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The title of this piece comes from a quote attributed to newspaper editor Horace Greeley, with it being a popular expression of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. The myths, majesty, perils and hypocrisy of not-so civilized people taming a "savage" land in the name of civilization is at the core of most Westerns.

The Western genre of film is an interesting one, and more complex than it might seem on its "Cowboys versus Indians" surface. The era it mythologizes—usually post-Civil War to the start of the 20th century—is a turning point in American history. There's expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea, removal of indigenous peoples and the resistance of Native Americans in various Indian Wars. There's also migration, settlement and exploitation of this frontier, with new towns dealing with the problems that occur when you're out in the middle of nowhere, and transcontinental railroads that cemented the expansion of settlers and ultimately did away with the frontier.

The American Film Institute (AFI) defines the Western as "a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier." It's also a genre with many sub-genres, and also shares a lot of tropes with other distinct genres. Most modern crime dramas and action films borrow from Westerns, as do a lot of science-fiction works that deal with "The Final Frontier." (e.g. Star Trek was originally sold to NBC as "a wagon-train to the stars")

So I thought for this week's post I would ask: Which Westerns really stand out? Which Westerns are the best at exemplifying the themes of the genre? Jump below the fold for discussion.

Most Westerns are predicated on the idea the late-19th century American West was a dangerous place full of bandits like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Doc Holiday and others who were ready to shoot at the drop of a hat. However, the truth is bit more muddled. By and large, the myth of gunfighters and violence is exaggerated. For example, according to some studies, cattle towns like Dodge City, Kansas, only averaged 1.5 homicides per year at their peak, which means there weren't many people dueling in the streets at high noon. However, since the size of those towns were relatively small in population, the murder rate on a per capita basis might be much higher than the figures for a major city today.

And I do have to wonder how precise the record keeping of the time was. If someone killed somebody that cheated at cards, might that be justifiable homicide by a town sheriff's understanding of 19th century Arizona Territory law? I'm also guessing not everyone was killed within town boundaries for someone to take note.

The central theme in almost any Western is civilization. It's either the idea of the Western hero that's attempting to uphold the ideals of law and order, or it could be a romanticizing of unclaimed wilderness, before industry knocked down trees and built dams in the name of roads and shopping centers. Most Westerns have often used story features and character archetypes that are common to fantasy, science-fiction, crime drama and other genres.

  • The Knight Lawman/Cowboy who is duty-bound to offer protection to the Princess town hottie and her family, or defend the Castle fort/town from all that would threaten it.
  • The anti-hero drifter, who is an unequaled gunfighter, who's drawn into the goings-on of the town. He decides to help defend the townspeople against the bandits, or manipulates events to his advantage.
  • A ragtag group of misfits join together for a job. A group of anti-heroes attempting to pull off a mission and escape.
  • A person who's been wronged, and can find no justice, sets off on a journey of vengeance.

Here are some examples:

► The Searchers

"Our turnin' back don't mean nothin', not in the long run. She's alive, she's safe for a while. They'll keep her and raise her as one of their own til, until she's of an age to ... Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as a turnin' of the earth."
The Searchers is a 1956 Western film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Monument Valley, Utah. It's listed as AFI's pick for the best American Western of all time. The Searchers is also a film that is pretty damn dark for a movie made in 1956. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is one of the most compelling and complex characters in almost any film. The "search" referenced in the title is not a search to save someone, but an obsessive search to kill a family member that's been "tainted" by a culture Edwards hates to the depths of what's left of his soul.

This is also one of the first Westerns to look at racism and genocide against Native Americans. The old school Westerns depicted a black-and-white morality: good lawmen fighting evil bandits and cowboys/settlers resisting the savage "injuns." The Searchers has its lead protagonist be a virulent racist, who's been twisted by an act of violence against his family to the point he takes the eyes out of the Comanche he comes across, just to deny them peace in the afterlife.

From Roger Ebert:

John Ford's ''The Searchers'' contains scenes of magnificence, and one of John Wayne's best performances. There are shots that are astonishingly beautiful. A cover story in New York magazine called it the most influential movie in American history. And yet at its center is a difficult question, because the Wayne character is racist without apology--and so, in a less outspoken way, are the other white characters. Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians ... In ''The Searchers'' I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide.
► The Dollars Trilogy

The "Dollars" Trilogy is a series of Spaghetti Western films directed by Sergio Leone.

  • A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  • For a Few Dollars More (1965)
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

They all share "The Man with No Name," with Clint Eastwood's character being a reworking of Toshirō Mifune's ronin from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. According to the A.V. Club, after the release of A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa is said to have sent Leone a note saying “It is a very fine film, but it is my film.”

The usual consensus is that of the three films, the best is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes being one of the nastiest villains of the genre. The character is a total and complete sociopath who is essentially greed and ruthlessness given human form and no redeeming qualities. Ennio Morricone's score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is almost as iconic as The Man with No Name's poncho.

► Unforgiven
"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." —William Munny
Of all the films, this is probably my favorite. It is an absolute masterpiece. The movie basically dissects every Western trope, and similar to the themes of The Outlaw Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood deconstructs his own "Man with No Name" character.

Not one of the characters in the film can be called "innocent" or "good," with the possible exception of the victim at the crux of the story. And even then, she does nothing to try and stop the wrath and destruction that surrounds her.

W.W. Beauchamp (the writer played by Saul Rubinek) is an avatar for the audience's experience with Westerns. We're originally fascinated by the idealized fiction of English Bob (Richard Harris), then become attracted to the more realistic tales of Little Bill (Gene Hackman), but would be totally unprepared to deal with the nature of William Munny (Clint Eastwood) at his worst. And the movie itself argues that even "The Man with No Name" wouldn't know how to live with that nature in the long-run either.

