THE LAWSON’S PEAK BOOKS

A Good Western

What the world needs most these days is a good western.

Hollywood seems to have largely forgotten how to make good westerns. Not surprising, since film studios have also apparently forgotten how to come up with their own ideas, and are instead mutilating old ideas by turning them into, at best, bad remakes and at worst, farce. Take the recent Starsky & Hutch movie. Yeesh.

No, what we need are some good westerns. “Shoot ‘em ups,” my dad used to call them, though the term alternatively applied to cop movies, too.

There haven’t been many good westerns made in the last decade or two. OK, let’s give due credit to Tombstone, Lonesome Dove, Unforgiven, Open Range and so forth. Great stuff. Even Hidalgo was a western of sorts.

But the style of westerns has changed. Now known as “gritty and intense” or “sexy and gruesome.” There’s something wrong with that, in a western.

To me, a gritty, unsettling western was John Ford’s The Searchers with John Wayne. I put this movie in the top five westerns of all time. The Duke’s character, Ethan, searching for his niece captured by the Cheyenne is priceless. The climactic scene where Ethan realizes the girl has “gone Indian” so he feels he must kill her, when Jeffery Hunter throws himself at Ethan to stop him…that’s one of the finest scenes in western history!

They don’t make them like that anymore. Good westerns are few and far between. There are some westerns out there that most people don’t even realize are westerns: An Unfinished Life is a good example, as is my personal all-time favorite modern-western, Last of the Dogmen.

My favorite scene from An Unfinished Life is when Robert Redford confronts Jennifer Lopez’s abusive boyfriend, who has tracked her to Montana. Redford forces the jerk to drive out of town, at rifle point, and there Redford gets out and warns him never to come back.

“You been watching too many cowboy movies, old man,” the ruffian says.

To which Redford replies, “Well, now that doesn’t exactly work in your favor, does it?”

Classic.

There are westerns that are wholesome, and the makers didn’t feel a need to sully it up with “gray” characters any more dubious than necessary. Why do we need these questionable characters? Even Ethan Edwards in The Searchers had a strict code, a cowboy code, that he lived by.

We don’t need no stinkin’ gray area. There’s good guys, and there’s bad guys.

Watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid recently. There was a western, friends and neighbors:

Butch: “I can’t swim.”

Sundance (laughing hysterically): “Ah, hell, the fall’ll probably kill ya!”

There was never a more consummate cowboy than John Wayne, and nobody today that can hold a candle to him. Likewise for Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood’s westerns, and the ensemble casts of such classics as Red River, The Sons of Katie Elder, How the West Was Won, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon…oh, the list just goes on and on.

Another of my favorites: McKenna’s Gold. Remember that one? Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas. Great, great movie, right up there with Bogart’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 1940s modern western in its own right.

The western drew clear lines in the sand. The good guys didn’t necessarily have to wear white hats, you always understood who they were, and who the bad guys were. Watching The Missing the other night, with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, the new-style antihero that Jones played still made for a good movie, but the ambiguity is something that bugs me. I don’t want my westerns to be ambiguous. The glory of westerns was that the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad, and the Indians were somewhere in between, depending on who made the movie!

Remember when Hollywood couldn’t find any real Indians to play Indians on film, so they either cast Italians or they did worse, such as having Chuck Connors star as a sky-blue-eyed Geronimo. Priceless.

See in many ways, Star Trek was a western. So was Star Wars and many other sci-fi classics. In fact, in the 1960s Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars.”

And let’s not forget TV westerns. Bonanza, The Virginian, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke…too many to name. Anyone remember Hec Ramsey starring Richard Boone? It was part of the NBC Mystery Movie lineup in the early 1970s, the same folks that brought us Columbo and McCleod (also a western, in its own way.) Ramsey was a budding forensics expert lawman in Oklahoma. Good stuff.

Yeah, the world needs some good, wholesome westerns these days. The good movies like Dances With Wolves, Last of the Dogmen, Geronimo with Wes Studi and other sympathetic portrayals of the Native American is unquestionable, but still…the old west “only good Injun is a dead Injun” is tolerable for sheer entertainment value alone.

Joey Bishop as the Indian in Texas Across the River. That was some funny stuff, there.

Odd that such portrayals are still allowed on television, while Amos & Andy and Charlie Chan are not? Things that make you go, Hmmm….

The cowboy movie spotlighted and glorified the American experience from a time before world wars and police actions, before the great depressions and the blitzkrieg and the atomic bomb. The greatness of the western was that – and you’ll be surprised to read this – it sugar-coated the winning of the west, scandalized the natives, but in the end, gave us something as Americans we are sadly lacking in today: Pride. Certainly we know the truth. We know about Wounded Knee and the Sand Creek massacre; we know about the cattlemen versus the sheep herders; we know that the good guys didn’t wear white hats and probably weren’t all that good…but in the hands of true filmmakers, we were allowed, for a time, to escape into a feel-good mood, thinking there was nothing we couldn’t do.

And that’s what I was thinking a few days ago, when I had watched a couple good westerns on the tube, and one of the first headlines I read afterwards was, “Obama acknowledges decline of U.S. dominance.” And he made this announcement in India.

Yep. The world needs a few more westerns, good westerns. Just so we can remember who we were, and stop being brainwashed by the people who keep telling us what we aren’t.

2 comments to A Good Western

  • T. Senette

    It was Scar and his band of Nawyecka Comanche that abducted that child, Debbie, and not Cheyenne. Otherwise, another GREAT column. Thanks again, Roger.

    T

    PS According to Ethan, Nawyecka means “…they say they are going one way but go t’other…” Or something like that.

  • Roger Stouff

    Right you are! My bad. Brain flatulence! 🙂

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