New film festival – the Western in the Fifties
You may have heard of Sundance and Cannes now there is a new festival here in Norfolk. On Saturday, 2 March Hall for All at Weston Longville launches its first film festival. A five film celebration of “The Western in the Fifties”.
Why the western in Weston? Because it brings together three things a brand new village hall with a large screen and projection facilities, a resident, Phil Hardy who is passionate about film and won a British Film Institute Award for his book Western Encyclopedia, and the award winning Parson Woodforde pub.
The five films, Bend in the River; Rancho Notorious; Johnny Guitar; Forty Guns; The Searchers, have been chosen to explore the anxiety, violence and lost dreams of the western in the 1950s (see below).
The festival is being supported by Broadland District Council and Creative Arts East and runs from 10.30 – 1930hrs. Tickets for the festival cost £30. This includes lunch at the Parson Woodforde and extensive programme notes. There is a £5 concession for students and senior citizens. Tickets at the door, £35. For tickets and further information contact Phil Hardy (01603 882002; firstname.lastname@example.org or Ruth Goodall (01603 880000; email@example.com). For payment by debit/credit card contact Broadland District Council on 01603 430538 during normal office hours.
At a period of a growing, and general, unease with their times that formed the backdrop to many of the decade’s finest films, fifties Western became more complex and interesting. In contrast to the easy optimism of the early forties and the resigned disillusionment of the seventies and beyond, the Western in the fifties was at its most flexible.
It is not surprising therefore that the decade witnessed a marvellous blossoming of the genre, with directors BuddBoetticher, John Ford and Anthony Mann working at their peak and the likes of Sam Fuller and Nick Ray producing individual masterpieces. Boetticher and Mann approached the genre from opposite ends – Boetticher from the perspective of the B Western, whose conventions he effortlessly twisted to make supple what could so easily have been brittle in other hands. Mann on the other hand took for his starting point the A Western and its ‘big themes’, but in place of Errol Flynn effortlessly taming the frontier there was James Stewart as a man at odds with himself, caught in the grip of obsessions he was only dimly aware of, and living in an extremely dangerous world. Even more frantic in its manipulation of the Western’s conventions, down to the hidden passage under a waterfall a common motif in series Westerns, is Ray’s hugely melodramatic Johnny Guitar. Equally hystericalis Fuller’s Forty Guns, in which a loved one is literally seen down the barrel of a gun and a person’s marriage and funeral take place on the same day. In complete contrast Ford’s The Searchers aims and achieves the mythic in its tale of the man who saves his family and the community at the cost of being excluded from it.
That the fifties Western could accommodate such drastic revisions of its conventions and themes and of the assumptions about America they supported, testifies to the vitality of the genre.
Bend of theRiver aka Where the River Bends (u) 91 min, 1952
Bend of the River is Mann’s most satisfying Western. The film interweaves the story of Stewart’s desperate search for anew identity for himself with the epic struggle of a group of pioneers to reach their chosen Eden. The movie is scripted by Chase in an old-fashioned manner with heavy reliance on cliches (‘one bad apple destroys the rest of the barrel’ etc), and simple contrasts between farming and mining the land and incongruous cameos like that of Fetchit. Its greatness stems from Mann’s transformation of the naive into the elemental.
For the pioneers the natural obstacles they encounter are just that, natural obstacles; for Stewart they have a private significance as the milestones on his personal route to redemption. Like Kennedy, his brother under the skin, he is a former outlaw who wants to go straight. But where Kennedy freely admits his past, Stewart hides his (and the scar, the result of a near hanging that signifies it). It is only when Kennedy turns against the pioneers and tries to sell the food promised them to miners who have discovered gold and leaves Stewart to die when he (Stewart) objects, that Stewart is able to recover his suppressed abilities and use them legitimately in defence of the settlers and his prospective new life.
