Revising the Wild West 100 Greatest Westerns

The primary benefit of a “best” or “greatest” list is as a conversation starter, and I take Wild West magazine’s recent 100 Greatest Westerns list as just that rather than as something definitive or objective. In the interest of continuing the conversation, I offer my own list of “Top Three Films Missing from Wild West‘s 100 Greatest Westerns,” and I invite you to submit your own lists of missing films (or lists of films that shouldn’t be there) either through the comment link at the end of the post or via email to westernlitblog@gmail.com
The Wild West top ten is listed in an earlier blog post below, or you can follow this link for the entire Wild West 100 Greatest Westerns list.

Top Three Missing Westerns

The Wild West list overemphasizes westerns produced in the 1950s and 1960s, includes too many contemporary films that may be solid but aren’t “great,” and does so at the expense of half a century of film history. The films on my list address several categories of western that are under-represented on the top 100. I wouldn’t necessarily place any of these films in a top 10 list, but certainly they deserve a place in the top 100.

1. The Bronze Buckaroo (1938): Although Wild West nods to the presence of African American cowboys in the American West and in the western film through the choice of director Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993) and of El Diablo (1990), starring Lou Gosset, Jr., the series of all-black-cast films starring Herb Jeffries (billed as Herbert Jeffrey) is historically more important and deserves a place on the list. Of the four films in the series, including Harlem on the Prairie (1938), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939), I would choose The Bronze Buckaroo for the list. Black-cast films, or race movies, were an important part of twentieth-century cinematic history, as were the segregated theaters where these films were mostly screened for African American audiences. Also, Herb Jeffries is the perfect model of the singing cowboy, a type that dominated westerns of the 1930s (and despite that dominance, singing cowboys are shorted on the 100 Greatest Westerns list). The Bronze Buckaroo includes not only the Jeffries-penned signature song of the series (“I’m a Happy Cowboy”) played in the background behind the opening titles, but there’s also a great scene in the bunkhouse where Jeffries and his band perform “Pay Day Blues” (another tune written by Jeffries), a hot number made all the hotter by an impromptu tap-dance performance by one of the bunk mates, and how often do you see a tap-dancing cowboy in a western? That scene alone earns The Bronze Buckaroo a place on the 100 Greatest Westerns list.

2. The Last of the Mohicans (1920): If singing cowboys are under-represented on the 100 Greatest Westerns list, the entire silent film era is even more undeservedly ignored. Although a few silents make their way onto the list, too many deserving films have been left off. Although director Michael Mann’s contemporary version (1992) of Cooper’s novel (starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe) is an accomplished film, the 1920 silent directed by Clarence Brown (and taken over by Maurice Tourneur who finished it) is a classic, and it makes little sense to include the contemporary film at the expense of excluding the silent film. Barbara Bedford’s portrayal of Cora Munro as a kind of 1920-style New Woman on the frontier is  at the center of the film, and her Cora is a hallmark in the on-screen representation of strong western women (unlike Madeleine Stowe’s passive Cora).

I also love Henry Woodward’s portrayal of Major Heyward, which involves what has to be one of the most effective uses of a wig in a western film. Heyward begins the film as a proper and properly bewigged British soldier, his wig carefully powdered and not a hair out of place. Then, in what I can only describe as a perfectly realized depiction of the Turnerian process of frontier transformation made visually concrete through hair styling, Heyward begins to change from a British soldier to an American-in-the-making. Strands of hair begin to come loose; more hair comes loose; his wig grows increasingly disheveled; and, finally, in the midst of a fight, his wig is completely pulled off, and the next time we see him, he is wig-less, decked out in buckskins, wearing a coonskin cap, and, as a fighter, he is hell on wheels.

3. Serenity (2005): The 100 Greatest Westerns list is not very adventurous in considering the ways that the western has changed form over the years. Films with contemporary western settings are under-represented, as are films that re-imagine the western genre in innovative ways, and, surely, any list of 100 Greatest Westerns should include at least one film (if not more) that explores the “final frontier” of space. For my choice of representative “space western,” I would pick director Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which was based on the short-lived television series Firefly. Although predominately a science fiction narrative, Serenity makes us aware throughout of that genre’s roots in the western, particularly through choice of music and costuming, and, oh yeah, choice of weapons carried by the outlaw heroes.

