Tuesday, February 23, 2016
ALPHABET WESTERNS SCRAMBLED IN RECENT YEARS by DARRYLE PURCELL
As a long-time fan of A- and B-westerns of the 1930s into the 1960s, I believe a current motion picture big boy may hold full responsibility for the film genre’s continued demise, or at least life-support existence.
In explaining my views, I’ll throw in a little history while champing at a bit of opinion that could cause one to see me as a man of my age cursing at children to get off my lawn. And perhaps I have listened to The Statler Brothers’ brilliant Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott far too many times.
Under the studio system of the first half of the 20th Century, B-westerns were cranked out to fill theater seats at Saturday matinees. Adults supported their children’s interest in the film adventures because of the Code of the West all-American values they embraced. Even at 10-cents per ticket, low-budget westerns were profitable, enough so that the larger studios could afford to invest in A-films – many of which were not profitable.
The great talking A-westerns, beginning with starring roles for Gary Cooper, Richard Dix, Preston Foster and Warner Baxter, kept the white-hatted value system espoused in the Bs while expanding storytelling and humanizing the subjects for an adult audience. John Ford and John Wayne, among others, polished the genre to an art form that, with The Searchers, focused a Rembrandt-level spotlight on what a western could be.
At that time, television took over the role of the Saturday matinee while B-westerns filled the small screen. Cooper, Wayne and Scott, who were joined by veterans (in more ways than one) James Stewart and Audie Murphy, kept western fans coming to the movie palaces. Then the 1960s happened.
Cooper died. Scott retired. Producers found it was less expensive to film a car chase on Los Angeles streets than it was to truck horses and actors farther and farther out of town. Youths were sent to Vietnam, with their hands tied, to fight communists – eventually leading to politicians negotiating a loss for America. Cynicism began to replace the Code of the West.
As the American film industry struggled, the B-western immigrated back from Spain and Italy. The producers and directors of those low-budget films decided to put a European slant of the genre. There were no good guys, only bad guys with supernaturally fast draws killing even worse guys. The so-called Spaghetti westerns were basically caricatures of America’s films. Yet, they were profitable, for a while.
Then former TV cowboy Clint Eastwood returned to the states and began to recreate the American western, using the quick action and ultimate revenge of the European films while bringing back a bad-assed version of the good guy taking out the bad guys for the right reasons. His films got better and better – climaxing with The Unforgiven.
Then nothing rode the silver screen west – until just recently. Bone Tomahawk, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight have been touted as the long-awaited revival of western films.
I don’t believe strangely non-empathetic characters spouting 21st Century views while engaging in scenes of agonizing torture and murder are going to inspire other filmmakers to make westerns or audiences to return to the theaters. Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight) ignored the art that John Ford honed while embracing the worst of the European caricatures. In my opinion, his movies, especially his westerns, are, at their best, bad imitations of not very good films.
Following the release of his picture, the not-so-humble Tarantino spouted his anger at many theatergoers’ decision to see an upbeat space opera instead of his black-hatted bloodbath. That director has always been open about his personal views, so I doubt he cares if someone like me believes his cowboy-film efforts could be the final knife thrust in the murder of the western movie genre. And I have to call the murderer, the murderer.