From Michael Sragow at The New Yorker:

Set in eighteen-eighties Kansas and Wyoming, this engrossing, moody Western is the sixteenth film Clint Eastwood has directed, and by far the best. The canny script, by David Webb Peoples, revives the old story about the retired gunfighter (Eastwood) who picks up his firearms again for the last score. But there’s no easy resolution, and the movie is stronger because of its loose ends: the filmmakers acknowledge that the bloody chaos of an outlaw’s life can’t be settled in two hours and eleven minutes ... Every bullet in this movie matters; under its leathery hide is a genuine compulsion to de-romanticize Western gunfighting.
► High Noon
"I'm not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you're crazy."
Gary Cooper stars as Marshal Will Kane, whom the trailer for the film says is "a man who was too proud to run." Because of a legal technicality, four criminals who've vowed revenge on Kane are due in town. The movie is structured in such a way that it runs almost in real time on a build-up of tension as Kane, his wife (Grace Kelly) and the town plan what to do when the four get there. After debating whether to stay or run, Kane finds himself all alone, with no one in the town willing to help him face down the bandits that are coming.

On one level, the film is centered around themes of courage and duty.

“It’s no accident that politicians see themselves as Gary Cooper in High Noon. Not just politicians, but anyone who’s forced to go against the popular will. Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor.”
President Clinton, who's cited High Noon as his favorite film
However, the film also has a separate subtext. High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman was deemed an "uncooperative witness" by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and blacklisted in Hollywood while the film was being shot. Foreman is on record as saying the film's story is an allegory for HUAC and Hollywood's response to it. Just as the townspeople in High Noon know a bad thing is coming and refuse to help Marshal Kane, many in Hollywood knew the blacklist was wrong and refused to speak out against it.

It's also interesting that Rio Bravo was made as a direct response to High Noon. Howard Hawks and John Wayne are said to have loathed High Noon. The contrast between the films is shown in Cooper's Marshal Kane asking the community to come together to stop the problem before it happens, whereas Rio Bravo plays up the individualism of Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance, who refuses assistance from those he believes would just get in the way.

Howard Hawks: "I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally his Quaker wife had to save him ... We did everything the exact opposite of what annoyed me in 'High Noon.'"
► Once Upon A Time In The West

At first, Henry Fonda was reluctant to sign on Sergio Leone's 1968 film. However, the fact he got to play against type and be the bad guy convinced him that he wanted to be part of the picture. And his bad guy, Frank, shares elements of Eastwood's "Man with No Name" and Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes. In fact, Leone is said to have envisioned Fonda's Frank as the father of the "Man with No Name."

Once Upon A Time In The West has many references and tropes from other iconic Westerns, but plays with the meanings and has them take on a darker context.

From Vincent Camby at the New York Times:

Once upon the time in Italy, there lived a little boy named Sergio Leone who, like all little boys, went to the movies quite a lot, particularly to see Hollywood Westerns. In Italy, people like John Wayne and Gary Cooper spoke Italian slang, which never quite corresponded to their lip movements. As a result, there was always something of a distance between the sound and the image of the movies that enchanted Sergio ... The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. And, because Leone films are usually shot in Italian and later dubbed into English, there is that same distance between sound and image that existed in the John Wayne movies that Leone watched in his youth. One result of this is that the Leone Western may seem even more arbitrarily violent and brutal than it really is.
► The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah's 1969 film tells the story of aging outlaws at the very end of the age of the Wild West, and how their last "big score" dead-ends in Mexico. Upon its release, similar to other Peckinpah films, The Wild Bunch was very controversial for its amount of violence. The film is about old and tired men (William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) trying to hold onto the last bit of "honor" they have in a world that's changing. Along the way, they shoot, screw and drink their way through almost everything in Mexico.

"We're gonna stick together, just like it used to be. 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!"
From Leonard Pierce at the A.V. Club:
It’s about the decline of the West, not only as a real part of American history, but as a cinematic setting. It’s about loyalty and who has a claim on it. It’s about principle and whether it should dictate one’s behavior. It’s about violence as a weapon of the poor, a tool of the rich, and an element of disruption in the lives of everyone it touches. It’s about war (both generally and specifically, as it was meant at least partially as a Vietnam allegory and still functions as an indictment of political terror), about age, and—perhaps most important to Peckinpah as a man and as a filmmaker—it’s about how people have to adapt to change, or change will brutally cut them down and leave them behind.
► The Ox-Bow Incident

One of the interesting dichotomies of the Western is the idea of heroes that are the defense against savagery, but sometimes they must do savage things to survive and defeat their enemies in the name of justice. And many times the "civilized" society is far more savage than the people its attempting to bring order to. William A. Wellman's 1943 film The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda and based upon the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark of the same name, is a scathing indictment of frontier justice.

A posse finds three men suspected of killing a rancher. Some of them want to bring the men back for a trial. Others want to hang the three men on the spot. As supposition and speculation turns suspicion into fact, an angry mob brutally lynches three innocent men.

From Bosley Crowther at the New York Times:
In a little over an hour, it exhibits most of the baser shortcomings of men—cruelty, blood-lust, ruffianism, pusillanimity and sordid pride. It shows a tragic violation of justice with little backlash to sweeten the bitter draught. And it puts a popular actor, Henry Fonda, in a very dubious light. But it also points a moral, bluntly and unremittingly, to show the horror of mob rule. And it has the virtue of uncompromising truth.
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