With September rolling in, the summer is effectively at a close. My special project for the summer, Western Wednesday where I reviewed a western every Wednesday with the goal of learning more about the genre and widening my knowledge of its films, is also at an end. Last week’s Blazing Saddles review was my last post for Western Wednesday, and now that the event has reached its long awaited conclusion, I’m going to recap what I’ve learned about the genre and touch upon the films I’ve seen, both during this series of posts and others that I’ve reviewed previously (the good, the bad, and the ugly, pun completely intended).
Like any genre really, the western can be pretty broad. While to my thinking, westerns have to be set in a specific time and place, namely the 1800s or early 1900s in the American west, they sometimes also be set in the American south (Django Unchained) or be set in modern times (though I don’t personally consider No Country for Old Men a western, many do and I can see why). There is actually a great variety in the western’s characters and themes, as the genre to my thinking at least is defined more by its setting and plot elements (final showdowns between the hero and the villain mainly) than what it does with them.
While I didn’t actually reach my goal of reviewing a western every week, I did cross quite a few classics off my “to see” list. Films I’ve reviewed for Western Wednesday include: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, High Noon, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Searchers, Stagecoach, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Blazing Saddles. That amounts to eleven new reviews. I also caught Shane and Johnny Guitar, though I didn’t get to reviewing them. I’ve previously reviewed Duel in the Sun, Once Upon a Time in the West, Unforgiven, and Django Unchained. So the plan for this post is to break down the westerns I’ve seen into three categories, “the good” being the ones I liked, “the bad” being the ones that were terrible, and “the ugly” being the ones that were decent movies, but I just personally did not care for them.
“The good” is going to be the longest section, no doubt about it. Since I was mostly going through classics here, I ended up liking most of them. This surprised me a bit actually because before doing this I didn’t really think I liked westerns. Turns out, most often than not, I do.
Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
A Fistful of Dollars turned out to be a film I liked a lot. The mystery surrounding Clint’s character was great and kept me watching. I sort of have a problem with this trilogy which I’ll get to later, but I really liked the first film. It hints at things regarding its main character, but never really reveals anything. Despite this lack of information, I couldn’t look away. And it’s all done with Leone’s unique style, always terrific. (3.5/4 stars)
Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The problem with the Dollars trilogy is that it’s only sort of one; if you go in looking for some sort of continuously building story like I did, you’re going to be frustrated. Nevertheless, I thought this film had a lot of good stuff in it, even if it didn’t advance Eastwood’s character that much. The conflict between Lee Van Cleef’s character and the outlaw he and Clint are both chasing is pretty interesting in how it’s revealed, and the scene with the Old Prophet sticks in my mind even now. Is it my favorite out of the trilogy? Perhaps, but my favorite Leone film is still to come. (3.5/4 stars)
Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Looking back on it, I’m almost sure I should have given McCabe & Mrs. Miller 4 stars. I mean the sound is terrible, but that’s basically the only thing wrong with it. Its setting in the Northwest helps it stand out, along with its hapless hero. Warren Beatty’s performance is fantastic; he really makes you feel for this poor guy who’s completely out of his depth. Adding to this is Julie Christie’s equally impressive performance; one of the reasons you care about McCabe so much is because she does. And she knows he’s doomed. It’s quite a sad film really, but there’s something about it that has stuck with me. (3.5/4 stars)
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Though the film is a bit too long and I didn’t understand the cinematography choices, it still is marvelous. In my review, I described it as the western version of All About Eve. I still think that’s pretty accurate, and also a good thing, because I love All About Eve and having the same themes explored in a different setting with different characters didn’t bother me a bit. Add in the extra added layer about the dying mythology of the west, and you got yourself a near perfect film. (3.5/4 stars)
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956)
Reviewing The Searchers on a rewatch after giving myself plenty of time to understand the movie was a terrific call on my part, because the first time around I abhorred this film. I confused the main character’s racism with the film’s own viewpoint; the extremely racist character is also an extreme outsider for a reason. These traits go together and are inseparable. John Wayne gives an incredible performance as the aforementioned main character, and John Ford’s classic framing and landscapes go a long way. I even like the goofy small town community stuff; I think it gives the film a nice contrast and lightens it up nicely. We can see what Wayne’s character is missing out on. (4/4 stars)
John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939)
John Ford’s Stagecoach is probably my favorite western. I used to give that title to Butch Cassidy in the Sundance Kid, but even though I haven’t rewatched it lately, I think that’s more because I think it’s funny than anything else. While The Searchers is arguably a better film, Stagecoach is lot more heartwarming and does in spots touch upon some of the same issues of prejudice. Wayne’s character is immensely likable here, and I like how the revenge plot is toned down (even though it can’t be avoided), and the breaking down of social barriers is emphasized. Also this is another example of some great directing by Ford, we have interesting lighting choices and the extremely effective distinction between interior space and exterior space that I’ve come to love in all of Ford’s films. (4/4 stars)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers’ True Grit is an incredibly well made film. It is always enjoyable, Bridges’ and Steinfeld’s performances are magnificent, and having a young girl as a western hero is definitely something different and interesting. Unfortunately, despite the unconventional age and gender of its hero, it is a rather conventional western. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the film completely works in that vein, but I wished it had offered us a bit more to think about. That said, on pure entertainment value and technical execution, it’s a near perfect film. (3/4 stars)
Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974)
Blazing Saddles is a movie I couldn’t fully get behind on an intellectual level. It has some flaws, as Brooks dilutes some of his admirable attempts at a satire on racism with out of control humor directed every which way, but it still is a pretty fun film. It’s definitely not a pure western as it does dip into parody throughout, but it contains so many genre cliches that I had to put it in Western Wednesday, even if they were included for laughs. The relationship between Wilder’s and Little’s characters gives the film a heart, the anti-racism satire gives you something to think about, and most of the film ends up being pretty darn funny. (3/4 stars)
King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)
We’re getting into the portion of this list that wasn’t actually reviewed this summer, but I wanted to include them here anyway for the sake of completeness. Duel in the Sun may not feel a lot like a western, more like a romantic drama that happens to be set out west, but technically it is still a western and I thought it was a great film. Unfairly maligned upon its release, I really do think it met its goal of becoming the second Gone with the Wind. The film is melodramatic and over the top, but it works, matching the turbulent emotion of its protagonist Pearl (Jennifer Jones) perfectly. The film also features one of my favorite performances by Gregory Peck, playing against type as the villain who mistreats Pearl. There’s a lot of feminist criticism to mine from this one, and I was eating it up. (3.5/4 stars)
Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
I’m really disappointed that I didn’t get to rewatch this film this summer; I was planning on it but because it’s so long I never seemed to find the time. I can still recall several images from the film though, which serves as proof to me of this film’s greatness. One of my favorite things about Leone is how he reveals character’s backstories and motivations; here, much like in For a Few Dollars More, we don’t get the answers until the end of the film. The classic western shootout is intercut with flashbacks explaining why it is happening, such an inventive and effective technique from Leone. Like in Duel in the Sun, we have classic good guy actor Henry Fonda playing a villain, a genius bit of casting resulting in a great film and one of Fonda’s best performances. Claudia Cardinale is simply luminous as the wife of one of Fonda’s victims, and Charles Bronson’s hero Harmonica continues the sense of mystery established by Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy. Pervading all of this is an elegiac tone suitable to the dying of the west. So far, this is the best Leone film I’ve seen, and just about the best western. (4/4 stars)
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained may technically be a “southern” as director Quentin Tarantino termed it, but for our purposes let’s just call it an unconventional western. It actually connects to Blazing Saddles a bit, tweaking with the western genre to attack racism, and more specifically slavery. It’s a strange revenge fantasy of the kind Tarantino does so well, he goes overboard at the end in my opinion but for the most part it’s incredibly satisfying. Showcasing great performances by Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained is a very interesting with its view of history and also offers a bit of wishful thinking in terms of the way this country handles its shameful legacy of slavery. (3.5/4 stars)
There aren’t many in this section. In fact there’s only one; that’s how high the average was with this group of films.
Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952)
High Noon is not a film I enjoy. There’s the creepy age difference between Cooper and Kelly, and while I don’t object to big age differences on principle, it really seemed creepy here. The film doesn’t have a lot of action and mainly consists of Cooper walking around town pleading with people. While the film is not terrible or anything, I do not believe it’s the classic it’s made out to be. There are a few good things about the film (this is the film debut of Lee Van Cleef after all), but the rest is pretty mediocre in my opinion. I didn’t really pick up on the social commentary on McCarthyism while I was watching (though it seems obvious in retrospect), and I think the “real time” thing was a gimmick that didn’t add much to the film. So all in all, really not a huge fan of High Noon. (2.5/4 stars)
Now, the label “ugly” is a bit harsh when describing my feelings towards the films in this section, but I had to keep with the theme. Again, not too many films here as I really enjoyed and respected most of the films I watched. In fact, to a certain extent I enjoyed and respected these films. There’s just something that holds them back, and I realize my reaction to them is not the consensus.
Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Okay, here we go *takes deep breath, prepares for onslaught of controversy*. I liked this film. I thought it was a fun time and as good as anything else in the Dollars trilogy. However, it didn’t offer anything that the other two previous films didn’t, and based on its classic status I had expected it to. I realize now that the films form a very loose trilogy, but still I desperately wanted it to provide some character depth to Mr. Eastwood. On subsequent rewatches I think I’ll enjoy the film more; now that I know what to expect, I’ll be able to divorce the film from the previous two and probably won’t be as disappointed with it. Leone’s style was as interesting and invigorating as ever, Eastwood was still effectively mysterious, and Wallach and Van Cleef delivered as well. Still, it seemed a let down after the other two films and all of the hype. It isn’t that the film isn’t good, it’s that it isn’t better than the other two. (3.5/4)
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch is the same type of thing. I recognized the film was good, in terms of its character development and themes I think it’s even better than The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly, but I didn’t connect with this film very much. There are long stretches where the bunch are just hanging out and partying, and it really slowed the film down. It just couldn’t hold my attention for at least half of the time. It’s a shame because I realize it’s a great film; it has that cool symbolism with the ants and the scorpions, the motif of the child onlookers, I like the casting of William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan’s character was really fascinating. Still, this most likely isn’t ever going to be one of my favorites. (3.5/4 stars)
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992)
I am a big fan of Clint Eastwood and I remember liking Unforgiven a lot, but this mainly ends up down here because I’ve forgotten it. True, it’s been about a year and a half sense I saw it last, but I feel like it should be a bit more memorable. I may develop a more enthusiastic opinion about the film upon a rewatch, but at this point I’m not super motivated to do so. I liked the use of the reporter to represent the audience, but that’s about the only aspect of this film I can recall. Sorry to say it, but this film just ended up being forgettable for me. (3/4 stars)
All in all, I’d say Western Wednesday was a success. I only really, really disliked one film, loved or liked a bunch, and at least respected the rest on some level. I separated them into three groups instead of straight up ranking them like I normally do, because to be honest I’ve barely scratched the surface of the western genre. However, I am very proud of the progress I’ve made. I will continue to pursue more western films, but just as they come up, not as a specific and organized goal. So I’m closing the books on Western Wednesday, but not the western genre. When I feel I have a sufficient grasp of the genre’s highlights, I’ll attempt a top ten, but I have a feeling that is pretty far off.
So, as I normally just write reviews and don’t get a chance to lay out my blogging plans that often, I’m going to also give a tentative rundown of what’s coming up around here. School’s just started up, so I don’t think I’ll be posting as much as I did over the summer. My goal is three a week, hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up. Most importantly, I’ll get to see some more current films as Boston actually gets more indie films than the wilds of Connecticut, and fall movie season is the best anyway. I don’t have anything special planned until the end of October. I hope to do a week of horror films, which I was planning to do last year, but was too busy to actually carry out. I have a list of films planned, which is a good mix of old and new, but I’m not going to spoil in case my plans completely fall through, which could very well happen. Anyway, until then, thanks to everyone who read and/or commented on any Western Wednesday posts, and next enjoy reviews of randomly selected films!