I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes a Good Western?


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

While its popularity has waned in recent years — replaced first by the musclebound action schlock of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and now by films based on comic book properties — the Western has long served as one of America’s great myths.  Its touchstones are attractive in that uniquely American way: loners, the open air, disregard for authority, sympathy for the underdog, opportunity for wealth redistribution, and violence’s ability to solve problems; watching a Western speaks to our visceral side rather than our need to intellectually analyze.  Its reliance on archetypes instead of well-rounded characters has given us some of our most recognizable and revered film heroes; these generalizations lead us to believe anyone can be the hero rather than shutting us out with a specific, singularly flawed protagonist.  But what elements combine to make a good Western?  What about a great one?  Is it an anti-authoritarian story paired with one of those shallow, archetypal men?  Is it something more?  It was with these questions in mind that caused me to watch three Westerns in recent days.  Two of them, The Searchers and Red River, are lauded classics.  To more fully understand and appreciate what makes those great, though, I watched a comic miscalculation of casting, story, and timing, Texas Rangers.

For the sake of my viewing chronology, I’ll start with The Searchers, John Ford’s classic end of an era film.  Ford’s most frequent protagonist, John Wayne, plays a deeper, more nuanced character than usual, but he remains an archetype: the reluctant hero.  What’s most interesting about this role, though, is Ford keeps the “hero” part in question until the very end.  Throughout the film, which spans several years, Ford leaves the audience wondering whether Wayne’s Ethan Edwards will choose the moral high ground or succumb to his demons.

While those demons — Ethan’s racist, war-scarred psyche — would normally be difficult to overlook from a modern viewpoint, his opinions are not unfounded.  These views have been shaped over years of experience.  Ethan may not appreciate the socio-political things that led to the violence, but he’s been witness to the antagonistic Comanches’ atrocities against white people, including his only family at the movie’s outset.  Wayne does his best work in this.  When he’s angry, which is a large portion of the time, you feel it; there is little of his usual hands-at-his-sides, cue-card-reading rigidity.  His moments of levity and acceptance, such as when he intends to bequeath his entire will to Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), feel natural and earned, given all the time they’ve spent searching for Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adoptive sister, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who had been kidnapped by the Comanches years earlier after they slaughtered her family.

If Ford had left the story at that, The Searchers would be a perfect film; as it stands, it’s near perfect, so the drop-off is not extremely disappointing, but it exists.  The problems lie in the subplot involving Martin’s lifelong romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and on-again, off-again betrothal.  Their light romantic comedy throws an unwelcome wrench in the overall tone, and its attempt to add comic relief takes far too much time away from the riveting search for Debbie.  Likely the studio didn’t want such a bleak film and Ford was left with no choice but to toss less intriguing elements into the pot.

That said, The Searchers‘ problems are nothing compared to its heights.  Ford’s ability to frame a shot reaches its apex in this.  His outdoor vistas, combined with Technicolor’s heightened reality heyday, are worthy of awe.  His pacing and action scenes are impressive for any time, but especially 1956.  His ability to guide the stiff Wayne through a subtlely shifting performance is magnificent.  Its uncompromising look at brutality — Wayne shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche so he cannot reach the underworld of his faith, his planning to kill his niece for taking up with the Indians, etc. — paints a picture of social unrest far more intriguing than a Robin Hood tale of protecting the little guy.  But most of all, the film’s greatness is on display whenever Ford can capture Wayne in his element: under an open sky, single-mindedly chasing his goal.

By 2001, the greatness exhibited by Westerns like The Searchers had all but dried up.  It was no longer a popular genre, but instead a collection of half-remembered stereotypes about white and black hats and “circling the wagons.”  Steve Miner, veteran television director, took those stereotypes, tacked on some ’90s teen heartthrobs and white guilt, and made Texas Rangers, a movie memorable only for its laughable overreaching.

There is nothing inherently “cinematic” about Texas Rangers beyond its aspect ratio.  Of its stars, only Rachael Leigh Cook had a reputation as a movie actress.  Everyone else was either the star of a hit teen-skewing TV show (James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek and Ashton Kutcher on That ’70s Show), veteran character actors who hadn’t had much success in then-recent years (Alfred Molina and Tom Skerritt), an “elder statesman” TV star (Dylan McDermott of The Practice), or a non-actor altogether (Usher).  Everything about it reinforces the old — especially now in our post-Sopranos TV golden age — ideas about TV being inferior to film.  Everything is over obvious and overwrought.  Kutcher is Michael Kelso in a cowboy hat; yelling through a goofy grin is his entire range.  Westerns don’t require terrific acting — the best-known actors to don a hat are Wayne and Clint Eastwood, neither of whose “technique” (unrelenting stoicism) would be taught in most acting classes — but being able to hit the simplest of marks would be nice.  Kutcher doesn’t seem to understand that Texas Rangers is nominally a drama.  Van Der Beek fairs slightly better, inasmuch as he can at least look sad when his family is murdered by Molina’s mustache-twirling villain.

The quality of the filmmaking is hardly any better.  The sets and costume design don’t look dirty or lived in like the should for Western towns exposed to the elements, and the cheap lenses and film stock used make everything look an unbearably long episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  In one hilarious chase scene, which is supposed to take place at night, what I can only assume to be a lack of funds caused Miner to shoot it on an overcast day and utilize an optical effect that looks like he clicked the spray can in Microsoft Paint to draw black around the racing wagons.

Predictably, the storytelling is equally bad.  Particularly egregious is the subplot featuring Usher trying to earn the respect of his fellow Rangers by proving that black people are humans, too.  It is so heavy-handed that the message, which is obviously a good thing, becomes worse than preachy and instead shines a spotlight on an inexperienced actor out of his element, which, when combined with the equality story line, negates the message.  It shows Usher — a career musician who should stay in that realm where he has real talent — is not up to par with even these second-rate players, which places a bad light on serious black actors and makes them look less qualified than white actors.

While categorically bad, a movie like Texas Rangers highlights what it is about its genre that resonates.  It does this by taking elements that typically work and showing what happens when not done properly.  It features familiar elements: the aging gunman on his way out; the young sidekick eager to take on a larger role; a larger-than-life, scenery chewer of a villain.  Instead of imbuing these characters with personality or twisting them in a new way, the people involved choose to give a warmed-over, “Remember when X happened in Westerns?”  Simply acknowledging that something exists is not a clever use of that thing; Texas Rangers never learns that lesson.  Everything is a twelfth generation VHS copy of things that had been done to perfection decades before by more talented people.

Texas Rangers‘s toxicity only helped emphasize the greatness of Howard Hawks’s 1948 exemplary Western, Red River, starring Wayne and Montgomery Clift in a surrogate father-son relationship.  Much like The Searchers, this opens with an act of aggression from Comanches toward one of Wayne’s loved ones, as they burn every wagon on a train Wayne had moments before left to strike out on his own as a cattle rancher in Texas.  Wayne gets cheap revenge in a wonderful sequence in a river where he stabs a Comanche beneath the water; there’s a hint of extreme violence without explicitly depicting the grisly nature of murder.  This moment sets Wayne on a dark path that turns him into a revenge-seeking monster.

Again, Wayne’s shortcomings as an actor aren’t particularly bothersome, but they do exist.  Early in the film, he can barely be bothered to recite his lines; he is listless, seemingly bored with the material.  Probably unsurprisingly, once his character grows villainous, he engages.  He cares, and the film picks up steam until its thrilling climax.  The film’s midstream change of focus from Wayne’s tenuous, violent grasp on leadership to Clift’s taking the reigns is an act of structural genius; as a commercially minded film, Red River needs the audience to relate to its protagonist, and as Wayne grows less human, Clift replaces him.  It is Clift who takes the archetypal role here: that of the aforementioned young man looking for more responsibility.  But instead of doing what Texas Rangers would do decades later, Red River provides an interesting — and, for 1948, entirely subversive — take on the character, with several scenes brimming with homosexual flirtation and phallic gunplay.  When the film introduces Joanne Dru’s Tess halfway through as a love interest for Clift, it feels tacked on, and you don’t buy the romance as fully as you do the flirtation he has with another ranch hand earlier.  Clift himself doesn’t appear desperate to have her; he abandons her first, and when she catches up to him at the end, he says he “guess[es]” he should marry her.  Not the strongest love story, but an intelligent, engrossing one that rewards close reading.

The only time the film falters is at the very end.  This is disappointing, as it is, until that point, probably in the top three of “proper” Westerns (not counting the spaghetti variety popularized by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s), behind only the first film in this column and Fred Zinnemann’s impeccable High Noon; perhaps it still is, but it’s a step or more below those two.  But after the film spends more than an hour building Wayne as a fearsome, power-mad egoist hellbent on murdering Clift for stealing his cattle, they have a standoff that results in them…  agreeing to reform their cattle raising partnership because they love each other?  The ending is too pat, too convenient, too eager to provide a happy ending that it sucks the importance out of the tension the film had built to that point.  But still, its high points bury the low much like The Searchers would the next decade.

As shown by these films, the American Western relies on archetypes to survive.  What it does with them, though, is key.  They cannot merely exist, as in Texas Rangers.  Something must be done to reshape the meaning of those archetypes.  If they don’t fit the story you want to tell, hammer at them until they are; make them malleable.  The Searchers has as its hero a murderous racist who barely chooses the right thing — family — in the end.  Clift’s homoerotic dealings with his peers in Red River indicate a deeper sense of identity than what entertainment-seeking audiences may realize.  Both these classics infuse their storytelling with dynamism, a singular personality.  Texas Rangers is an exercise in blandness and wannabe filmmaking that does not understand the importance of a leaving a creative stamp on a genre.  In that way, the Western is like any other branch of storytelling: telling a personal tale, when done with proper technique, will reach transcendence.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s