The image of the American cowboy galloping on a horse traversing endless vistas of flat parched lands dotted with magnificent buttes and leaving behind a light dust storm, has enchanted me ever since I watched my first Western movie, in one of Beirut’s rat infested rundown movie theatres. American cinema and music made a poor childhood bearable and enriched an adolescent’s unbridled imagination. That was the beginning of my romance with America.
Watching American Westerns on weekends, then discussing them and playing them out with my friends became a cherished ritual. We liked the fearless gangsters on the run, and we enjoyed the buccaneer’s exploits, but we were mesmerized by the cowboys. As children growing up in large families and living in crowded poor neighborhoods, we instinctively absorbed the myth of the American West with its archetype; the free, rugged, handsome and laconic cowboy, at home in open spaces, often struggling with harsh elements, traveling from town to town, working on cattle drives, scraping hard to build a homestead, rustling cows, robbing trains and banks, brawling and gambling in saloons, along with the occasional duel in the sun.
We reveled in the fact that the wandering cowboy could haul with him all his worldly possessions; his six-gun and hat, Winchester rifle, his saddle and his horse. When he was smitten by a respectable lady, or when he charmed the proverbial “whore with a golden heart” working in a saloon or the brothel at the outskirt of town, the rambling cowboy would enjoy the interlude until he could no longer resist the call of the trail to nowhere.
We were drawn to displays of true grit and manliness; to tales of self-reliance and survival and we found bonding among men, even outlaws facing common adversities, a validation of our friendships while going through puberty and adolescence in tough socio-economic conditions in the Lebanon of the 1960’s. How I dreamed of riding a horse into the sunset on an open range like my heroes, the characters played by John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott and many others. I am glad to report that I finally did that in my fifties.
Drifters, outlaws and dreamers
There is a deceptive simplicity to Westerns; good guys donning white hats, fighting baddies with black hats, Good always prevails, and the hero always wins the girl. There were many such escapist movies from the first Western, The Great Train Robbery (1903) until “Stagecoach” (1939) and even beyond. But during the Classic period of the genre, (1939-1970) where I drew most of my selection, great directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and few others, gave us a palpable sense of the epic struggle to conquer the West at the expense of the indigenous “Indian” populations, to establish what we might charitably call Western Civilization, but more accurately, unvarnished capitalism, literally cutting through the rough landscape of a continent on what the defeated saw as the mythical Iron Horse linking and taming the land between the two great oceans.
In those movies we met outlaws and plenty of “good-badmen” who were not criminals necessarily, but rugged untamable individuals who opted to live outside the confines of law, especially when greedy cattle barons, and covetous railroad companies abused the law and used compromised lawmen to impose their will. We met men with free spirits seeking fortunes and consumed by blind ambitions, drifters and gunslingers scavenging their way westward, dreamers and visionaries seeking to mold the West in their images, and men who lost their souls and bearings when they could not adjust to changing times. The best Westerns are those about ‘end of era’ hinge moments; what the train did to the wagon, what the automobile did to the horse, and what happened to the men who were left behind unable or unwilling to remain relevant in the new era. One of the subtexts in many Westerns was the inherent tension between the constraints of civilization and the sense of natural boundlessness.
We saw complex men struggling with moral ambiguities, invariably tolerating, denying and at times facing and fighting soft and hard racism and ethnic hatred of the “savages”, the original claimants of the land. The American cowboy, upheld many traits that Americans cherished throughout their history; individualism, freedom, and self-reliance. Some of the characters in this selection are much nuanced even when they don’t appear so at first glance. Some of these men when tested by nature, circumstances and powerful forces beyond their control, changed and evolved; others went headlong to their deaths, stoically, courageously and cowardly. The archetype cowboy in our collective memory is quintessentially American, and as such he is part of what makes America exceptional.
