Good evening, class.   

Hopefully you enjoyed the British Invasion.

This week, we're going west, young man. Way out yonder where there ain't nothing but a man and his thoughts. Yes, we're going to talk about Westerns. 

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.   

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.

this week's films

Surely you're familiar with the lazy "cowboys and Indians" movies, but there's so much more depth and nuance available out on the plains. There's a reasons filmmakers are drawn to the subject. 

The Searchers               

[1956 | John Ford]

Watch: HBO Max | Amazon (rental)

When a Comanche war party murders a frontier family and takes the two young daughters captive, it's up to their uncle Ethan (John Wayne) and adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to track the Indians, rescue the girls, and exact their revenge. The oldest girl is killed early in the hunt, but when they find the youngest five years later, will it be too late? Will she be too much a Comanche or does she remember who she really is?

The Searchers, a great film about a quest, is actually about two quests. Martin's intent is to track the tribe and rescue his sister Debbie (Natalie Wood). After the first flush of the chase is over, John Wayne, on the other hand, wants to put a bullet in her head. His hatred for the Comanche way of life is so deep, so ingrained, that for her to live that long with them means she isn't even a human being anymore. She's become a savage, and killing her would then become the humane thing for him to do. No kin of his is going through life as a savage, not if he can help it. There's a certain enigma about Wayne's character. He seems to know more than anyone else in the film about the Comanche, which would lead you to think he's your typical Western hero who occasionally lives among them, but he would do anything in his power to kill every one of them, if given the opportunity. When he and Martin hunt buffalo, he massacres several under the assumption that it'll give the Comanche a few less to hunt. This is not a good man John Ford has given us as our hero, yet we are forced to admire him, despite what we may think of his politics. So what does it say about us that we so adore this cutthroat, racist bastard? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's hard not to be on the side of John Wayne. But I do know that the final scenes, when he chases Debbie over a hill and instead of killing her, scoops her up in his arms and carries her home, gave me a great sense of redemption. In the end, he really is a compassionate soul.

A lot of the credit for crafting this character that subverts the persona of John Wayne has to go to director John Ford. Wayne isn't really a very good actor, but he is a great movie star. He's the type of guy you can build a film around, knowing that at the center will be John Wayne playing, well, John Wayne. There isn't a lot of range to the John Wayne character, but Ford is able to create a different dimension for this character by the choices he makes around him. The range here exists in the circumstances surrounding the performance. The choice of angles, lenses, and composition does a lot of the acting for him. That isn't to say he's a rock, or that the performance is bad, per se. On the contrary, it's probably one of his best performances. It's just that Ford makes it even better.

John Ford was one of our great directors. Working in a genre that wasn't well-respected, he managed to win four Oscars for direction, and another two for his WWII documentary work. He's probably best known for his magnificent uses of landscape, which can bring to mind long, static shots of mountains where very little happens for a long time, but Ford's visual style was much more vibrant and alive than I think we sometimes remember. He composes beautiful landscape shots, but he also knows when to cut to the closeup of John Wayne, and where to put the camera to achieve maximum effect. There perhaps isn't a wasted shot in this film, and for a movie where two guys track Indians for five years, that's an accomplishment.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly               

[1966 | Sergio Leone]

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Three gunmen--the good (Clint Eastwood), the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the ugly (Eli Wallach)--are in search of a fortune in Civil War gold buried in a cemetery. Problem is that none of them knows the exact location of the gold, the details being spread out among them, so they are required to either work together or come up with some way to find it alone. There's a sort of agreement to share the money equally, but none of them are exactly gentlemen. This isn't a great deal of plot to fill a three hour film, but when you're Sergio Leone, you don't need a great deal of plot.
Leone's Fistful of Dollars trilogy, of which The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the final chapter, was one of the watershed events in the western genre, serving as the bridge between John Ford and, well, Clint Eastwood. Whereas Ford worked with a sense of economy, employing large landscapes and minimal cuts, Leone has no such inclinations. He does nothing half-way, instead embracing excess where his predecessors might eschew it. This makes his choice of a lead actor a rather odd one. Eastwood was on the verge of being cast aside by Hollywood when he was cast as The Man With No Name. In that day actors did not segue easily from television to film and Eastwood, after starring in Rawhide, was having trouble finding film work and Leone was having trouble finding movie stars, so they sort of ended up together. It was an odd, although successful, marriage of a director who didn't have time for small measures with an actor who might spend an entire film doing nothing but squinting, if you gave him a chance. Rather than being awkward, Clint serves as the film's ballast, the thing that keeps Leone from flying off into insanity. There's a similar effect in Eastwood's dealings with Eli Wallach, a man of many words prone to bold statements and large threats. Eastwood watches as Wallach goes through his antics, then quietly controls the situation.

Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review, observes that in Leone's world if something is not in the frame, then it is not visible to the characters who are. So if Tuco is digging for gold in a grave he does not see Eastwood approach, nor do he and Eastwood see Angel Eyes approach, even though it would be nearly impossible for them not to. Because to Leone the impossible is not nearly as important as the cinematic or, in some cases, the cool. A normal director would spend a long amount of time trying to justify, in one way or another, how Angel Eyes could have gotten that close, but to Leone that amount of plausibility is not nearly as important as the dramatic effect achieved when his characters are caught off guard. The shot works as a singular shot, so why bother to explain away it's impact? As with many uses of cinematic style, this stems from necessity. In his early films Leone didn't have the budget to worry about continuity, so he adapted a style that allowed him to throw caution to the wind and find ways to make the suspension of disbelief work for him.

Likewise, part of the reason for Ennio Morricone haunting score comes from the difficulties of shooting dialogue given the financial restraints the project was under. Large portions of the existing dialogue was dubbed, but it's even more effective to show long silent stretches filled with music. So, the more effective the score (and it's a great bit of music, evocatively modeled after a howling coyote), the less Leone has to dub, and the more effective the film is as a whole.  One of the marks of a great director is when he makes a film that few others could have made. There's no doubt in my mind that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of those films. Take, for example, the standoff in the cemetery. Few would have had the courage to extend that scene as long as he did, or to spend so much time building the suspense by inter-cutting between the various closeups, and fewer still would have made it work, but Leone turns it into perhaps the best scene in a film full of great ones. Leone may not be a great film craftsman and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be cooler than it is good, but that's essential to what makes it great. Were it not so raw, it would not feel so alive and would have faded quickly into obscurity. With it we likely would have lost the legacy of Clint Eastwood and perhaps the Western as well. And for that we owe Sergio Leone more than we can imagine.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid               

[1969 | George Roy Hill]

Watch: Starz | Amazon (rental)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might not have invented the modern buddy comedy, but it may as well have. While Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black was still toddling around playing cowboys and Indians, director George Roy Hill, cinematographer Conrad Hall, composer Burt Bacharach, stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and screenwriter William Goldman were meticulously crafting the gold standard for movies about rugged pals quipping and wisecracking their way through one perilous bonding situation after another…

In performances that cemented their iconic status, Newman and Redford star as two of the Old West’s best-looking and quickest-witted outlaws, genial gentlemen bandits who flee to South America rather than face a ‘super-posse’ representing a railroad baron the duo repeatedly robbed. Newman and Redford try to outrun their past, but their enemies aren’t about to let them off easy. (Time Out London)

Audiences in 1969 were all too happy to embrace the light, quippy irreverence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after a turbulent summer, and Goldman, director George Roy Hill, and the two impossibly handsome stars made them feel cool for doing it. True Grit had performed well earlier in the year as a throwback to the genre’s past, giving John Wayne a proper victory lap, but Butch Cassidy was thoroughly modern, a star-making vehicle for Newman and Redford that reflected a need for the genre to turn the page and that feels as much of its time as it does authentic to Wyoming in the late 1890s. With Ross at the center of a love triangle between friends, the film attempted to bring Jules and Jim to the American mainstream, taking a lesson from the French new wave on how to revivify old Hollywood craft.

It still works spectacularly well. There’s an alchemy up and down the production: Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty all passed on playing the Sundance Kid, and none seem capable of the quiet confidence that Redford possesses in the role, which parries so well with Newman that the two would run it back again with Hill a few years later in The Sting. The pop doodling of Burt Bacharach’s score is about as far from a traditional western score as possible, but it somehow meshes with the sepia sheen of Conrad Hall’s photography, which burnishes the legend of these two men while their story is still being told. And while Goldman’s screenplay dances on the edge of glib, it’s lively and sophisticated, with a strong theme about the capitalist forces that really tamed the Wild West. (Scott Tobias)

Even if you haven't seen this film, you know of it. And you certainly are familiar with Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head", which along with the score won Bacharach two of his three Oscars.

And I'll save you the trouble of looking it up. Yes, this was where the name for the Sundance Film Festival came from.

Once Upon a Time in the West               

[1968 | Sergio Leone]

Watch: Amazon Prime | Criterion | Amazon (rental)

As Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) rides the train west to join her new husband, he is gunned down by the notorious Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless villain after McBain's considerable fortune. Upon arrival, she learns the gruesome details of the murder and desires nothing more than to sell her inheritance at an auction controlled by Frank. But an unlikely team of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) work together to block Frank's power grab.

At first glance, this seems to be a somewhat standard plot for a western, but in reality it isn't. The alliances of the three men in regards to each other or the woman are constantly in flux, never approaching a state where you can definitively say who is in cahoots with who. Naturally, this tends to be a point of confusion that isn't helped by Sergio Leone's unwillingness to provide any more backstory than is absolutely necessary. In the wild west, allegiances are always in flux, no one is to be trusted, and it adds to the general suspense of the film. All of these things are true. At the same time, this leaves Leone free to ignore basic things like character development and dialogue for his specialty--wide, beautiful landscape shots with a transition to a close-up of someone's eyes. And there are a lot of close-ups of people's eyes, usually complimented by squinting. Call it the Clint Eastwood effect.

Once Upon a Time in the West is, above all else, a classic example of style over substance. The prime instance being the opening sequence of three gunmen waiting for a train. Leone uses nothing but natural sounds (and a couple flies) to build the suspense of these men simply waiting. We assume they aren't going to welcome whoever is on the train, but we have no idea who that person is, why they are waiting for him, or what exactly they plan to do with him. So when the train arrives and no one emerges, we let our guard down for a moment, only to find Harmonica has gotten off on the other side. They stare each other down the way people do in westerns and Harmonica kills all of them. It's an undeniably cool way to start a film. From there on out it's one cool scene after another--some of them merely fun, some of them breathtaking--but few of them spend any time strengthening the film's core, so if you fail to buy fully into the cool factor, Once Upon a Time in the West can tend to leave you cold. There are only so many times you can look at someone's eyes without being able to look deeper before it gets repetitive, and Leone crosses that line a couple of times.

Technically speaking, this is a better film than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but that's primarily due to the budgets. What Once Upon a Time in the West lacks is what Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo had in spades--a raw energy that made the film feel alive.

The Outlaw Josey Wales               

[1976 | Clint Eastwood]

Watch: Amazon (rental)  

Clint Eastwood's career didn't start off great. Through some connections and some happenstance, he managed to get a contract with Universal Studios at $100 a week. They weren't really impressed with his acting, but he was tall and good looking and eager to work, so they put him to work. He bounced around for a bit before landing a role in Rawhide

He played a lot of cowboys (see above), before attempting to move behind the camera for Play Misty for Me (1971). The Outlaw Josey Wales was Eastwood's fifth feature behind the camera and is widely regarded as one of his first great directorial efforts. 

Of course, you can't talk about Clint Eastwood's Westerns without mentioning his triumphant return to the genre with Unforgiven, the film for which he won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

If Clint Eastwood had not been a star, he would still figure as a major director, with important work in the Western, action and comedy genres, and unique films like "Bird" (1988), his biography of the saxophonist Charlie Parker, the love story "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995), and the wonderful "A Perfect World" (1993), which seems to be about a hunt for an escaped convict, but seems oddly distanced from the chase, and more concerned with the values and histories of the characters. It has the elements of a crime picture, but the freedom of an art film. "Unforgiven," too, uses a genre as a way to study human nature.

There is one exchange in the movie that has long stayed with me. After he is fatally wounded, Little Bill says, "I don't deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house." And Munny says, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Actually, deserve has everything to do with it, and although Ned Logan and Delilah do not get what they deserve, William Munny sees that the others do. That implacable moral balance, in which good eventually silences evil, is at the heart of the Western, and Eastwood is not shy about saying so. (Roger Ebert)

Blazing Saddles               

[1974 | Mel Brooks]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

If you watch Mel Brooks' Western on a streaming service these days, you'll probably get a disclaimer in the form of a short introduction that includes the following: "as the storyline implies, the issue of race is front and center in Blazing Saddles. And racist language and attitudes pervade the film. But those attitudes are espoused by characters who are portrayed here as explicitly small-minded, ignorant bigots. The real, and much more enlightened perspective, is provided by the main characters played by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder."

Which is to say there's a lot of racial stereotypes in Blazing Saddles, but they're used to show just how dumb racists are. And while it's easy to say the film couldn't be made today, that just simply isn't true. It'd be tricky, but it's not like films have stopped shining a light on how ugly racism can be. Or, in this case, ridiculing it. 

You don't have to have more than a couple of IQ points to rub together to see which side the film is on here. Or here. 

It's no secret that Westerns didn't have a great depiction of Native Americans and we more or less come to terms with that a while ago, but it goes deeper than that. John Wayne, for one, had some pretty gross opinions on a multitude of issues.

Most historians and cowfolk of color agree that Hollywood is responsible for popularizing the falsehood of the all-white Wild West. Filmmakers built a genre that hinged on racial conflict and then, in defiance of that fact, filled the silver screen with only white protagonists. While whitewashing remains a modern problem, it has a long history in American film: In the very first Hollywood movie, 1910’s In Old California, white actors played non-white roles.

This practice was especially commonplace in Westerns, which relied on racist stereotypes of Native people as bloodthirsty savages and drew inspiration for stories about white heroes from the experiences of freed slaves in the West. The story of one of America’s most eminent frontiersmen, Jim Beckwourth, formed the basis for 1951’s Tomahawk, which starred a white actor even though Beckwourth was black. The famous 1956 Western epic The Searchers was based on a black man named Britt Johnson. He was played by John Wayne, one of the genre’s biggest movie stars, who in 1971 told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility.” Even the fictional character of the Lone Ranger (who originally debuted in a radio show in 1933) shares striking similarities to Bass Reeves, believed to be the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. (The Atlantic)

Not a lot of filmmakers are willing to go there, but Mel Brooks definitely is and both the film and the western genre as a whole are better for it. Sometimes, the best way to fight backwards ideas is to make fun of them and show the world how ridiculous they are. 

Few things are more effective than a well-placed satire. It's stunning.

Though Little and Wilder receive about equal screen time, Bart is arguably the true lead, another departure from traditional interracial film relationships, in which the black character usually serves to prop up the white one (think Shawshank Redemption). It's Black Bart's show to run, and he takes every available opportunity — and there are many — to highlight the stupidity of the white racists. Whether he is crooning Cole Porter's "I Get No Kick from Champagne" to a white boss demanding a "good old n- - - - - work song" or taking himself hostage, Bart, along with his fellow railroad workers, is always in on the joke.

It is worth noting that as groundbreaking as Blazing Saddles was in terms of race, the same can't be said for its treatment of gays and women. The F-word — not that one — is thrown around liberally, and the four or so women who have lines in the film are either clutching their pearls or taking off their clothes. The movie isn't self-aware at all when it comes to certain groups. (NPR)

We'll have to wait for that a little longer.

coming soon

We're going to war.

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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