So, that’s my list of top 3 films left off the 100 Greatest Westerns list. I hope that others will share their own lists.

Weekly Roundup

A roundup of interesting posts from the western section of the blogosphere:

Day of Service: Giving Something Back to the Community of the Land

This post is from Colorado writer Susan J. Tweit’s new blog, “Walking Nature Home: Living a Green and Generous Life.” The post is about how she answered President Obama’s call for a day of service by doing some neighborhood beautification around a section of  trail.

John Cawelti Interview

This is an interesting interview with popular culture scholar John Cawelti at SpaceWesterns.com. Cawelti wrote one of the classic studies of the western genre, Six Gun Mystique, and he talks here about the relationship between the western and science fiction genres.

Devil’s Bargains

Stephen Trimble’s essay (with accompanying slideshow) on the paradoxes of “ownership” of the land, and his experiences becoming a property owner of “thirty acres of mesa and cliff” in Utah.

Slow as Molasses in January

From the blog of Colorado naturalist and artist Sherrie York, on her work as an illustrator.

Charlie and Will

From “Western Americana: History of the American West,” an interesting article about artist Charlie Russell and entertainer Will Rogers.

Please email any links and suggestions you might have for the Weekly Roundup to westernlitblog@gmail.com


Best of the West’s Short Story Archive

As many of you may remember, the annual anthology series, The Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, was published in five volumes from 1998-1992. The first two were published by Peregrine Smith Books (Layton, Utah) and the final three by W. W. Norton. Now, James Thomas and I are working together to re-launch the series. The University of Texas Press will publish volumes six, seven, and eight beginning in September.

I’ve been doing research for this series now for several years, which basically consists of reading every nationally distributed North American periodical that I can get my hands on. As many of the stories that deal with the West are never anthologized and might never be included in subsequent short story collections, I thought that it might be helpful for other Western literary scholars if I were to create a kind of archive by posting citations, summaries, and maybe even a few critiques of the Western stories that I come across in my research. Throughout 2009, I will therefore provide comprehensive information about every Western short story that I discover and, when time permits, I’ll also backtrack to discuss a handful of those stories that I found in 2007-2008.

If you have information about a new Western short story that is being published, please contact me directly with the publication information. I’ll then post it to the blog and also consider the story for inclusion in the next Best of the West.

Wild West Magazine’s 100 Greatest Westerns

The editors of Wild West magazine recently published a special edition of the magazine: 100 Greatest Westerns. Here are the films that made the top 10 on the list:

1. High Noon (1952)

2. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

4. Ride the High Country (1962)

5. Rio Bravo (1959)

6. Seven Men From Now (1956)

7. The Searchers (1956)

8. Shane (1953)

9. Tombstone (1993)

10. Red River (1948)

Click here to see the full list of Wild West‘s 100 Greatest Westerns.

2008 Conference (Nature Hike)

One of the highlights of the WLA conference is the Saturday afternoon activity. For the 2008 conference in Boulder, the activity was a nature hike up into the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. We went for a three mile hike that topped out at around 6000 feet at an open overlook called Woods Quarry. Up in the mountains, although it was still pleasantly warm, the fall colors were definitely more advanced than in the city proper.

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A distinctive feature of the mountains are the Flatirons, three consecutive rock formations that look (from the correct angle) like flat irons. Only one of them was open to climbing and hiking on the day of our hike.

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Of course, the wilderness is full of dangers, mountain lions, bears, and crying children with skinned knees, all of which should be avoided. But despite the threat of crying children, up the trail we went.

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Boulder is the home of the Colorado University, so, of course, someone has painted in big letters C U on the face of one the Flatirons (the third Flatiron). The U is near the right edge, and both the C and U are just above the treeline.

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Flatiron 3 was still open for climbing, and we could see a group of climbers, one making his way up just to the left of the big C, and the other two sitting on a ledge lower down waiting their turns (unfortunately, they’re too small to be seen in the photo).When we made it to Woods Quarry, we had great views looking out toward the east, and even Denver, some 50 miles away was visible. Prior visitors to the quarry had arranged and rearranged the slabs of rock on the ground into surprisingly comfortably rock benches.

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We had some light rain on the hike back down, but we still saw some pretty views of the Flatiron.