Finally, the cowboy of our Westerns and our dreams is mostly a construct. (Most cowboys in fact were blacks and Latinos, and duels in the sun were rare). He was a necessary myth, and myths are like stereotypes; they do have kernels of truths. This mostly mythic figure, glorified first in the cheap paperbacks of the 19th century known as “dime novels”, and in the following century in countless movies, cut a long trail into the American West following the Civil War, the most horrific conflict in the history of the Republic and helped heal the deep North-South wound, by gazing and moving westward fulfilling in part America’s Manifest Destiny.
Of course, this selection of Westerns is subjective. I assess these movies chronologically, not in terms of ranking. I watched all of them, with the exception of Forgiven in my adolescent years in Beirut, while struggling to read the Arabic subtitles; and developed more affection for them when I came to America. This is a John Ford/John Wayne centric list, but no movie director captured the western frontier with all its glory and brutality like Ford did, and no actor was taller in the saddle than Wayne. Their collaboration over the years left a lasting mark on the genre.
So, let’s saddle up and gallop.
This serious classic Western is the first in the long celebrated partnership between director John Ford, the acknowledged master of the genre, and John Wayne the struggling young actor in the role that launched his career. The movie was shot in Ford’s beloved spectacular Monument Valley on the borders of Utah and Arizona with its breathtaking buttes touching the skies and towering over the men, women and beasts on a frantic journey through hostile Apache land. The plot is a staple in storytelling; a group of disparate men and women thrown together haphazardly in an isolated confined place, in this case a stagecoach. Wayne is the wanted outlaw Ringo Kid (the good-badman character) who is picked up by the stagecoach in the desert, and from his place on the floor of the stagecoach he watches the interactions among the other colorful characters; an alcoholic doctor, an aristocratic well-dressed southerner, a tender pregnant army wife, a corrupt banker and, you guessed it, the wonderful whore with a heart of gold, named Dallas that the Ringo Kid falls for. And all around, platoons of angry apaches on the chase. Whether filming dangerous chase scenes during the day or tender close-up scenes of Dallas and the Ringo Kid under the moonlight, Ford is the consummate master of lights and shades of wide spaces and tiny corners. Ford does not like stereotypes, and he allows his characters to evolve gradually even when they are on the move. In the end some of the the respectable travelers are exposed as shady and crooked and the outcasts namely Dallas and the Ringo kid emerge as the heroes. Ford’s insights into the souls of his white characters do not extend to the Apaches, who were depicted by him and other directors in those days as irredeemably hostile.
Red River (1948)
In Red River, a mature John Wayne is collaborating with another great director of Western movies Howard Hawks, John Ford’s rival who got out of Wayne a performance that surpassed his first serious role in Stagecoach. Upon seeing Wayne in Red River, Ford is quoted as saying, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act." This this the story of an epic struggle between a hard, determined and occasionally ruthless cattleman Thomas Dunson played by Wayne and his more humane but strong willed protégé of many years, Matt Garth played by a young Montgomery Clift in his debut role. If the tension on the screen looked so authentic, it is because it reflected the real animosity between the conservative Wayne and the liberal Clift. The two men loathed each other. This is a movie about different men interacting in changing times.It takes place in the post-Civil War Texas, when Dunson, his trusted friend Groot played by Walter Brennan and Garth, embark on an ambitious effort to drive 10,000 head of cattle along the Chisolm trail to Missouri. Along the long and treacherous trail, we see the gradual psychological drift of Wayne’s character from a tough leader into a draconian, brutal dictator. Dunson’s transformation causes Garth the adopted son to rebel against his unyielding patriarchal father and exile him from the trail. Dunson vows revenge, and in one of the best scenes in the movie, he turns his back on Garth and says in a low determined voice, "I'm gonna kill you, Matt." This father-son dichotomy is in essence the struggle between the old and the new, in changing times, and that is one of many reasons why this film still resonates today.
