On Valentine’s Day, many men will do the obligatory dinner and a movie. They will take their dates to see a Rom Com when they would rather be watching Quentin Tarantino. Bring on the flowers and chocolate. Let’s balance out Estrogen Day and throw in a discussion about the quintessential film genre for many men, The Western.
I don’t like Westerns much. John Wayne made 84 of them, and he didn’t arouse my sensibilities except for The Quiet Man (1954) which had The Western plot set in Ireland. In fact, the genre is too predictable, thus boring, if you see enough of them. Go ahead and throw my favorite actors into a Western, and I still don’t like them much. Except for….
When it comes to discussing The Western, it’s best to begin with John Wayne and then move on to Clint Eastwood. Rio Bravo (1959) is a highly respected John Wayne film starring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. John Ford, the director king of Westerns used no close-up shots and began the technique of filming for long periods without dialogue or music. The natural sounds of the wind blowing, horse-clopping, hawk-preying, big sky western landscape fills the observer with the realism of the setting. I love feeling as though I’m right there in the picture with the characters. Many modern Westerns employ Ford’s technique such as Best Film Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men (2007) and Best Cinematography/Best Actor Oscar winner, There Will Be Blood (2007).
Rarely does a score enter the interior of these films. It is creepy. Men in the West are lonely and gritty. You survived if you were tough enough. That’s it. Whiskey and a whore-filled saloon was as good as life got. In the classic John Ford films, if the “whore” is Angie Dickinson, why not?
Moving on to Clint Eastwood, I know I’m supposed to like A Fistful of Dollars or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s the score that makes the movie memorable. (If you agree, take a look at my Dec. blog, “It’s the Score that Makes the Movie”). I admire Ennio Morricone. He’s made over 400 film scores in his long career. The term “spaghetti western” comes from the sound of Morricone, who hates the term as well as his score for B westerns which made Clint famous. The sound of whistles, clocks ticking, and orchestral sweeps are iconic.
I like the music more than the movie. If you love Quentin T. films, the sound of the spaghetti western is prevalent in his Kill Bill films.
A classic Western I do love stars Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). Shirley MacLaine portrays a whore who pretends to be a nun and outsmarts everyone in the film. A rare treat in a man’s movie where the woman ends up on top.
I reckon my favorite Clint Eastwood Western is the one where he’s behind the camera in Unforgiven (1992).
Where is Gene Hackman these days, by the way? He was one of the winners on Oscar night receiving the Best Supporting Actor award. If you don’t watch Westerns, ladies, at least watch this one. The best line in the film comes from Strawberry Alice, “Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don’t mean we gotta let ’em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores but we, by god, we ain’t horses.”
It is a great film for every reason a film is great.
I can’t say I’m impressed with Kevin Costner’s acting abilities, but who doesn’t like Dances with Wolves (1990)? It was his first shot at directing and he scored big. The score, the screenplay, the acting, all marvelous and on my top ten favorite movies of all time. I cry every time the coyote, Two Socks, is killed, and I’m completely swayed to the Native American side of the story. Costner’s Open Range (2003) was a good Western for me, too, with Robert Duvall being Robert Duvall and Annette Benning acting marvelously as usual. The plot wasn’t original, but I liked the acting and the scenery of the Canadian plains.
What’s the best cinematography in a Western? In 2007 (a big year for Westerns!) the most “artful” Western vote for me goes to The Assassination of Jesse James starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and produced by Ridley Scott. The cinematography is outstanding. To create the feel of the era, the shots were filmed as though you looked at a daguerreotype. Notice the palette of black and brown. The tint on the camera lens creates that antiquated feeling. The time-lapse sequences, the blurred edges, the filming of the train sequence at night, many tricks of the camera that created an artful composition for which I really respect. The movie score was depressing, and the movie overall is too heavy to watch over and over, but I loved the cinematography.
Well, shoot. I guess I don’t mind Westerns after all.
What are your favorite Westerns? How about some of your least favorite?