Western Approaches : Episode 3
Westerns divide opinion. There are many lists of favourite films in magazines, newspapers and especially on the internet. When it comes to lists of the best films ever made, there is a degree of agreement: Citizen Kane invariably appears in the top five (and quite rightly so if you ask me). Tokyo Story, 2001 A Space Odyssey, La Dolce Vita, The Godfather, The General, Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera and Apocalypse Now will be somewhere along the line. With westerns it’s different. Films that appear as number one on one list fail to make the top 100 in others. It seems that with films in general there is a acceptance of what is good but when we venture out into the west it’s every man and woman for themselves. And, if I may resort to repetition so early in the piece, quite rightly so.
There are certain films that do recur. I haven’t found a list yet that didn’t have The Searchers flying high. This pleases me. I can remember the first time I saw it and how gripped I was by the twists and turns of the story and of being aware (at age seven) that there was something in this performance of John Wayne that set it apart. Wayne seemed to be in every western televised in Britain in the sixties and had come to be regarded as something of a figure of fun; a cliché, a much imitated example of how it used to be done. The man who in one of the great mis-castings of all time stood at the foot of the cross in The Greatest Story Ever Told and drawled “Surely this must be the son of God!” He certainly made some bad films and he made great mileage out of his stock cowboy role but there was a fine actor in there if the part and the script gave him the chance: or if the director had the skill to use his enormous screen presence while limiting the dialogue.
These posts were originally conceived as being an excuse to revisit my favourite fifty cowboy films but even in conception the idea has changed, grown, shrunk, evolved, gone back to the original and changed again. I’ve seen a lot of westerns and might be in a position to put some sort of a meaningful list together. I am rather sceptical of such lists though (even though I’m a sucker for reading other people’s efforts and happily agreeing and disagreeing with them). Right now I have little idea where the blog is going other that the simple pleasure of writing about something that I love. It’s an opportunity to re-aquaint myself with films I’ve enjoyed in the past but it would be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t take the chance of catching up with some of the films I’d missed. I’ve never seen a silent western all the way through, I’ve never seen El Topo, Decision at Sundown or Dead Man. In fact there must be a thousand worthy films I haven’t seen.
I’ve got a little time on my hands. The modern world doesn’t suit me in every respect (perhaps one of the reasons I return to westerns ) but I do like the availability of films. I have two cinemas within a short drive of where I live which provide me with 30 screens between them and rarely leave me without a film I’d like to see. For a fair price of £16 a month they let me see as many films as many times as I want as well as giving me generous discounts on the ice-creams that I’m becoming dangerously fond of. I’ve also got 3 art cinemas that offer me a choice of up to ten films a week from the minority interest genres. I’m a lucky chap! Then there are dvds which cost a couple of pounds at most and usually come with invaluable commentaries, interviews and original trailers as well as free postage. Not to mention the internet. As a boy or a young man I would have considered it very heaven to have a decent size screen and a library of films that stretches from here to eternity. I have such a heaven and this winter I intend to indulge myself.
I’m beginning with three films that are on every single list of best westerns ever made. They also happen to be three I’m very fond of, have known for a long time and which cover a lot of ground as far as western movies are concerned. Don’t read this posts if you are wanting to enjoy the films for the first time. There will be an lot of spoilers. The blog is (like most blogs) a self-indulgence. I want to say what I have seen in the films and that means giving away the plot will be something of a starting point.
I’ll be starting with Shane and quickly following this up with Stagecoach and Winchester 73. I was briefly in a sixth form college and in between the serious studies we were allowed to choose a lighter subject. I chose Film Studies and these were the three films we watched in the short time I was on the course. (About half a term.) I’d loved westerns from infancy and was sceptical about whether I would enjoy studying something so close to my heart. The two teachers running the course were out and out enthusiasts with knowledge that ran deeper than I imagined could be the case. I’d feared I’d either be put off the films or put off the teaching. It simply wasn’t so. I loved it and this blog is maybe is a way of completing what I started back then. I don’t suppose they’ll ever read this or even if they are still with us but I’d like to thank Dennis Moorhouse and Colin Simpson for opening up shafts of learning that would otherwise have remained unexplored and for introducing me to a study that has brought me enormous pleasure while remaining free of examination boards and the demands of a curriculum. I’ve watched thousands of movies since I was the short-lived student at the back of the class and every one with a greater understanding and appreciation because of those classes. When I left I may have been recorded as a failure for the school. I didn’t gain a qualification or even complete the course. It wasn’t wasted though. I sometimes take a while to getting round to finishing things. I have very little need or use for another certificate but I retain an insatiable appetite for movies and for westerns in particular.