High Noon (1952)
This movie, directed by the gifted Fred Zinneman is probably the most un-Western of the Western movies produced in the classical era and one of best and most controversial. Like Stagecoach and Red River it is in black and white and it would an act of cultural heresy to color it. This is “a man alone” type of movie. It has an almost perfect cast, led by Gary Cooper, and Grace Kelly and it is graced by an enduring song that sums up the protagonist’s predicament: “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”. (for my Arab readers, please check this old song by Muhammad Abdul Wahab for similarities, particularly the opening notes)
Sheriff Will Kane, the lanky, laconic lawman on his last day on the job, is played brilliantly by Gary Cooper. He is planning to leave town after marrying his pacifist Quaker wife Amy played by Kelly, when he learns that Frank Miller, played by Ian MacDonald, the dangerous killer he sent to jail is arriving at the high noon train to exact revenge. This is a solitary individual pitted against the indifference and apathy of the majority in face of evil. One defining feature of High Noon is that it is presented in real time; the marriage ends at 10:35 Am and Zinneman’s goal was to finish High Noon at high noon, except that editing forced him to add 17 minutes of real time. The good people of Hadleyville, hoping to avoid a fight convince the reluctant Kane to leave. On the outskirt of town, he stops, and turns around and tell his protesting wife “I’ve never run from anybody before”. But Kane’s respectable old friends abandoned him one by one. We see Kane walking alone from home to home, from his office to the saloon and to the church pleading for help, to form a posse to stand up to Miller and his gang. In one scene we see Kane walking alone slowly in the middle of main street in what seems to be a deserted town. To magnify Kane’s solitude and his futile quest Zinneman used a crane to shoot the scene from way above. As Kane moves, we move with him and with him we look furtively at what seems to be an infinite number of clocks of many forms and sizes with their incessantly swinging pendulums. We experience every second with each swing of the pendulums. In a fleeting unforgettable scene, when it is 11:59 AM, the camera in a close up captures the pendulum from the side in a way that makes you feel that it will hit you while continuing to slice time into infinity. In the end the lone Kane makes a stand against the Miller gang and almost loses his life when in a stunning shift, he is saved by his pacifist wife Amy who shoots his would be killer in the back. The last scene is powerful because it is silent. The dejected Kane looks at the townspeople gathered around him and Amy pulls his tin star and throws it to the ground before leaving town for ever with his wife.
Screen writer Carl Forman, a former communist who was blacklisted said that High Noon was an allegorical slap at the cowardly Hollywood (Hadleyville?) during the McCarthyism scare. Zinneman, however disagreed with Forman. He wrote in his autobiography, “to me it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience”. High Noon sparked one of the biggest backlashes in the history of Hollywood. Both John Wayne and Howard Hawks viciously attacked High Noon, with Wayne calling it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life”. Seven year later Hawks and Wayne collaborated on one of their best movies, in order to produce an artistic rebuttal to High Noon. Upon finishing his movie Rio Bravo in 1959, with Wayne in the leading role Hawks said “I made Rio Bravo because I did not like High Noon.” Both Wayne and Hawks felt that the character of Will Kane betrayed their concept of the strong, honorable self-reliant Sheriff who fights his own battles without being saved by his wife.
Shane is a visually attractive movie, shot in the Grand Tetons Mountains in Wyoming. A mysterious, unassuming man, Shane, played by Alan Ladd arrives from nowhere to Joe Starretts’ small homestead while on his way “North”. Starrett, played by Van Heflin and his fellow homesteaders are locked in the archetypal homesteaders-cattlemen conflict. The greedy cattleman Rufus Ryker played by Emile Mayer gave an ultimatum to the homesteaders to uproot themselves, and hired enforcers led by Wilson, played by Jack Palance, to do that. We don’t know anything about Shane’s past although we could surmise from his quick draw, that he may have had a history as a gunslinger. The movie is seen through the eyes of young Joey, Starrett’s son who sees in the resolute stranger a surrogate father. One of the subtexts of the movie is the suppressed attraction between Shane and Joe’s quite wife Marion, played by Jean Arthur. The tender relation is never acted upon. We see it in Joe’s eyes when Shane and Marion dance together that he knows of the subdued feelings. This is a secret the three share but never discuss. In the end, Shane in a blazing shootout kills Wilson and Ryker and saves the Starretts and the other homesteaders. But the killings mean that Shane has to resume his endless journey despite his wounds. He tells young Joey “there is no living with a killing. There is no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks”. In the last scene, Shane is riding into the horizon, his back to the camera with Joey calling on him to come back. We don’t know, and probably he does not know his destination, or if he could make it. The mysterious stranger came only to leave.
