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Classic and Modern Westerns

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about the most iconic of Hollywood genres, Westerns. They explore classic westerns from The Great Train Robbery through The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and touch on modern and contemporary westerns

[Clip from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen that film many times. One of my favorite John Ford films, one of the greatest westerns of all time and some people say it is the greatest Western

DH: Not long ago. I was lucky enough to see Peter Bogdanovich, the famous director at a local college and he said that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which was made in 1962, was the last great picture of the Hollywood studio era.

SVW: And a lot of people feel that in some ways it's the last great Western before Western sort of were transformed into another type of a genre.

DH: It's so interesting because westerns kind of never die out like, yeah, you can take that point of view and say the classic westerns ended with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and then that's followed by really different kinds of westerns revisionist westerns comic Western things like that.

SVW: Anti-westerns.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: Westerns in modern settings.

DH: Right. That's all true. But at the same time there's another genre I really love, which is a vampire movies and people are always declaring that genre to be like, there's nothing more to say. And then someone comes up with just a really interesting new take on it, there’s infinite variations. That seems like the westerns are like that too, they ever die out.

SVW: And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring John Wayne in one of his great iconic roles and also Jimmy Stewart as the modern man, the future Senator who's trying to change the West. And yet the West is still the West.

DH: Yeah. The man who shot Liberty Valance has in many ways all these themes that are so prominent in the Western. I mean the Western in many ways is, you know, a genre that kind of defined sort of the American story even though it may not always be accurate. So it contains all the themes like civilization versus lawlessness, you know, settling problems with a gun versus by the law and logic, the urban settled East Coast versus the wide open plains and mountains of the west. That's all in there.

SVW: Yes, and The Man Who Shot Liberty. Valance also has that great line about “print the legend.”

DH: Yeah. I think John Ford has that line…. without giving too much away, the title is was the man who shot Liberty Valance and we learn a sort of one version of the story and then the editor of the local newspaper in the in this Western town of Shin Bone says “when the legend becomes fact print the legend” and in a way that's John Ford the director is saying this is what westerns are all about. They're telling a story that appeals to people that allows us to see ourselves a certain way. But in many ways it's a legend. It's not the truth.

SVW: Now let's go backwards a bit. Westerns were some of the first films that were even made.

DH: Westerns were arguably the first true American genre. The movie you can go back to is the great train robbery, 1903, Edwin S Porter. And many people call that the first real movie-- not that there weren’t other movies. made George Melies, the Lumiere brothers and others who are making these movies, but they were these little things and they weren't edited the same way. The Great Train Robbery is the first movie that goes back and forth between different locations and has parallel action, and in a way does just what movies do now in a more rudimentary way, it’s a short film, it’s like 15 minutes long, but, in many ways it's kind of the first movie and it's a western and westerns were then the dominant genre in American cinema for a good 50 years until the 1980's more Western had been made than any other type of movie. They were just all over the place.

[Clip from Stagecoach]

SVW: Now talking about more about John Ford, his first really truly great Western with Stagecoach. 1939. It was also the film that made John Wayne a star and he also made The Searchers in 1956, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine, so many great westerns and he sort of embodies the Western director and a lot of ways.

DH: Yeah. He he really does. I mean, he was started in the silent era. He thought of himself as a western director no matter what, even though he made other extremely famous non westerns like The Grapes of Wrath and How Green was my Valley, Young Mr. Lincoln. He made, many, you know, regular dramas, but he always thought of himself as a western director and Stagecoach is really important because it has the greatest director of westerns and it’s the first really big starring role for the most famous star in westerns, John Wayne. And…

SVW: With a great supporting cast.

DH: An amazing supporting cast. Stagecoach is great. I mean, if you knew nothing about westerns and you want to be introduced to all the themes, the biggest star, everything, watch that movie. 1939 John Ford, Stagecoach. It has, you know, all the themes of wagon trains the westward movement Native Americans which we can talk about maybe later the portrayals of Native Americans, always referred to as “Indians,” is generally negative in movies until we get to more modern times. It has, you know, the railroad, the growth of cities, religion and family versus gun fighters and outlaws. The theme of revenge is in there, the John Wayne characters out for revenge. A certain idea of what makes freedom, and then really the stereotypical portrayal of characters, not just Indians but men and women.

SVW: John Wayne is wooing the main female character who is basically a prostitute.

DH: The stereotypical portrayal of women in westerns is that there's basically a duality there. They’re one of 2 things, either the good domestic wife who represents civilization and the family or they’re prostitutes.

