and outlaw films. These sub-divided. If it was a cowboys and indian film we wanted to know which tribe was featured. There were over 550 tribes, nations and pueblos of native Americans. Film makers stuck to a very few. They divided into two; friendly and unfriendly. The Navajo and the Mohican were on our side (yes there was an our side) and the Cheyenne, Apache and Sioux were to be feared. In the playground at school little boys in the north of England would argue over who were the scariest indians. It was generally agreed that it was the Apache and these were the tribe we’d pretend to be when we climbed the hills once the school bell had gone. If you were very lucky you’d get to play the part of Geronimo. (This largely consisted of jumping off boulders onto people shouting “Geronimo”. A limited but most rewarding role!) Even in the face of Hollywood and accepted protocol I had a feeling that the warriors and braves of the tribes were victims of a propaganda machine.
Westerns allowed us to go against the law. Nobody wanted to work for the Pinkerton Agency in our games. We all wanted to be Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Curly Bill Brocius, Billy the Kid or Doc Holliday. We liked gunslingers, six-shooters and gunfights enormously. Westerns showed us that shooting and playing were much the same thing. A single shot could bring down three bad guys, cowboys never missed and (most important of all) death was clean (remember, in my world even blood was grey not red). It wasn’t until I encountered the westerns of Sam Peckinpah that the west began to take on a heavier perspective. If you were shot in a James Stewart sort of a way you had time to stage a dramatic death (always falling forward) and be in a fit state to count to seven and become alive again. If you were shot in a Peckinpah way you stayed dead.