The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers is artistically and emotionally a magnificent Western classic, that stuns every time you peer at its sweeping human drama and esthetic beauty. This is John Ford and John Wayne’s most intense and rewarding collaboration. Wayne finally soared as an actor, in this darkest of all the Westerns of the 1950’s. In the Searchers, Ford proves once again that no other director could make, man, beast and nature complement each other within one frame as he does. His compositions are simply majestic tableaus of nature testing and being tested by men. In the first scene a door is opened on a desert landscape and framed by the doorway the silhouette of a pale rider approaching slowly with dust swirling around him. This is the stern looking Nathan Edwards, a former confederate soldier, played by Wayne returning to his brother’s farm in Texas after wandering for three years following the end of the Civil War. Clutching a sword, he disembarks, then shakes his brother’s hand and gently kisses the forehead of his wife without uttering a word. The last scene is one of the most memorable and expressive compositions in the history of American cinema. Ethan Edwards returns from a long, bloody grueling and successful search to bring his niece Debbie home. Ethen is once again framed in the doorway watching the happy party enters the cabin oblivious of his presence. He lingers on briefly, clutching his right arm and looking inside but unable to enter, before he turns slowly and walk with heavy legs into the desert, alone as he arrived, with dust swirling around him, before the cabin door abruptly shutting on his receding figure and the screen fades into black.
In between these two iconic scenes, a five-year tale of obsessive hateful quest unfolds. Soon after Ethan’s arrival, the Comanches murder his brother’s family, burn the homestead and abduct his niece Debbie, played by Natalie Wood. With the help of her “eighth Cherokee” adopted brother Martin Pawley, played by Jeffrey Hunter, Ethan whose hatred of Indians borders on insanity embarks on a ceaseless journey to find – and kill- Debbie who sullied the family. His steely determination to exact revenge against the rapacious Comanche chief Scar who took Debbie as a wife, is beautifully, if darkly expressed. With snow gently falling on the two riders, Ethan tells Martin “So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth.” Ethan’s courage, pales in comparison with his brutality. He not only scalps chief Scar, he tries to inflict eternal exile in the beyond on a dead Indian warrior. When the searching party discovers the fresh grave of a Comanche warrior, Ethan shoots his eyes, to prevent him from entering “the spirit-land” thus condemning him “to wander forever between the winds.”
Ford shot many of his Westerns in his beloved Monument Valley, and in the Searchers, he revels in showing the harsh beauty and grandeur of the Buttes and mesas of America’s south-western deserts. In one spectacular scene we find Ethan and the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton, played by Ward Bond, leading the search party in a sunken trail, when they discover two columns of hostile Indians riding parallel to them on higher ground single file. What follows is a movingly tableau of moving men and horses blending perfectly with the blue sky and reddish sands and rocks. In one shot one Indian column is riding on a gentle barren hill in the shadow of a magnificent dome-like rock formation, with the slowly rising music, heralding the coming chase.
In his first encounter with Debbie Ethan tries to kill her, but he is stopped by Martin and the arrow of an Indian. In the second encounter, he chases the fleeing Debbie, who is finally cornered. When he looks at her face he is reminded that she looks like her mother. At that moment, something stirs what is left of humanity in the heart of this avenger. Ford gives us another memorable scene with few words. We see Ethan lifting up Debbie to the sky, the way he did when he first met her five years ago, drops her into his arms and gently whispers “let’s go home Debbie”.
