I am male. I love films, ergo I love Westerns…cowboy pictures. Hey, a man’s gotta do what…you get me. It was not particularly the cinema that satisfied this impressionable adolescent’s passion for horse operas. Too many stars were past their best-by date in the 1960s. James Stewart in a toupee was, at best, unconvincing. John Wayne, be-wigged, wearing a corset & ultra-reactionary, was part of an old guard that the world had passed by, left blinking & chewing dust from the slipstream. It was on TV that we saw “High Noon”, “Shane” & others from the Occidental canon. It may have been a miniature, monochromatic screen but when John Ford pointed a camera at some Mojave Desert scenery, war-painted Apache braves on the ridge, we knew that we were getting epic, iconic America.
Those mature actors like Stewart, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster & others had made some memorable Westerns. The studio system, which kept such a tight rein on production, fractured, creating opportunities & greater independence for stars to select writers & directors. By the end of the 1960s this formula had become moribund. While there were still some estimable American westerns around it was a European director who brought it all back home on the range.
Italian director Sergio Leone, born in 1929, did not speak American, had never visited that country. What he knew about the West he had learned at the cinema. His “Man With No-Name” trilogy was, incredibly, complete by 1966. Filmed in Spain, dismissively tagged as “Spaghetti Westerns”, starring a former TV actor, the films took some time to head West. Leone’s movies were gritty, violent, morally ambiguous, stylish & funny. As cool as Quentin, without Sergio telling us just how cool. By the time he made “Il buono (the Good), il brutto (the Bad), il cattivo (you know it).” he had established a style, a star & was going for it. The first 2 of the trilogy are better than good but they don’t have Eli Wallach in them. “The Good…” is a masterpiece.
Leone did come to Hollywood to make his films. “Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968), a wonderful impressionist epic which confused Paramount purely by casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy…well, another time. The maestro returned for the awkwardly titled “Duck, You Sucker” (1971) his 5th consecutive Western. It’s another cracker but while Tinseltown welcomes the revitalization of tired convention it was flummoxed by the director’s hallucinatory flashbacks, by the imaginative accents of Rod Steiger & James Coburn. There was not even a consensus on what to call the thing. “D.Y.S”, “A Fistful Of Dynamite”, “Once Upon A Time In The Revolution”…all the same film. There’s much to praise about the film but what we have here is the soundtrack because…well, click on the clip, it’s beautiful.
Composer Ennio Morricone, a schoolmate of Sergio, was a player in Italian music (I missed “Go Kart Twist”) before beginning a 20 year long partnership with the director. His creative use of effects/samples reflected & punctuated the films perfectly. As Leone’s ambition (& budget) increased it was matched by Morricone’s talent. He became a prolific, much decorated composer of film music. This, the theme from “Giu la Testa” (another title !), is an astonishing thing. If Morricone was ever better then I look forward to hearing that.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, another cinema maverick was enjoying the largesse of a major studio. In 197o Robert Altman directed “MASH”, a black comedy about war paraded as “what the new freedom of the screen is all about !”. A year later the box office money was still coming in by the truckload & Altman released his western “McCabe & Mrs Miller”. There are few heroics in this film, no sweeping vistas of Monument Valley, no-one heads anyone off at the pass. Set in the damp, dreary Pacific Northwest (hi there Dave) “McCabe &…” is a haunting, mournful, magical glimpse of How The West Was Bought. The mining camp, where life is muddy & cheap, attracts disparate, desperate folk with their own takes on the pursuit of life, liberty & whatever. “Revisionist Western” ? You what ! This is an anti-Western.
The opening music & credits gave up a whole lot about the film but there’s a lot to give & more to come. Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” is an obvious inspiration for the mood & the pace of the following two hours or so. The 3 Cohen songs used were not written for the film but they would not be bettered by a taciturn, log cabin troubadour from 190-something. Altman’s direction, the murky cinematography of Vilmos Zgismond, Lenny’s music…triple whammy.
McCabe (Warren Beatty) may be a fool but he’s our fool. It does not end well for him & it bothers you. Julie Christie, a tart without a heart of gold, steals the movie. The whole story may have been one of Constance’s opiated reveries. If it was then that’s OK, so it goes. Better judges than myself consider “McCabe & Mrs Miller” to be a perfect film. I know that men love a list & recently, on a social media site, I was diverted up a tiresome “my Top 10 is better than yours” cul-de-sac. All I will say is that if this film is not included in your favoured Westerns then just stay the fuck away from me.
Peter Fonda, a Hollywood prince, blew things wide open with “Easy Rider” (1969). He had made a couple of films with the exploitation don, Roger Corman before , with Dennis Hopper, he invented the youth market. Universal, spotting a bandwagon, hired young directors including Milos Forman, George Lucas & the 2 Easy Riders to make some low budget films. Dennis took the money, a load of drugs & his friends to Peru to make “The Last Movie”, a film which so confused & disturbed the studio that he did not get to direct again for almost 10 years. Peter made a cowboy movie. His father, Henry, had starred in Westerns by John Ford, Fritz Lang & Anthony Mann. Even Captain America would have to respect such an established tradition.
“The Hired Hand” (1971) was dismissed as a “hippie Western”, the old guard were not ready to hand it over just yet. It is an elementary movie, a 3-hander about love, friendship, a man’s gotta do what…There is a lovely slow burn about the story-telling. Peter Fonda may lack the ponderance of the likes of Gary Cooper or Glenn Ford but it was time to challenge that stereotype anyway. He was helped by some talented people . Verna Bloom & the great Warren Oates did their acting thing while cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond, straight off of “McCabe &…” infused the film with an impressionist beauty which precedes landmarks like “Days Of Heaven” (1978). The memorable , chimerical soundtrack is by guitarist Bruce Langhorne, part of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort. An existential Western ? I’m not going there but “The Hired Hand” is a rewarding, thoughtful film.
I don’t think that 3 films all from the same year makes for a renaissance of the Western. Post-Leone the genre had a new energy & potential & young directors were eager to reinterpret the stories they had grown up with. There were some fine Westerns made around this time. Hey, as long as the saloon had those wonderful swinging louvred doors, the good guy knocks a gun out of someone’s hand with just one shot &, every so often, rides off into the sunset then I’m a happy man.