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We were soon back at the Ranger Station and headed back to the hotel. There was a Colorado / Texas football game about to get started, and the crowds were starting to sweep in toward the stadium, and we were greeted with this sign outside the hotel:

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Of course, these were not driving instructions, but a sign indicating the prohibition on parking your car or truck and setting up a grill, cooking food, and drinking beer prior to going to the game (in this context, that’s tailgating). Also, the hotel sponsored an alumni party before and after the game, and I expect they didn’t want the competition of tailgaters. From the window of my room, I had a good view of the party.

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Texas won.

Appaloosa

Several months after the film Appaloosa opened elsewhere, it finally made it to Maine, where I saw it recently as a member of an audience of 6.


I wish I could say that I liked the film, and that it didn’t deserve the fate of only having six viewers on a cold Maine Wednesday night, but I thought it failed to do what more adventurous recent westerns have done, which is to incorporate elements of traditional westerns while reinvigorating them, acknowledging its roots but moving beyond them to create something that is as much about the present moment as it is about the past.


Even a self-proclaimed “throwback” western set explicitly in the Old West (a title places us in the 1880s, but I’m not sure of the exact year) can comment on the present moment. Recent westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma have used the old west setting to comment on contemporary America, particularly the war in Iraq (e.g., Yuma’s exploration of the “stay the course” philosophy).


At the beginning of Appaloosa, I thought we might be headed in that more allegorical direction. When Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in town, they convince the town officials to sign a document basically giving the two the legal authority to create and enforce all of the town’s laws, a sort of allegorical version of Congress capitulating to the Bush administration and enacting similar blank check authority in administering the war in Iraq. The suggestion at the beginning of the film is that such a willing abandonment of checks and balances might have unforeseen consequences, that Virgil Cole’s brand of justice might produce ambivalent results, and that Appaloosa might venture into interesting territory by commenting on contemporary events.


But that doesn’t happen. And the signed documents are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie, and I really saw very little in the film thereafter that pointed to anything like contemporary relevance.


But even a throwback western can be enjoyable, and I liked much of the first half of the film, enjoying the nods to My Darling Clementine (Ed Harris’s homage to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp’s fondness for sitting with his boots propped against a porch’s roof support) and to Rio Bravo (from which much of the plot comes—wealthy bad guy held in custody while waiting for transport and / or arrival of territorial judge, while the bad guy’s henchmen outnumber and threaten the outmanned sheriff). But the film ends up feeling like a mash-up of three films, My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, and Dodge City, which is part of what makes the film seem much longer than its 2-hour running time.


After a tightly-constructed first hour, we essentially start a new movie (and it may not be any of the ones mentioned above), as Virgil’s lady love Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is kidnapped as a way to force the freedom of bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and thus we start off on a condensed version of, perhaps, The Searchers, as Virgil and Everett go off into the desert to redeem Allison.


After some chasing and some shooting, Bragg escapes, and we enter yet another plot, which, similar to Dodge City, involves a wealthy bad guy (Bragg, pardoned by the President for the murders he committed back in the first film, I mean, back in the first part of the film) who has taken over the town. All of a sudden, every building in Appaloosa is named after Bragg. There are some obscure references to his hitting it rich from a silver mine, and the city officials who fearfully hired Virgil and Everett to take care of Bragg are suddenly welcoming and sucking up to him. That this incredible transformation seems to take place within in a few days may have saved the film from being even longer than it already is, but I found the instantaneous transformation of Appaloosa into Braggtown hard to believe.


And speaking of hard to believe, much of the plot turns on the inexplicable behavior of Allison French. And the portrayal via her character of weak and untrustworthy femininity is certainly a throwback, but I’m not sure to what, as, for example, Angie Dickinson’s Feathers in Rio Bravo seems a feminist icon in comparison (as does many another strong female character in westerns of the 50s and 60s). The character motivation we have for Allison is that she responds so strongly to “alpha males” that she immediately hooks up with the leader of the pack. So weak-willed is she in the presence of masculine authority that within hours of being kidnapped, tied up, and held at gunpoint by Ring and Mackie Shelton, she is having sex with and enjoying a frolicking river bath with Ring.


There aren’t many strong western women in Appaloosa, with the possible exception of Ariadna Gil’s Katie (who doesn’t get enough screen time), who appears to be pragmatic and tough enough to survive in the town of Appaloosa.