This is a quest within a quest. The obvious quest to find Debbie is achieved. The unspoken quest by Ethan to find redemption is denied. That unique sudden tender gesture by Ethan was only a fleeting moment of redemption and forgiveness. When we finally see Ethan, framed in that doorway looking in but not entering, we realize that he just discovered that he was being banished. The door is the allegorical gateway to civilization and normalcy, the realm forbidden to Ethan. When he walks out of the door into the desert, his lumbering body is telling us that he will never “enter the spirit-land”, that he had been condemned “to wander forever between the winds”.
Rio Bravo (1959)
This is a delightful Western that delivers on every level. This is another memorable collaboration between Howard Hawks and John Wayne, made more appealing by Dean Martin’s touching performance, and the subtle charismatic charm of a young Angie Dickenson who manages to effortlessly steel every frame she finds herself in. And you can tell that Hawks just loved her. The casting is almost perfect, the characters appear deceptively seamless, but they are more complex in their subtleties, and the rich and witty dialogue, particularly between Dickenson and Wayne, is matched by Hawks’ intelligent use of silence and imagery to make his point.
It is the Western I return to time and again and the one I associate with fond adolescent memories, watching it and admiring it with my beloved late brother Michel, and my close childhood friend Samir. And I am not sure after all those years if I have fully recovered from my devastating crush on the beguiling Angie Dickinson, since her deep seductive voice still rings in my ears.
Although the movie was conceived as a delayed rebuttal to High Noon’s jaundiced view of human nature, it is not as dark or foreboding as Will Kane’s tale. Here the rugged Sheriff John T. Chance, played by John Wayne prevails in his battle with the Burdette gang without seeking outside help, save the support of his disparate band of misfits, an old crippled deputy, Stumpy played delightfully by Walter Brennan, a drunken former deputy Dude, played admirably by Dean Martin, a mysterious professional female gambler, played charmingly by Angie Dickenson, and a young gunslinger Colorado Ryan played somewhat flat by Ricky Nelson. Hawks and Wayne loathed High Noon, and their John T. Chance was the antithesis of Will Kane. The plot is simple. Sheriff Chance is holding in his jail Joe Burdette, played by Claude Akins for the murder of an unarmed man, until the arrival of the Federal Marshal. But Joe’s brother, the rapacious cattle baron, Nathan Burdette, played by John Russel, employs hired guns to save his brother by force. When Chance’s friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond offers to help, Chance firmly declines. Chance’s dilemma becomes more acute when Wheeler was shot dead by a member of Burdette’s gang mistaking him for Chance. Wheeler’s young gunslinger Colorado joins the band, now besieged in jail, to avenge Wheeler.
Sheriff Chance’s relation with the gambler known as Feathers begins with a rocky but subtle encounter, when Chance falsely accuses Feathers of cheating in a poker game. Chance refuses to apologies and asks Feathers to leave town on the next stagecoach. She refuses, indignant that Chance, whom later she would call lovingly John T. (T for trouble) thinks she is the girl she is not. But from the first encounter we can see the hidden, unspoken affection between the gruff John T. and Feathers, which comes through their loaded dialogue, body language and the silent glances. Feathers allows the tough man to think that he is in control, while in fact she has him where she wants him to be. Their kissing scene is so touching that we forget that the usually unromantic Wayne has undergone the transformation of his life. When she asks him to kiss her again, he cooperates a bit unlike the first time, and she says in that voice that melts the toughest of men “it’s even better when two people do it”. The scene is beautiful, even though Hawks borrowed it from his earlier movie “To Have and Have Not”, when Lauren Bacall coyly tells Humphrey Bogart after a second kiss, “It’s even better when you help”.