Left to die on the top of Mount Hood, Stewart seems to become almost an avenging spirit of Nature as, armed with only his desire for revenge, he follows the departing wagon train of food and single-handedly saves the pioneer’s winter provisions before symbolically being washed clean of his past in the Snake River that sweeps Kennedy to his doom.
Bend of the River fully justifies the description of Mann as the Virgil of the West made by several French critics; his camera offers a majestic panorama of mountains and forest that represent both the promised land and the obstacles, interior as well as exterior, facing would-be travellers to the West. A magnificent film.
dAnthony Mann p Aaron Rosenberg s Borden Chase c Irving GlassbergIpJames Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Julia Adams, StepinFetchit
Rancho Notorious(fidelity pictures/rko) 89 min
Compromised by constant disagreement between Lang and Dietrich during shooting and constrained by a budget from Howard Hughes which restricted Lang to cheap studio sets, Rancho Notorious is nonetheless one of the most extraordinary and expressionistic Westerns ever made. The first Western to use a ballad as a major integral motif, it is a key film in the Lang canon. The film’s overriding sense of artificiality works in its favour, making its tale of’hate, murder and revenge’, to quote the song, all the more haunting and fatalistic.
Kennedy is the good man who vows vengeance on the outlaws who kill his bride-to-be. He sets out to find Chuckaluck, an outlaws’ hideout run by Dietrich’s legendary Altar Keane. When he finally gets there, Dietrich falls in love with him, thinking him to be a good man, at the very moment his obsession with revenge is directly leading to the destruction of her and Ferrer’s private Eden. The end of the film thus has him destroying her happiness just as his was destroyed in the film’s opening minutes.
dFritz Lang p Howard Welsch s Daniel Taradashc Hal Gambling queen Marie Mohr IpMarlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer
Johnny Guitar (Republic90 min, 1954
Lyrical, baroque and giddy in a way few Westerns are, Johnny Guitar is a masterpiece. Yordan’s trance-like dialogue, Hayden and, in particular, Crawford’s mannered performances (as they endlessly torment each other, testing their love), Stradling’s garish, almost surreal, Trucolor lighting and James Sullivan’s wonderful sets are all contributing factors but it’s Ray’s grandiose, neurotic direction that brings these elements to life and makes the film so powerful. Crawford, dressed in black for much of the film, is the ambitious hostess who builds a successful gambling saloon on land wanted by the railroad and who romances Brady, an outlaw and the one-time lover of McCambridge’senvious cattle-queen. Hayden, Crawford’s old flame re-appears and becomes her protector when McCambridge and Bond stir up the townspeople against her. Reduced to such basics, the plot seems too clichéd for even a series Western – the outlaws have a ‘secret entrance’ to their hideout through a waterfall ! – but Ray (and his willing accomplice Crawford) transform the material to give it the delirious intensity that Francois Truffaut highlighted in his review of the film when it first was shown in France: “Never trust appearances. Beauty and profundity are not always found in the ‘obvious’ traditional places; a Trucolor Western from humble Republic can throb with the passion of I’amourfouor whisper with an evening delicacy.”
dNicholas Ray p Herbert J. Yates s Philip Yordanc Harry StradlingIpJoan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine
The Searchers (Warner Bros) 119 min, 1956
Ford’s masterpiece. Wayne is the nomad who returns home briefly, only to have that home destroyed in an Indian attack, his loved ones massacred and Wood, his niece and daughter that could have been, taken captive. He sets off on an impossible five-year search for her with the idea of killing her and her captor, Brandon’s Indian Chief, Scar, who has defiled her. Wayne is accompanied by Hunter, a half-breed and adopted brother who hopes to prevent Wayne from fulfilling his grim promise. Finally after Wayne has twice lost the trail and Worden’s Shakespearian Fool has twice pointed the wanderers in the right direction for the promise of the home and a rocking chair by the fire, Wayne finds Wood but is unable to kill her. So he brings her home. But if in so doing he is purged of his all-consuming bitterness, at the end of his journey, there is neither a rocking chair by the fire nor a waiting woman for him. Once the trio return, after Wood has been publicly readmitted into the family, in one of Ford’s most memorable sequences, Wayne seems momentarily about to enter the house but steps aside that Hunter and Miles might enter. He remains in the doorway as the camera retreats into the comfort of the home until the door is closed, leaving Wayne outside to ‘wander forever between the winds’.
