By Joseph Maddrey

McFarland & Co. 198 pages.  £28.50. ISBN 978-1-4766-6551-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I grew up watching westerns at local cinemas in the late-1940s and early-1950s. They were always my favourite genre (not a word I would have known in those days), and I still derive a great deal of enjoyment from them whenever they crop up on television. As Joseph Maddrey explains in his book, they changed with the times and often reflected what was happening in the wider society. I have to admit that, on the whole, I’ve always preferred the older films from the 1940s and 1950s (Red River, The Searchers, and many others) while accepting that there have been more than a few good westerns from later than those years.

It may be that, seeing westerns from a distance, in effect, made me view them in a different way than someone in a town or city in the United States. But that might raise the interesting question of why a youngster from a northern industrial town in Britain identified with the heroes (John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrae, and more) of western films and copied them in boyhood games. I regularly died with Errol Flynn and Custer on the Little Big Horn, or shot it out with Henry Fonda and Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral.

One or two of the early stars of westerns could claim some connection to the old days and characters they were portraying. William S. Hart and Tom Mix spring to mind. But later actors, such as Gary Cooper and John Wayne had to create types we would come to think of as representing westerners and their values. Cooper soon established a presence in films like The Plainsman, but for Wayne it was a much longer process and took him through years of second-rate roles. I doubt that he ever wanted to recall being “Singing Sandy” in Riders of Destiny with any sort of affection. Even after he’d given a notable performance in John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach, it would be a few more years before he became the leading star of Hollywood westerns.

It’s Maddrey’s contention that the major westerns of the late-1930s (Union Pacific, Dodge City, Jesse James) often had something “vaguely political” about them. It was, perhaps, not surprising, bearing in mind the economic and political circumstances of the period. It always struck me that the portrayal of the banker in Stagecoach stemmed from the general distrust of his kind in a time of failing banks, a distrust that is justified when he turn out to be running away with the resources from his bank. But perhaps distrust of bankers is a perennial problem? The banker in a much later film, Hombre, is also up to the same trick. But it does seem that banks and big business, as represented by the railroads, were viewed with deep suspicion. Jesse James is shown as bring pushed into outlawry because of the activities of “greedy railroad agents”.

It was true, of course, that the films romanticised someone like Jesse James. It’s doubtful that the actions of railroad agents were the reason for his decision to go into a life of robbing trains and banks. While there may have been some truth in the suggestion that the situation in the Southern States in the post-Civil War period caused economic distress for many people, it’s more than likely that James and his gang would have turned to crime, anyway.

Likewise, the portrayal of Billy the Kid in the 1941 film of that name tends towards softening our ideas about him, even if, like James, he has to die in the end. The rewriting of real life has its limits. And at the time when I saw the films I sympathised with both Jesse James and Billy the Kid. It was only many years later, when I watched a film called Dirty Little Billy that I saw an actor (Michael J. Pollard) portray someone like Billy the Kid as he probably was, a psychopath whose only achievement was killing people. But I don’t think Dirty Little Billy was in any way a popular film.

I suppose it’s only fair to accept that Hollywood didn’t claim to be offering history lessons, though it may be that, over the years, the views provided by films did help to shape people’s perceptions of characters and events. As someone says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. When Errol Flynn portrayed George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 we saw a gallant officer, not unsympathetic towards Indians, who died due to the machinations of greedy businessmen and politicians. Arguments about Custer’s motives and tactics that led to him and the men under his command being killed are still thrown around in articles and books, and though Custer’s name isn’t used, and the Indians are Apaches rather than Sioux, John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) is clearly based on the idea of an impetuous and arrogant officer, anxious for glory, leading his men into an action that is sure to be a disaster. The film has the added interest of an ending that suggests how the myth soon begins to take precedence over the reality of what happened.

The main attraction of many westerns was, of course, that they provided essentially simple stories about rugged individuals who faced up to corrupt lawmen, bullying ranchers, crooked businessmen, hired killers, and other sorts of frontier scoundrels. They were never in short supply as western regulars like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrae rode into town and began to sort them out. The “heroes” sometimes had a chequered past, as in the character played by James Stewart in Bend of the River, but redeemed themselves through their actions on behalf of the good people of the town. I doubt that the screenwriters of the dozens of minor westerns produced during the hey-day of the studio system extended much imagination on their scripts. I’m reminded of Scott Fitzgerald’s hack writer, Pat Hobby, and his store of stock phrases and situations.

The idea of the flawed hero began to assert itself in the post-1945 period as westerns took a psychological turn. Maddrey has an interesting discussion about the 1947 film, Pursued, and contrasts its star, Robert Mitchum, to Gary Cooper and John Wayne. According to Maddrey, the director of the film, Raoul Walsh, was confused by the psychological drift of the script written by Niven Busch. And he was also at odds with Mitchum’s character: “Whereas Cooper was simple and straightforward, Mitchum was cynical and suspect. Whereas Wayne was outspoken and dogmatic, Mitchum was cool and seemingly indifferent. He was a new type of hero for the postwar era”.