Hawks was no sentimentalist. We see that in his depiction of how Dude struggles with his alcoholism. In one of the best scenes in the movie, we see the transformation of Dude from a hapless drunkard with shaky hands pouring himself a glass of Whisky; when suddenly his whole persona changes upon hearing the haunting and threatening instrumental “Deguello” or “The Cutthroat song” Nathan Burdette plays to his besieged enemies denoting no mercy, or as John T. Chance says “no quarter taken”. Dude then pours his last glass into the bottle with a firm hand surprised that he did not drop a single drop. Dude, has just began his journey towards self-respect and redemption.
Finally, the soundtrack of Rio Bravo solidifies its status as a significant Western with memorable music like High Noon. In addition to “Deguello” which lingers on in the background as an intimidating reminder of the impending fiery end to the stalemate, Hawks gives Dean Martin the opportunity to sing along with Ricky Nelson as a sideman, “My Rifle, My Pony and Me”, ( a song my friends say I do a decent rendition of.) Martin’s wonderful mellow, lazy baritone made the song one of the best in the history of Westerns.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This observation is at the heart of this movie about the changing American west, and the men and women adjusting to or fighting change. At its heart, it is the story of Ransom Stoddard, played by the delightful James Stewart who was an idealist lawyer in his youth before becoming a successful politician after willfully wrapping himself with a legend that was in fact a big lie. The story unfolds against the background of the struggle pitting civilization and law and order against wilderness and lawlessness. The movie is not visually attractive, as if Ford lost his penchant for capturing the spectacular interaction between men and nature we have seen in Stagecoach and particularly in the Searchers. This black and white movie is meant to be artistically dark.
Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie played by Vera Miles arrive by train in the frontier town of Shinbone, where they first met almost 30 years ago, to attend the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon played by John Wayne, in the first collaboration between the two men. (Stewart had a wonderful cameo role in Wayne’s touching last movie, The Shootist (1976). The editor of the local newspaper and his colleagues wanted to know why Stoddard came all the way from Washington to attend the funeral of an unknown pauper. Stoddard’s tale flashes back decades ago to his arrival in Shinbone as a young lawyer after being robbed and beaten by Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin. Doniphon. The toughest but goodhearted gunman in the territory finds Stoddard and brings him to the local restaurant where the waitress Hallie tends to his wounds. Later both men compete for Hallie’s heart. Stoddard decides to open a law office in town and finds himself in constant conflict with Liberty Valance who has been terrorizing the town for years. Only Doniphon, was willing to challenge Valance. When the townspeople elect Stoddard to represent them at a statehood convention, after defeating Valance who was representing the cattle barons opposed to statehood, the die was cast. Valance throws the gauntlet and challenges Stoddard to a fight. Doniphon advises the lawyer to leave town, but the principled Stoddard refuses. In the brief duel, Valance first injures Stoddard, and just before firing the next bullet "right between the eyes” Stoddard fires first, and Valance is no more to everybody surprise. At that moment the legend of the “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was born. When Stoddard began to waiver about his nomination after his suitability was challenged following the killing of Valance, Doniphon, eases his pain by revealing that it was he, who fired the fatal shot from a nearby dark alley, simultaneously with Stoddard. Reassured, Stoddard went into politics full throttle, riding on the fraudulent legend as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, becoming governor, Senator and ambassador. Upon returning to Shinbone, Stoddard was universally recognized as the living (fake) legend of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, while Doniphon the hero who actually shot Liberty Valance, lay dead in a cheap coffin, shoeless and unknown to most residents of Shinbone. When Stoddard finishes his story, the editor throws his notes into the fire. Stoddard asks “You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott? To which Mr. Scott says “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is the West and its legends, true and false that Ford had created.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone is first and foremost a composer. He composes poetry, with close-ups of unforgettable faces, long pauses, soaring music, harsh landscapes, and sparse dialogue, all rolled into an ambitious narrative that strips away most of the sheen off of the myth of the Western West that John Ford, Howard Hawks and Budd Boetticher created for his enjoyment as a little boy watching these classics in Italy. In Once Upon a Time in the West, we see the influences and the presence of iconic Westerns like The Searchers, High Noon and Shane. The movie is visually attractive, whether open spaces, or wrinkled faces are within the frames. Throughout, Leone oscillates between romanticizing and indicting the West that gave rise to the Western myth. There is no one overarching plot that animates the movie. There are sub-plots that move in one direction but in varying speeds, like many tributaries on a rendezvous with a great river.