What makes The Searchers so successful – and it was one of the most commercially successful Westerns of the fifties – is Ford’s confident handling of such complex material, his ability to mix frontier slapstick (Worden, and Bond’s Reverend Captain Clayton), mythic landscapes (the film contains some of the most striking location footage of the fifties) and character exploration with telling economy. At the heart of the film lies Ford’s incisive disassociation of Wayne’s motives for action (which lie wholly in the past and are clearly neurotic) with the results of that action (the restoration of home). Unlike earlier Ford heroes, Wayne is not part of the Westward March of Civilization; rather, like Brandon, he is an embodiment of the primitive forces that must be squashed before the foundations of civilization can be properly laid and the desert transformed into a garden. Thus, whereas for Wayne there is no rest at the completion of his quest, for Hunter the quest is merely the preparation for domesticity and marriage with Miles.
The film’s sombre themes and its unexpected density, which surprised contemporary reviewers, are the culminationof Ford’s deepening sense of the paradoxes that his central characters contain from Stagecoach(1939) onwards. But, if the action of The Searchers is essentially interior, its greatness lies in its fulfilling Ford’s statement made just before he started shooting the film: ‘I should like to do a tragedy, the most serious in the world,that turned into the ridiculous.’
d John Ford p Merian C. Cooper, C.V. Whitney s Frank S. Nugent c Winton C. Hoch IpJohn Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Henry Brandon, Hank Worden
Forty Guns (Globe Enterprises) 80 min 1957
This is an even more extreme film than Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James(1949). In the earlier film, the narrative line was clearly visible, in this the narrative structure is so brutally handled that on the level of plot the film is almost incomprehensible. This stylistic hysteria exactly mirrors its subject, the love of Sullivan for Stanwyck whose brother, Ericson kills Sullivan’s brother (Barry) and forces Sullivan (who has not killed a man for ten years) to kill him. Fuller intended the film to end with Ericson holding Stanwyck in front of him as a shield, taunting Sullivan to shoot and being surprised when Sullivan calmly shot and killed first Stanwyck and then him. In the released version this is altered and Stanwyck is only wounded, but the effect is the same. Ericson dies crying ‘I’m killed Mr Bonnell, I’m killed’ and Sullivan walks past the bodies saying coldly ‘Get a doctor, she’ll live.’ The film then closes with Sullivan leaving town and Stanwyck running after him, but their coming together is irrelevant.
The violence of Stanwyck and Sullivan’s relationship is contrasted with the ease of that of Barry and Brent, celebrated in one of Fuller’s most famous shots, of Brent through a gun barrel that tracks into a close-up of her and then cuts to her and Barry kissing, that Jean Luc Godard imitated in his first film, A Bout de Souffle(1960). It is this, the film’s stylistic hysteria, that is its most notable feature: the sudden cuts from long shots of Stanwyck at the head of a table at which sit some forty gunmen to huge isolating close-ups of Sullivan and, most impressive of all, the famous ‘walk’ of Sullivan, seen mostly in rapidly cut close-ups of eyes and feet, as he bears down on a nervous gunman whom he defeats as much by moral authority as physical superiority.
The film’s reception remains the quintessential example of the contrasting attitudes to Hollywood of American and European critics: in America it was (and mostly still is) roundly condemned for its tattiness; in Europe it was wildly praised for its primitive vigour.
d/p/s Samuel Fuller c Joseph BirocIpBarbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry, Eve Brent, Hank Worden, John Ericson