By the end of the 1960s, the Hollywood West of Tom Mix, Randolph Scott, and even John Wayne was passé—or so the story goes. Many film historians and critics have argued that movies portraying a mythic American West gave way to revisionist films that influential filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman made as violent critiques of the Western’s “golden years.” Yet rumors surrounding the death of the Western have been greatly exaggerated, says film historian Andrew Patrick Nelson. Even as the Wild Bunch and John McCabe rode forth, John Wayne remained the Western’s number one box office draw. How, then, could there have been a revisionist reckoning at a time when the Duke was still in the saddle? In Still in the Saddle, Nelson offers readers a new history of the Hollywood Western in the 1970s, a time when filmmakers tried to revive the genre by appealing to a diverse audience that included a new generation of socially conscious viewers. Nelson considers a comprehensive filmography of releases from 1969 to 1980 in light of the visual tropes and narratives developed and reworked in the genre from the 1930s to the present. In so doing, he reveals the complexity of what is probably the most interesting period in Western movie history. His incisive reevaluations of such celebrated (or infamous) films as The Wild Bunch and Heaven’s Gate and examinations of dozens of forgotten and neglected Westerns, including the final films of John Wayne, demonstrate that there was more to the 1970s Western than simple revision. Instead, we see not only important connections between canonical and lesser-known films of the period, but also continuities between these and older Westerns. Nelson believes an ongoing, cyclical process of regeneration thus transcends established divisions in the genre’s history. Among the books currently challenging the prevailing “evolutionary” account of the Western, Still in the Saddle thoroughly revises our understanding of this exciting and misunderstood period in the Western’s history and adds innovatively and substantially to our knowledge of the genre as a whole.
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About the Author
Andrew Patrick Nelson, Assistant Professor of Film History and Critical Studies in the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University, Bozeman, is the editor of Contemporary Westerns: Film and Television since 1990.
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Still In The Saddle
The Hollywood Western, 1969â"1980
By Andrew Patrick Nelson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
The Scattered Formula in Western Movie Criticism
Once, we happily accepted myths of Western heroes as honorable scouts who lived by codes. Then movies like "Little Big Man" said that the myths were lies and that Gen. Custer, for example, was really a genocidal maniac.
— Tom Shales, The Washington Post, January 28, 1980
Revisionist Westerns ... dominated the decade of the 1970s, and through their emphasis on greed, genocide, and white guilt managed to kill off the Western film genre by decade's end.
— Paul Andrew Hutton, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 1995
The traditional Western at its peak celebrated mainstream American values and ideology — the American Dream. In the 1960s darkness struck national innocence — the cultural, political and sexual revolutions, Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, etc. Westerns continued to be made, but they were revisionist and began to speak less to the mainstream audience. The positivist, transcendental, triumphalist tone was lost.
— Jim Kitses, quoted in GamePro, June 22, 2010*
In January of 2009, I attended a lecture by film scholar Ed Buscombe at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London as part of a retrospective of the films of Sam Peckinpah. The focus of the lecture was Peckinpah's Westerns, from Ride the High Country (1962) through to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1974). In a wide-ranging discussion, Buscombe reflected on the legacy of the auteur theory in scholarship on the Western and highlighted a number of key themes that recur over Peckinpah's Western oeuvre, including an emphasis on tragedy. After Buscombe concluded his talk, the floor was opened for questions. A man seated to my right rose to his feet, was handed the microphone, and asked Buscombe how Peckinpah's films related to the "revisionist Western."
It was a fair query, to be sure, and it was met with a few nods from others in the audience and a whispered "yes, good question" from a woman seated behind me. It is also worth noting, though, that at no point in his presentation had Buscombe used the term revisionist to describe Peckinpah's Westerns — or any other Westerns, for that matter.
In response to the gentleman's question, Buscombe first commented on the general imprecision of the term, but then said that if "revisionist" was taken to mean films that were purposefully critical of the genre, like Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, then he did not consider Peckinpah's Westerns to be revisionist.
This anecdote — short as it is — tells us a great deal about the Western. It tells us that a particular kind of Western, distinguished by the adjective "revisionist," exists — or is at least believed to exist by the kinds of people who attend lectures about movies. The adjectival modification also distinguishes these Westerns from other Westerns. Given that the idea of the revisionist Western was introduced in the context of a discussion about Sam Peckinpah, who made his Westerns in the 1960s and 1970s, and that the word "revisionist" signals a reexamination or correction of something that already exists, these other Westerns must be older Westerns, made before the likes of Peckinpah and Altman. This not only implies that the genre has changed over time, but that those changes can be organized along authorial or thematic lines. That is to say, what distinguishes the Westerns of this later period is that they look back on earlier Westerns by other filmmakers and revise them in some way. This is a common way of understanding both how and why film genres change over time: successive periods characterized by an increasing awareness of the genre's established conventions and themes.
Yet, in the face of this, the absence of the revisionist Western in Buscombe's talk and his subsequent skepticism about the term's usefulness are equally telling. As knowledgeable as the BFI audience may have been, Buscombe is a leading authority on the Western. This is not to say that one party is necessarily right and the other wrong; instead, it suggests a possible divide between popular and scholarly interpretation — or, at the very least, a difference of opinion. Moreover, simply because the Westerns of Peckinpah are not considered revisionist does not mean that there is no such thing as a revisionist Western. Buscombe's own example of McCabe & Mrs. Miller suggests that the revisionist Western may exist as a variant of the genre (provided that there are other Westerns like it). Yet if McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, or could be considered, a revisionist Western while other Westerns of its time are not, this indicates that there are also distinctions to be made within the genre at a particular point in time, rather than across time. This is a far less common conception of how movie genres operate.
Revisionism and Western Movie Criticism
That the revisionist Western was introduced not by Buscombe but an audience member is appropriate on several levels. The absence of the revisionist Western in Buscombe's lecture is consistent with his scholarship on the genre, where the concept is never employed. Yet he is in the minority. Today, the term is used in all varieties of writing on the Western, from scholarly essays to mainstream criticism. The revisionist Western is not a limited, specialist concept. It is, as the BFI example suggests, a popular one.
The term revisionist was first applied to the genre, occasionally, in trade journals and reviews in the 1970s, when critics begin to distinguish a series of new "'revisionist' Westerns ... deliberately designed to destroy the previous myths of heroic cowboy literature and films." The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah's violent lament for the end of the mythical west and its larger-than-life heroes, is frequently identified as the inaugurator of this trend. By the 1980s, the "revisionist Western" gains wider currency as a more general description for the genre in the preceding decade.
For their part, academics were not oblivious to the changes taking place in the Western in the 1970s, even if they did not initially characterize these changes as an outright revision. Indeed, what comes across most clearly in examinations of the genre from this time is the variety of Westerns being produced.
Writing in 1973, Jack Nachbar likens the formula of the contemporary Western to the "wide and confusing pattern" of a shotgun blast. He argues that the Western's standard plot structure, focused on the epic moment of confrontation between the forces of civilization and wilderness on the American frontier, had branched into four basic types: (1) a "traditional" type, starring saddle-hardened veterans like John Wayne and Burt Lancaster; (2) the "anti-Western," using the genre as a vehicle for social criticism; (3) the "new-Western," which eschews genre tradition in favor of realistic portrayals of frontier life; and, finally, (4) the "personal-Western," where auteur filmmakers like Peckinpah and Altman use the genre to express their unique viewpoints. After delineating these divisions within the genre, Nachbar proposes that all four types are nevertheless contained by a new theme, exploring a different moment in history when "progress overcame the fundamental aspirations of the old pioneer and transformed him into someone irrelevant and out of place."
Nachbar was not alone in observing a splintering of the genre. In a contemporary essay, John G. Cawelti agrees that it is no longer possible to speak of a single Western formula, but he sees the divisions within the genre somewhat differently. He proposes three types: (1) the violent, cynical Italian Western of Sergio Leone; (2) the "Western Godfather" of John Wayne, aiming to reaffirm the genre's traditional themes; and (3) a class of Western that seeks to create a new myth of the West more sympathetic to Indians and hostile to traditional heroes. What unites these three types is "a disillusioned and pessimistic view of society and an obsession with the place of violence in it."
In a 1982 essay about the "allusory" nature of 1970s American moviemaking, Noël Carroll describes McCabe & Mrs. Miller as "an example of the revisionist western which dates back to at least The Wild Bunch." He offers the following definition of the type: "The revisionist western lives off the classical western, which it criticizes by decisive subversions of set genre plots, locales, and/or characters. The revisionist western assays these alterations for the sake of projecting a broad sentiment of social disenchantment by demystifying national myths and registering a sense of loss." In a footnote, Carroll lists eight additional revisionist Westerns: Little Big Man, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah, 1970), Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972), The Culpepper Cattle Co., Dirty Little Billy (Stan Dragoti, 1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Philip Kaufman, 1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), and The Missouri Breaks(Arthur Penn, 1976). Like Nachbar and Cawelti, Carroll sees the revisionist Western as one of several types coexisting within the genre in the late 1960s and 1970s, alongside popular pictures like The War Wagon (Burt Kennedy, 1967) and Westerns like The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976) that, he claims, reworked the genre without being revisionist.