This is the cruel epic story of capitalism conquering the West; its face is that of Mr. Morton, the dying robber baron, played by Gabriele Ferzetti who dispatches from his special luxurious train ruthless killers like Frank, played brilliantly by Henry Fonda to crush all those standing in the way of progress. (The slow, agonizing death of Mr. Morton before seeing and hearing the waves of the Pacific, is one of most poignant and expressive moments in the movie. The scene is made unforgettable by Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing and truly haunting music).
This is also the tale of the stoic, resolute Jill McBain the former New Orleans prostitute who moved west to marry a widower, only to find out that he and his three children have been killed by Frank and his cutthroats working on behest of Mr. Morton. Cardinale gives the performance of her life, as the lone female in a universe of violent men struggling against and with three such men; Frank who has designs on her and the farm she inherited, Cheyenne, the local gang leader played playfully by Jason Robards who covets the painfully beautiful Cardinale, and “Harmonica” or the enigmatic, laconic Man With No Name, who came from nowhere for a brief visit, and specific purpose, on his way to the other side of nowhere.
The final duel between “Harmonica” and Frank is an eternity of almost nine minutes of silent choreography. In it we see Leone’s genius in combining close-ups, movements, silence, flashback, and otherworldly music to narrate The Man With No Name’s quest to avenge the death of his brother. Some saw Once Upon a Time in The West as Leone’s magnificent requiem for the American Western, complete with the requisite and equally magnificent musical score. There is a kernel of truth in that assessment. But almost fifty years after the movie was released it still resonates as a celebration of the grandeur and the mythology of the American Western.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s masterful cinematic achievement is an “end of an era” movie. As Freddie Sykes, the oldest member and the sole survivor of the bunch, played by the gifted Edmond O’Brien says towards the end of the movie, “it ain't like it used to be”. The Wild Bunch is the story of hardened killers unable or more accurately unwilling to adjust to changing times, to the shrinking frontiers, the automobiles and the modernity that is negating their way of life and the code of solidarity that binds them. These are the last of the outsiders, the irredeemables, the outcasts, and the dying breed on their way to oblivion. They have been making a living by robbing banks and trains, living by the gun, and probably knew that they will die by the gun. These men are not like the outlaws of yesteryears, and if any humanity is still left in the recesses of their hearts, it shows fleetingly, around camp fire, with sad prostitutes, and most importantly in acts of solidarity with each other’s. Pike Bishop the leader of the bunch, played wearily by an old but still handsome William Holden angrily reminds the bunch of the code that binds them, “when you side with a man you stay with him and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You’re finished. We're finished. All of us”. Peckinpah, could not have improved on his cast. In addition to Holden and O’Brian, he brought reliable actors he worked with before, like Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jaimie Sanchez. These men are old, and battered; their eyes are weary and their faces are wrinkled by many years of toil and heavy living.
The time is 1913, and the bunch is being pursuit by Deke Thornton, a former member of the bunch who was betrayed years ago by Pike, played marvelously by Robert Ryan who is on parole and hired by a nasty railroad mogul, is about to rob their last bank in Texas, before disappearing in Mexico. The movie begins and ends with incredibly choreographed scenes of nihilistic violence, that shocked many in 1969, a baffling reaction, given the violence on American streets in the late 1960’s, and the horrors of the Vietnam war being visited daily on Americans in their living rooms by television.
