The Good, The Bad and the Deeply Troubled (and that’s just the main character!)
There was a perceived movement towards increasing violence in westerns as the genre developed. Some said it was a case of producers and directors outdoing each other, and there may be something in that. But violence has always been present in epic literature; be it poetry, drama or film. Sophocles is violent, Paradise Lost is violent, King Lear and Macbeth and Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are violent. Anthony Mann described Shakespeare as “The most violent writer who has ever been”. The violence didn’t become more violent during the century but the portrayal of the effects certainly did. And Anthony Mann is quite possibly the man to credit or blame.
Between 1939 and 1962 John Ford had elevated the western to the first order of films: films that had something to say about the human condition as well as entertaining with action and tense storylines. Films where we saw real people. People who are shaped by their experience of justice or injustice, comedy or tragedy. You can watch a deepening and darkening of Ford’s view of mankind in the way he used his main star; John Wayne. In Stagecoach, the Ringo Kid is a good hearted young man, hurt by events and determined on vengeance while losing none of his humanity towards those not directly associated with his quest. (Though he can shoot a dozen Apaches without qualm or conscience.) Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon ten years later is gruff and grizzled, tough and fatherly with a more ambivalent attitude to the native population. By the time we get to The Searchers in 1956, Ford and Wayne had discovered a complexity of character to compare with the truly great writers. Ethan Edwards is both hero and monster. It’s a troubling and inspirational film and Wayne is superb. There is a great deal to fear in the world of this movie and the most fearsome thing of all is the dark underside of Ethan Edwards. (Reflecting, as it does, a dark underside to society.)
Almost as if to emphasise that the change between Ringo and Edwards is internal, Ford had Wayne dressed almost identically in the two films.
Westerns were now hitting maturity and other great directors were making their contributions, inspiring each other to greater things: though they often set the bar pretty high with their first attempts. One such was Anthony Mann. Here was someone who transferred the pattern of shadows, that had been created by lighting and set designers, into the very characters themselves. It was the dawn of the psychological western, the continually shifting patterns of darkness and light were now internalised and Mann was to play a masterstroke; albeit unintentionally: he got James Stewart.
Universal Studios wanted to make Harvey, the story of a man who converses with a giant invisible rabbit. It had been a huge hit on Broadway and they were sure it would be a box office success as a film. They also had a screenplay called Winchester ’73 that had been knocking around for years looking for a star name. They wanted James Stewart to transfer his stage role with the talking rabbit and tied him to a double deal with the western. A young untried director was taken on. It was to be a low budget film. A make-weight in the deal. To say it exceeded expectations is a considerable understatement. Not only did it recoup production costs many time over but it also resurrected Stewart’s career which had suffered a string of flops (including It’s a Wonderful Life – which only reached its status as a much loved classic 30 years later) in the years following the war.
So Mann had the much loved gentle actor with a bumbling delivery playing the part of a man on a mission to kill. The public were about to see a side of Stewart that was troubled, dark and brooding. There is no more engaging actor to watch in his hesitant, thoughtful, whimsical mode but, as Mann was the first to discover, there are few more disturbing actors than Stewart when you open up seams of pain, resentment, anger and vengeance. On the surface we are watching a homely, even comic western. Underneath things are very different.
“While John Ford only alluded to the dark side, Anthony Mann dwelt in it. The mythology of the frontier, of a land in perpetual expansion, has given way to greed, vengeance, megalomania, sadistic violence.” (Martin Scorcese)
Winchester ’73 opens with a familiar world. An excited crowd gather around a shop window to admire a rifle. Young boys are the first to eulogise but it soon passes on to their elders. Each admires it in their own way. This is the tradition of portraying the gun as a status symbol, an aspect of being grown-up and in an unspoken way, a human right enshrined in the constitution. It is only the start of the journey. The framework of the film will follow the gun through several owners. The hidden story of the film is what people do with guns and what guns do to people. It became an important question with individual film-makers providing their own answers – or, more accurately, their own ways of re-stating the question. George Stevens asks his questions in Shane, Clint Eastwood finds his most eloquent approach in Unforgiven.
This is no ordinary gun. This is “the gun that tamed the West” and this is the most perfect, the one in a thousand, model of this gun. People covet the weapon, fight for it and die for it. The point is unspoken and shouted at the same time. It’s guns that kill people not people.
Once the gun has been introduced we see Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) amiably smiling and joshing and we seem all set for a comedy. The sense of comedy is enhanced by the peculiar portrayal of Wyatt Earp by veteran character actor Will Geer. He’s clearing Shelley Winters out of the way for the July 4th celebrations. Wyatt Earp has been portrayed in many different ways in westerns but rarely in a manner so out of keeping with the legend. This Earp is amiable, ubiquitous and safe. We seem to be heading in the direction of family viewing, but its a blind. Earp’s affability and measured control is contrasted with hints of McAdam’s troubled past. It doesn’t take long to realise that looking into Stewart’s eyes is like looking into caves of flickering shadows. The apparent happy-go-lucky nature of the two friends is more than that. It is a buddy movie but High Spade is more than a close friend. He’s there to act as a minder; a psychiatric nurse. McAdam needs looking after.
The director hurries through the exposition. We learn that McAdam is a man on a mission to gain revenge for the death of his father. We are introduced to his prey. The two make no effort to avoid each other, indeed they both enter the shooting competition to win the eponymous rifle.
At the end of the first five minutes we have a developing plot line, a rapidly developing back story, a couple of western legends (Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson), a hero, the hero’s sidekick and a villain. But with Anthony Mann the lines between hero and villain can become blurred.
As Anthony Mann himself said:
“He was a man who could kill his own brother so therefore he was not really a hero.”
Martin Scorcese sums it up rather well:
“Anthony Mann’s brooding heroes were no saints, seeking revenge was their obsession, an obsession that would consume and nearly destroy them. Even James Stewart, the All American hero of Frank Capra’s fables, succumbs to outbursts of savage violence.”
Shakespeare’s greatest plays are psychological dramas containing a huge amount of violence. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello all have the main character wracked with demons and uncertainties and the stage scattered with bodies. Anthony Mann was a profound student of literature and an enormous fan of the Bard. We don’t actually believe we are watching murders, killings and assassinations on the Stratford stage. We are deeply affected by the violence. The violence is necessary to feeling, and therefore understanding the plays. Anthony Mann came very close to capturing the essence of this in his films. The westerns he made during the 1950s are some of the best ever produced. I don’t think it foolish to compare them with the very greatest works of drama.