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What Would People Think?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I Refuse to Say "Yee Haw", But.....

[Another in what will doubtlessly be an ongoing series....Ben Gives His Unsolicited Expert Advice on What Movies You Should See. I've already done silent films, and now......]

2 lone figures stand across from each other on an empty street in an Old Western town. Townspeople either hide inside their homes or watch with a mixture of fear and morbid fascination. Both men reach for their pistols. In a flash, one man is dead and one is left standing.

Ah, the Western! This iconic moment has been played so many times it's seeped into the popular consciousness. I had seen a dozen scenes like that before I had ever seen a Western (i.e. from commercials or cartoons riffing on the theme).

Westerns are a particularly American genre, Sergio Leone's "spaghetti Westerns" notwithstanding. Made long after the last frontier town became a tourist attraction, Westerns capture something in the American imagination: a sense of simpler times, when people lived on the edge but the hardship brought out the true virtues (and vices) of people. Surrounded by a starkly beautiful American landscape and dangerous Indians and outlaws, Western characters constantly re-enacted the process of creating civilization where none existed before.

Only later did people come to realize the dark side of the Old West....and that's when the movies really got good. That's when people came to realize the "civilization" that was formed came at the expense of genocide of Native Americans. Latter-day Westerns built upon this realization, and the subsequent ambivalence it creates about the characters (even in situations not involving Native-Americans....just White-on-White violence) to create some of the greatest Westerns of all time. These are films that stick in your head long after the closing credits. John Wayne did tons of movies like Stagecoach, wherein he defends the inhabitants of a stagecoach from marauding Indians and then, for good measure, shoots 3 outlaws in one of those iconic street fights I mentioned. He could do those roles sleepwalking. But I will forever remember Wayne for his fascinating portrayal of the brave, fanatically determined, and disgustingly racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

Today, the genre is pretty much dead, although a few good ones crop up every now and then...and a few horrible ones (Wild Wild West comes to mind....not even providing a link to that.) That's too bad....it was just getting good near the end.

The Westerns that you must see for the sake of your cultural knowledge.....and more importantly your enjoyment....are:

The Searchers (link above)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Open Range (2003...a recent one)
Unforgiven
The Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

honorable mention goes to Deadwood, an HBO TV series that tops all of the above for violence and profanity (whether or not that's a good thing)....and matches them for compelling vision. Deadwood is what sent me off on this rant in the first place.

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