In the first scenes, the bunch rides into town disguised as soldiers. They pass a group of children giggling while watching scorpions being eaten by savage red ants. The bunch will soon experience their own savage encounter. On their way out of the bank they are ambushed by Thornton’s hired savages. What follows is an orgy of violence unprecedented in Western movies where everything that moves was targeted. Peckinpah used many cameras, running them at different speeds to slow motion. The shooting and the editing of these scenes were artistically masterful, earning them the infamous label “the blood ballet”. The last scene involves a suicidal attempt at rescuing Angel, played by Jaimie Sanchez from the vile Mexican General Mapache. The sequences of scenes begin with the Bunch in a bordello, when Pike suddenly, looks at the brothers Gorch Played by Ben Johnson and Warren Oates and says calmly “let’s go”, after a pause the sweating Oates answers “why not”. When they are joined by Dutch played by Ernest Borgnine , they start the famous “long walk” scene. The four heavily armed men walking into the heart of a rebel encampment were dead men walking. They perished in their final nihilistic blood ballet. These lost men walked together, and died together and they knew that they were expendable.
Unforgiven is undoubtedly Clint Eastwood’s most profound work as an actor-director. The man who became famous in his youth after playing the role of an irredeemable bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, has finally produced a Western inhabited mostly by anti-heroes. At its heart Unforgiven is a heavy meditation on the futility and meaninglessness of violence. The Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett struggling with pangs of guilt following his first killing, tells the retired bounty hunter William Munny, played darkly by Clint Eastwood about the finality of death:” It don’t seem real. How he ain’t gonna breath again, ever”. Munny, a hardened killer himself answers “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man”.
In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in the late 1880’s a prostitute named Dlilah mocks the manhood of one of her clients, who retaliates by running a razor across her face. When the Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, played terrifically by Gene Hackman allows the offender to leave the prostitutes offer a bounty of $1000 to anybody willing to kill the culprit. Soon, the bounty hunters are on their way to Big Whiskey. Chief among them is the widower Munny who needs the money to support his two children living with him on a decrepit failing hog farm. Munny, has been struggling to forget his bloody past, after renouncing violence. Munny, reluctantly accepts to ride with the Schofield Kid, and later he is joined by his old friend Ned Logan played by Morgan Freeman. Also on a train to Big Whiskey to collect the reward is the flamboyant English Bob, played admirably by Richard Harris, along with his “biographer” W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubineck, Little Bill Daggett gives English Bob the reception of his life when he beats him to a pulp, then he savagely beats Munny. When Little Bill, kills Ned Logan, and “decorate” the saloon with Ned’s body in an open coffin, William Munny’s pacifist pretenses disappear, before embarking on a quest of unrestrained righteous revenge.
Unforgiven, which won Mr. Eastwood two Oscars for best director and best picture, was generally seen as a revisionist Western, and the movie partially succeeds in demystifying the old West, and the flawed myths of most Westerns produced in the heyday of the genre. But William Munny’s savage revenge in the last scenes at the saloon, killing little Bill and others after darkly warning them that he had killed women and children and “everything that walks or crawls at one time or another” puts Unforgiven firmly in the tradition of the classic Western, that Eastwood was supposed to demystify. Could it be that the classic Westerns were correct when they did not give us one-dimensional characters?
Still, Unforgiven, is a splendidly dark Western, directed and acted by one of the truly masters of the genre. It is beautifully shot and edited, and enhanced by a very good script and a wonderful cast.
Unless you consider the last three movies reviewed here “revisionist”, and I don’t, I limited my selection to classic Westerns produced between 1939 and 1969, with the exception of Unforgiven. In reviewing these movies that I associate with my youth in Lebanon, I wanted this article to be an appreciation of this quintessentially American art form, and an ode to its enduring legacy.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem