VERY pleased to announce an excellently fun gig with History Channel–the daunting task of recommending a series of westerns to savvy history buffs. Check out my recs at their History Shop (oh, and buy some westerns for holiday gifts, especially if you or your friend/lover/pard is the laconic hero type!).
As a special bonus for this roundup of the good, the bad, and the fugly, an interview details my who what where when why of being psyched about this genre, as in why these westerns above and beyond all others?
“A tumbleweed crosses the road, and inevitably someone whistles the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Westerns have that power—just the ching of spurs evokes the age-old struggle between good and evil. Westerns are socio-political commentary on gender and community packed in gun-totin’, wide-vista entertainment with explosions and kisses and handsome heroes standing tall, shooting straight, and getting the girl (or guy). But westerns didn’t start with John Ford and end with John Wayne. With this selection I want to share the scope and depth of the genre, from classic beginnings to today’s gritty renaissance.”
What that gobbledygook means is that I wanted to show the range of westerns through a chronological lens. This genre started simply and built to classic heights with directors like Ford and Boetticher setting the vocabulary of westerns for years to come. Even before the tumult of the 1960s, westerns were toying with stereotypes and frontier myths. A few westerns kicked the genre in its dusty ass in the 1990s and ever since then, there have been acid westerns, feminist westerns, and any number of beautifully evocative homage westerns that slyly manage to drag the genre into the twenty-first century.
Not all the westerns made it to the list–I guess there’s a limit to how many people would appreciate the kung-fu western My Name is Shanghai Joe although must-sees such as Shane and Sergeant Rutledge should be considered included. But my spurs are a-tingling at the thought of stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Stirling getting new viewers, as well as off-beat westerns like Keoma and Tears of the Black Tiger!
In an case, the ones left off are included below; on the History Channel site, to read my, ahem, expert reviews, click on the title of the flick. I’ve linked a few of my faves below. Enjoy and happy virtual trails!
Tumbleweeds (1925; rerelease 1939) Silent film star William S. Hart’s best oater, Tumbleweeds sweeps through the expansion of the West with Hart’s cowboy racing to get his piece of God’s country and keep his lady love. Set during the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, the film’s signature scene shows wagons, horses, and even bicycles charging across the prairie at the boom of the cannon. Beneath Hart’s stagy performance beats passion for the West; his films brought authenticity and gritty realism to the genre.
Destry Rides Again (1939) In a town run by crooks and a dance-hall queen, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), Tom Destry (James Stewart) is the lawman charged with finding who killed the previous sheriff. When he orders milk at the bar and gets sidelined by Frenchy’s no-holds-barred catfight, everyone knows he’s a pushover…until he outfoxes every man—and woman—in the town. The taming of the west theme gets shaken up by Dietrich’s sultry turn as a bad woman turned good, Stewart’s sly performance as the gunfighter who believes in the rule of law, and the sparks that fly between them.
Shane (1953) Knightly gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd) is the enigmatic man who rides down from the hills and sets aside guns and troubled past to stay with a pioneer family. But too soon he must defend them against vicious ranchers who will kill to take their land. Shane’s antagonist, the gleefully lethal Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), is a taunting, malevolent presence, and Shane, once he dons his buckskins and holster, is the mythic force that can defeat him.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Woody Strode’s broad shoulders carry this story of a cavalryman accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Rutledge runs away to avoid court-martial but returns to his troop to warn of imminent renegade attack (cue skewering arrows). Set up as courtroom drama and framed in flashbacks, the film exposes the racism of the west while highlighting the decency, honor, and bravery of a classic western hero—who just happens to look damn good in uniform.
Will Penny (1968) Charlton Heston plays the aging cowhand Will Penny, who’s injured after a run-in with a vicious preacher’s gang. Finding his way to a lineshack, he is nursed back to health by Catherine (Joan Hackett) and her son. Love blossoms, but the gang interrupts and Will and Catherine must fight and scheme for their lives. Heston is perfect as the grim, stoic cowboy hero who earns his happy-ever-after ending but—in a bittersweet, modern western twist—can’t change his drifting ways.
Shanghai Joe (The Flying Fists of Shanghai Joe) (1973) Immigrant Chin Hao (Sessue Hayakawa) wants only to be a cowboy but finds that in the West the pursuit of happiness is barred to anyone who isn’t a white man with a gun. Then he sees Mexican peasants being sold into slavery, and his fists break loose in high-flying kung-fu glory. A psychopathic Klaus Kinski and an age-old nemesis from China try to stop this western-hero paragon, but Chin Hao metes out stern justice before riding into the sunset.