I wouldn’t normally comment on the exigencies of a local theater’s projection system, but there seemed to be some sort of smudge on the projector’s lens, and much of the film looked like it had been shot through the plastic lens of a Kodak instamatic. I mention this, though, because for most of the film, I wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with the projection or if this effect was an intentional part of the film’s throwback aesthetic, as if they were evoking the Old cinematic West by creating a visual style that look like a faded color print from the 1960s. Early in the film, we see Virgil sitting in front of a glass window that is (realistic to the 1880s) wavy and distorting of the scene beyond, and the film was so insistent in making sure we noticed the waviness of the glass (see how authentic we are!) that I assumed that the other visual distortions were similarly intentional stylistic choices, which I think says something about the film after all.


However, I wish I’d gone to the box office and asked them to clean the lens, so that at I least I could have spent two hours enjoying a clear view of Viggo Mortensen’s stylish facial hair (and two hours watching Viggo is never wasted time, just wish he’d been in a better movie).


This review of Appaloosa was orginally posted in slightly different form at the Firefly and Western Literature blog.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly as Western

At the 2008 Western Literature Association Conference in Boulder, I participated on a discussion-oriented panel (with Neil Campbell) on the western/sci-fi television show Firefly (created by Joss Whedon). Our goal, in keeping with the orientation of the conference, was to discuss the western elements of the series. Part of the fun of Firefly is the way it explicitly explores the western roots that many sci-fi films and television series share: through the use of western character types (think Stagecoach in space), the use of multiple western visual and aural motifs (space as wide open plains, individual planets with western topographies, guns, clothing, colloquial speech), and the use of various western plot devices, train robberies, cattle rustling, etc. The post below, originally published on the Firefly and Western Literature blog, addresses few (but only a few) of the interesting issues from the panel.

Although those of us who are fans of westerns thought that Firefly‘s awareness of its western roots was one of the series’ strentghs, that was not the case with the network on which it originally aired. In fact, they were often worried about the series’ western elements and sometimes insisted that certain elements be added or changed to conceal those nods to the western.One of the first episodes to air,  “Train Job” is one of the most explicitly Western episodes in the series, as the train robbery is a staple of the Western, and the series Western in particular. The episode reminds me a lot of Alias: Smith and Jones, a tv Western from the mid-seventies that I’ve been watching on DVD. Members of the Butch Cassidy gang, “Smith” and “Jones” decide to go straight (under the aliases Smith and Jones) and earn amnesty by not committing any crimes for a year. Their former speciality is the train robbery, and several plots have them working to thwart other attempted train robberies. Anyway, the opening credits compare them to “modern day Robin Hoods,” and describe them as “good bad men” (and the character type of the “good bad man” has a long history in the western). That seems to be the character type of Firefly‘s central hero (or anti-hero), Captain Malcolm Reynolds. In this episode, he returns the goods stolen during the train robbery when he realizes what he’s stolen (much needed medicine).  Smith and Jones are notable for never having killed anybody, despite all their robbing and stealing, and the plots often involve labyrinthine ways to avoid killing the bad guy. Mal has no problem killing people who need to be killed.

If “Train Job” is explicit in using western themes and other western elements, “Bushwacked,” the next episode that follows, seems much more concerned with other genres than the western.

Although, the western elements still seem to be there, almost as a subtext, as if those potentially offensive (to the network) western tropes had to be concealed for awhile. So, instead of an episode with explicitly western elements, we get one that involves a more general meditation on civilization and savagery (a theme that the western has explored many many times).

Rather than “savage Indians” on the western frontier, we have the savage Reavers. As our representatives of civilization, we have the arrival of an Alliance ship, and of course, our Firefly crew falls somewhere in between. Even within the crew, the characters fall at different places on the line between savagery and civilization, with Jane perhaps the least civilized, and Inara (a highly respected companion) as the most civilized.

The core plot of the episode is identifiably western, though. A group of settlers traveling beyond civilization to set up a border colony is attacked, not, in this case, by Indians but by Reavers. Although the more typical western might place us among the colonists, it’s also not unusual for the main characters in a western to come upon the remnants of such an attack. Actually, that happens early on in season one of Deadwood.

This episode is our first extended introduction to the group known as the Reavers. When Jane comments, “Reavers ain’t men,” he begins a conversation among the crew about the relationship between civilization and savagery, and whether or not it’s possible to go so far into savagery as not to be able to come back. Rev. Book responds, “They are [men]. Too long removed from civilization perhaps.” Mal answers, “Jane’s right. Reavers ain’t men. They forgot how to be. They’re just nothing. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing and that’s what they became.” The debate here is not uncommon to the western and to frontier stories in general. The commentary on the Reavers also reflects the situation of the Firefly crew. How far to the edge of civilization can they go before reaching that “place of nothing”? Rev. Book, a representative of civilized values, wants to return to the derelict to pray for the slaughtered humans: “How we treat our dead is part of what makes us different from those that did the slaughtering.” Mal agrees, but also has his own agenda for doing so.

Jane responds, “I can’t believe this, we’re staying put for a funeral!” I think there may be an allusion to The Wild Bunch here. I seem to recall a debate over what to do with the body of one of the bunch killed in a robbery attempt–with a posse giving chase, the bunch, with some discussion, leaves their comrade behind (I recall an Ernest Borgnine speech in which he invests the idea of staying to bury their comrade with the same sort of disdain that Jane puts into his comment).

The episode takes a bit of a turn after Firefly detaches from the derelict ship. An Alliance ship arrives and forcibly boards Firefly. Mal comments, “Looks like civilization finally caught up with us,” and perhaps that’s why much of the remainder of the episode seems less western. With a series of interviews/interrogations of the Firefly crew members, the episode begins to seem a little like a Star Trek episode (seeming all the more so when Kaylee, sounding a bit like ST‘s Mr. Scott, gets upset by disparaging comments about her ship: “Junker?”).

However, the generic intertext for most of the rest of the episode is the horror movie, with the sole survivor of the Reaver attack, a young man rescued by the Firefly crew, transforming into a Reaver himself, so affected by the savagery of the attack that he witnessed that he becomes one of the savages–a bit like a vampire or werewolf, but with the transformation explained psychologically rather than mystically. Although there’s often an anxiety, particularly in captivity narratives, that someone who spends too long with savages will “go native,” the transformation here seems more in keeping with horror and fantasy tropes than western ones. He escapes from the sick bay, conceals weapons, and attacks Alliance doctors, and then he is loose and in hiding.

The shift to horror is set up early in the episode when the derelict is first discovered. “What is it?” someone asks, to which River whispers a response, “It’s a ghost.” Primarily, though, it’s a psycho story rather than a ghost story. There are even several moments when we see via subjective camera from the point of view of the stalking/hiding psycho, a hallmark of slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.

As Mal comments, “Things go the way they are, there’s going to be blood,” and there is. Other recent film westerns, from The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada to the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood (it’s association with the horror film signaled by its title as much as Mal’s similar comment signals Firefly’s turn to horror), have also been notable for a turn to the horror genre. Even The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford represents Jesse as a kind of ghostly otherworldly figure as he stalks and kills former members of his gang.

As Mal leads Commander Harken on a search for the survivor, we are thoroughly inside the horror genre in terms of the way the sequence is shot, plenty of dark spaces and moving cameras, point of view shots, building suspense by limiting what we can see. When the survivor jumps out, killing one man and spraying Harken with blood, his appearance is more 1970s punk than Hollywood Indian (he seems to have inserted safety pins at various places in his face). Mal dispatches him, saving Harken’s life, and wins thereby the release of his crew and ship.

Mal’s final dialogue returns to the theme of civilization and savagery. When Jane complains about Harken’s confiscating their cargo, Mal answers, “He had to. Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilized.” But, like the western’s Tenderfoot character type, Harken has been changed by his frontier experience. Letting the crew go free is not “civilized” behavior either, and the final image is of the Alliance ship destroying the derelict–which Harken earlier refused to do. From Mal, he has learned something about survival in the wilderness, which sometimes means bending civilization’s rules and orders. But, as Mal realizes, punishing the crew by confiscating their salvage from the derelict is also a way for Harken to assure himself that in his encounter with the nothingness of the frontier, he hasn’t forgotten “how to be a man,” at least, as the Alliance defines appropriately civilized behavior.

This post was originally published in a slightly different version at the Firefly and Western Literature blog.

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