Stetsons, Bootlace Ties, Waistcoats and Six Shooters

At a time when my child sits down to watch evermore improbable alien / human action cartoons I find myself recalling the Saturday morning films and the TV shows that were part of my life as a child.  They were dominated by the Western films and TV series.   The likes of Laramie, Bonanza, High Chapparal and Rawhide come to mind along with The Lone Ranger.  But also films like Gunfight at OK Corral, Destry Rides Again and High Noon.   None of these, and especially those in black and white, appear on mainstream TV now.   The Western film seems to have become a weekday mid-afternoon treat for those who are able to sit down for a couple of hours at that time – clearly a cheap way of filling spare time slots for TV programmers devoid of cash and ideas.

This is such a waste of some classic films containing good action with simple enjoyable storylines that usually provided the eventual good triumphing over evil conclusion that goes down well in the auditorium and has provided the basics for more recent films – many of which are no longer earthbound.    Some are absolute classics of cinema – forgotten in the midst of the current computer generated special effects and 3D era.   Where is that hero in the white hat standing tall on a dusty street against the bad guys?

If you want to watch classic Westerns (and probably some other genre as well) you’ll have to invest in the DVD or Blu Ray from the store.   Whilst I enjoy the gritty Clint Eastwood ‘Spaghetti Western’ films of the 1970s with their harsh sun, brutal beatings and showdowns with no obvious hero, I love to go back to the classics like Rio Bravo where Dean Martin took time out from being a drunk to play a drunk – or so his reputation leads me to suspect.  John Wayne stands tall in the saddle in that film and others amongst a host of other actors who brought the set to life with often more than a touch of humour – James Caan providing a great foil in El Dorado as the unwanted travel companion.   In the same film Robert Mitchum took time out from being a gumshoe and us sailor to reprise Martin’s drunk and played it with superbly humorous effect.   The comedy was further enhanced by Bull (Arthur Hunnicut) who’s frontiersman appearance and bugle blowing combined with the claim to being an ‘Injun Hunter’ provided the framework for a heart warming performance.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas fought a battle against the odds at the OK Corral with none other than Dr Leonard McCoy at their side dealing death rather than healing in this early appearance for DeForest Kelly as Morgan Earp.  Douglas’ coughing fits as the dying Doc Holiday punctuate a story of two men who really shouldn’t be working together but have little choice as the cards of fate are stacked in such a way as to draw them inexorably towards their date with destiny.   There’s something about the music to this film as well that captures my imagination and recurs in my mind on sleepless nights (alongside some favourite rock tracks).    Written by Dimitri  Tiomkin, it has a slightly Cossack feel and there is something chilling about its ‘Boot Hill, Boot Hill, So cold, So Still’ intonation.

The hero always wears a white hat is a fallacy that is blown away in High Noon.   This excellent black and white film is barely longer than the period of time it depicts.   Gary Cooper walks tall in a pinstriped waistcoat and trousers whilst wearing a black hat.   In the harsh light of the small western town under the midday sun his is a brooding presence as his former friends and supporters desert him.  The details in the faces of the characters of the film are vividly brought to life in this excellent black & white.   The stubble, the beads of sweat and the lines on the faces are superbly caught by the sharp camerawork in a manner that many colour films fail to achieve and this adds to the tension as the film drives on to its conclusion. In the final showdown with a gang of killers is he really a hero?  I’m not sure – there’s certainly no heroic face to face gunfight as he runs in desparation from one form of cover to another.   Perhaps he is the fore-runner of the man with no name, an anti-hero who just happens to be less evil than the truly bad guys?

Finally, a thought for the bad guys – it’s amazing how many people regularly appeared as baddies in one western after another.  You get to recognise them as they fill in as extras for the heroes to gun down time after time.   One who crossed the line from hero-fodder to lead actor was Lee Van Cleef – appearing in High Noon and Gunfight at the Ok Corral as an expendable bad man he starred in For a Few dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly where he was as much a hero as Eastwood’s Character – nasty but with redeeming features.

Westerns are still made though with much less regularity than when I was a child.   Watching some of the classics may give you an idea of what the genre was really about.   Many recent westerns follow the modern trend of remaking old classics – the 2007 3:10 to Yuma is an example reprising the 1957 original.  It’s good in the same way as the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 is good – i.e. ok on the violence but lacking the tension of the original.  Go and view the old Westerns and enjoy the cinema that they provide 🙂

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Comments

  1. Some actors you knew, the moment their face appeared that they were the bad guy in the film because they played the bad guy in all previous Westerns. My favourite bit is from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where Eli Wallach says “if you are gonna shoot, shoot! – don’t talk”. Unfortunately what they call Westerns nowadays is more like a 2 hour soapy. Thanks for evoking fond memories.

  2. Just watched El Dorado night before last for the 4011th time. Last night it was Cahill U.S. Marshall. Love John Wayne. Another favorite, Shane with Alan Ladd and Van Heflin. I should stop, I could go on forever about the classic westerns. Too many to even begin to talk about!

  3. jennygoth says:

    my fave western was bonanza and wagon train i loved old wishbone lol xxjen

    • I enjoyed Bonanza and High Chapparal – wasn’t quite so much into Wagon Train. Those old westerns are great to watch in our modern ‘Duke Nukem’ world!

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