Another western, Blood on the Moon, which starred Mitchum, also emphasised the “new type of hero”.  It might be worth noting that Niven Busch’s novel, Duel in the Sun, provided the basis for the film of that name, and in the character played by Gregory Peck came up with another flawed hero, if he can be called that. Maddrey refers to him as “snivelling”. Perhaps he is, but I’d guess that audiences found him more interesting than his respectable brother, as played by Joseph Cotton. 

The clash between brothers is at the centre of what many people see as one of the classic westerns, Winchester ’73, of which the director, Anthony Mann, said, “I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the western, and that it summarises them”. James Stewart starred in the film, and in several others directed by Mann, and according to Maddrey, “At the centre of every Mann western is a lone individual struggling against challenges of man and nature with overwhelming determination”.

He also suggests that Mann “helped to redefine the western hero by redefining the persona of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars”. James Stewart had been aware that he was, in a way, becoming stereotyped into roles which involved him being an amiable, sometimes bumbling figure who might win out in the end because of his sincerity and goodness. He wanted to try something different and asked to be in a western. Certainly, the kind of characters he played in Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River are a long way from being bumbling and can act with savage decisiveness when the occasion demands it. Bend of the River is especially noteworthy for the determined way in which he faces up to a whole group of badmen who have crossed him, and kills a one-time old friend in the process.

Earlier westerns, especially those of the B Movie type, had made little reference to being influenced by what was happening in the wider contemporary society. They were meant to offer entertainment that wasn’t likely to ask too much of audiences. But more-ambitious westerns increasingly took on the role of representing large questions that were being asked. It can be legitimate to wonder if audiences generally realised this, or did they just continue to look on westerns as pure entertainment?

You can, if you wish, watch High Noon and see it as a fairly straightforward tale of a sheriff who, when faced with a gang of desperados coming to town to kill him, has to handle the situation alone. The good townspeople suddenly find that they have other commitments. It seems a fairly straightforward story and well within the classic western framework. But Carl Foreman, who wrote the screenplay, always insisted that he meant it as a kind of parallel to the way the Hollywood community had crumbled in the face of HUAC, and had failed to support blacklisted writers and others.

The western continued to revive itself with fresh angles on old themes. Indians were shown in a more-benevolent light. Broken Arrow was said to be a plea for racial tolerance. Films like Blazing Saddles, and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill satirised the West. The Italians got in on the act and “spaghetti westerns,” as they were known, were in vogue for some years. They were frequently violent to a degree that hadn’t been seen before, and their avenging heroes killed as easily as they mounted their horses. Pity wasn’t much in evidence in these films. They mostly faded from sight after a few years, but some of their tricks had filtered through to Hollywood.

Older directors were frequently dismissive of the kind of westerns filmed in Spain, but younger ones had watched them with interest. The sort of gunplay that occurs in the remake of 3.10 to Yuma simply wouldn’t have been seen in the earlier version. But younger audiences, which is what filmmakers were presumably aiming at, had been raised on “spaghetti westerns,” computer games, and other factors that heightened their expectations of what entertainment should be. A film like Open Range was a welcome return to what might be called traditional western values, but I don’t think it attracted big audiences.

Maddrey raises a lot of interesting questions relating to how westerns have changed over the years, and I’ve only been able to refer to a few of them. Why was it that a very good film about The Alamo(2004), which provided a much more accurate account of what happened, failed to be popular success in a way that John Wayne’s version had been in 1960? Maddrey doesn’t really provide an answer, but sums it up in this way: “In contrast to John Wayne’s shamelessly jingoistic, The Alamo, which played fast and loose with historical facts, the new version was slavishly faithful to new scholarship about the people who fought and died in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Director John Lee Hancock, who inherited the film from producer Ron Howard, tried to balance factual truth with the `emotional truth’ of the legend, but the film ultimately failed to inspire moviegoers the way its namesake inspired American pioneers”.

That doesn’t tell us why the 2004 audiences reacted differently to the one that watched the Wayne version. Was it because of a change in values? The kind of unquestioning patriotism that Wayne could draw on in 1960 probably didn’t exist in 2004. Or was it just that audiences like their western films to be simple and straightforward, even if they are inaccurate? I’d suggest that, in 1960, Wayne could rely on audiences that had been raised on the films of the 1940s and 1950s, and mostly bland TV westerns, whereas by 2004 cinemas were catering for different viewers. And a lot had happened in American society in the forty or so years that separated the two films.

The Quick, The Dead and the Revived can be provocative at times, despite some occasionally careless commentary (Maddrey doesn’t appear to have paid too much attention to the plot of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, and nowhere in that film does John Wayne “refuse to lead his men into another Little Big Horn-type battle”.) and minor errors. On page 45 a photo of John Wayne in cavalry uniform has him “with Shirley Temple in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” but she wasn’t in that film, and the female in the photograph is surely Joanne Dru, who was. Temple was in another John Ford/John Wayne cavalry saga, Fort Apache.

The book has a fairly extensive bibliography, and a useful guide to the locations where various westerns were filmed.