SVW: Prostitutes, saloon girls, bartenders…

DH: Right! And the westerns, if you're looking for feminist films, you're going to have to look for some…there aren't many in westerns because women are rarely the heroes. They can be very important characters. But yeah, so in this one you have John Wayne, he's a gun fighter. He's a good guy but he’s escaped from prison and he's out for revenge on the people that killed his brother. And then Claire Trevor, is this prostitute who has been run out of town along with another character, Thomas Mitchell, who's this drunken doctor with a heart of gold who has been run out of town…

SVW: Which is another stereotypical a character in a western, the drunken doctor or just the town drunk.

DH: Right, and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance it's the drunken newspaper editor. And then you have and you have another woman who is the counterpart to Claire Trevor who’s a soldier's wife about to be a mother. She's pregnant. She gives birth during the movie. She's a little snobby and doesn't like the prostitute woman until she helps in her birth and then she changes in the movie. You have the sheriff. You have a character whose comic relief. You have this dangerous Southern gambler character. You even have the bad capitalist. You have this banker whose run away from the town because he stolen all the money from his bank. So, you got all the stereotypical characters, but it really doesn't feel stereotypical. It feels like a really authentic drama.

SVW: And then it’s shot by John Ford who is a master of shooting film within the Western genre and he did it so effectively. When Orson Welles made the transition from the theater to the cinema when he was making preparing to make Citizen Kane, he watched Stagecoach over and over and over again because he thought it was the perfect film. That was the biggest influence visually on his film, on Citizen Kane, was stagecoach.

DH: I didn't know that. I did know that he specifically watched Stagecoach. That only 2 years before Citizen Kane. The thing I know about Welles is a famous quote. Welles was asked who the directors who most influenced him were and he said, oh, you know, all the greats like Ford, Ford and Ford.

SVW: So let's talk about the portrayal of Native Americans here.

DH: Yeah. It's bad. I mean, first of all, Native Americans are rarely portrayed by Native Americans. They're all generally portrayed by white actors in essentially red face like the stereotype of doing Black face to represent African-Americans.

SVW: A lot of times they’re not even characters. They’re just abstract people that are attacking the main characters.

DH: That's what it is in Stagecoach. In Stagecoach it's a wagon train. If you've got a wagon train moving across the Plains, it's going to get attacked by Indians and that's what happens in Stagecoach. And so there's a shoot-out, you know, but that's the entertainment that was expected by audiences. I guess fortunately, they don't get to the point where they're portrayed as characters because that's almost always negative. There’s sort of 3 ways that the Indians in quotes are portrayed. One is as the primitive savage. Violent, incapable of being civilized that are attacking and violent. The other is the noble savage, which is there still primitive, but they're uncorrupted by civilization and they just sort of live off on their own and leave us alone. They're still out there. And then the final is I guess the civilized so-called civilized Indian. They've accepted the new way of life. The maybe even, they're learning English. They've converted to their religion. They're becoming, you know, and that would be referred to in racist terms, as a good Indian, right? So, that's basically it until you get really much later. You know the 60's 70's, you start to get some positive portrayals of Native Americans. But often still portrayed by white actors. And then eventually as we get now and into the 90's and 2000’s, you start to see movies finally, with all the Native Americans are only played by Native Americans. Smoke Signals in 1998 is written and directed by Native Americans. And we even have a great series that’s going right now on Hulu, Reservation Dogs, which everyone involved in the production is Native American.

SVW: In closing, let's name a few other films. We talked about John Ford as a director and some of his great movies. What are some of the other great Western's, David? and great directors of the classic westerns?

DH: The classic Westerns, Anthony Mann made 5 movies with James Stewart, but Bettercher made several with Randolph Scott. Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo and Red River. Now we're getting to get a little later in time, Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josey Wales and maybe his greatest Western, Unforgiven. And we shouldn't forget about the Spaghetti Westerns...

SVW: Sergio Leone.

DH: Yep, that's what made Clint Eastwood an international star. Some of the Revisionist and Anti-Westerns. You sort of mentioned those. Things like Little Big Man is a wonderful movie in 1970 really showing for the one of the first times to show the truth of what actually happened to the Native American.

SVW: Starring Dustin Hoffman.

DH: Starring Dustin Hoffman. And I love the movie called McCabe and Misses Miller directed by Robert Altman with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.

SVW: The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah, 1969.

DH: Yeah. Yeah.

SVW: And of course, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 as well, George Roy Hill. And also in terms of classic Western Shane by George Stevens in 1953, The Magnificent 7 by John Sturges 1960, High Noon 1952 Fred Zinnamon. These are all great classic Westerns as well.

[Clip from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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