In 1987, Nachbar, writing with Michael T. Marsden, both revises and updates his classificatory model. His first two types, the traditional Western and the anti-Western, remain largely unchanged. On the impact of the anti-Western, the authors comment: "Because Westerns since the late '60s have presented a much less idealized picture of the frontier West, it appears that anti-Westerns were an important influence on the entire genre." At the same time, Marsden and Nachbar argue that the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, the last major Hollywood star and filmmaker to be principally associated with the genre, also "reaffirm the ideals of the traditional Western." They write: "Eastwood's American films are known for their violence, which stems from the macho power of his tight-lipped heroes. Within such a context, however, Eastwood's Westerns develop a pattern of values that defends proper civilization as strongly as the oldest Western movies." The new and personal Westerns are reconfigured into the "elegiac" and "experimental" Westerns. The former, with roots in 1950s Westerns like The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953), "mourn the loss of the frontier hero." The latter displays "a fascination with the Western itself," manipulating the genre to convey an authorial vision and extend the implications of earlier Westerns. According to the authors, Peckinpah's Westerns are elegiac, while Altman's are experimental.
While Nachbar and Cawelti each describe what we could call "revisionism" occurring within the genre in the late 1960s and 1970s, these "revisions" follow no one set precept or objective. That there is disagreement among critics about how to characterize and classify both individual films and larger trends is a further indication of this. Yet the inter-genre divisions of the period delineated by Nachbar, Cawelti, and Carroll do contrast with an apparent unity the genre enjoyed in earlier times when it seems to have had a single formula or standard plot.
The idea that genres experience a classic phase or "golden age" is one of the most widely held and most scrutinized in the study of movie genres. It is also often bound to the notion that genres develop in particular ways, responding to internal or external forces (or some combination of the two). As it happens, the Western is very good at supporting such theories, so it is not surprising that, implicitly or explicitly, all three authors posit the existence of a classic Western from which the genre then splits apart into the diversity of types detailed above. Scholarship on the genre continues to refer to the "classic Western," typically as a rhetorical means of distinguishing between periods in the genre's history. John H. Lenihan writes that "The Appaloosa [Sidney J. Furie, 1966] and The Hired Hand [Peter Fonda, 1971] ... differ from the classic western lyricism of the great outdoors (e.g., Shane) by removing any connotation of a promising civilization." Michael Coyne asserts, "The Gunfighter heralded the advent of true maturity within the classic Western." Patrick McGee argues that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) "brings closure to the classic Western itself," whereas a later Western like The Wild Bunch dramatizes the "contradictions in the relationship between subjectivity and power in the postmodern world." Deborah Knight and George McKnight write, "The classic western tells the story about expansion westward. [McCabe & Mrs. Miller] tells what happened when the idealization of western expansion and the mystique developed around the figure of the western hero faltered in the late 1960s and early 1970s."
Noted scholar of the Western Jim Kitses appears to dispute the idea of a Western golden age in his 1996 essay "Post-modernism and the Western," an ambitious attempt to account for the genre's development from the 1960s to the 1990s in light of postmodernist theory. Kitses asserts that the Western has never been a "monolith," and that there have always been deviations and dissents within it — a "revisionist shadow" of films including The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943),The Gunfighter, Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950), High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), and Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954). In an argument that recalls the work of Russian formalist literary critics, who held that art evolves through a continual process of minority trends supplanting majority ones — what they called the "canonization of the junior branch" — Kitses sees the 1960s as time when the sun sets and the Western's "revisionist shadow" becomes the mainstream: "In retrospect, it is possible to see these movies as precursors to a counter-tradition that the Western tradition itself generates, a revisionist shadow, a parallel track to the imperial mainstream with all its ideological baggage. Accumulating in fragments and on the margins, this practice shifts gears radically in the 60s, wherein America loses her innocence, the result of traumatic change — the Vietnam War, civil rights, imperial assassinations, Watergate." The Western's ideological baggage includes racism and imperialism, which are directly opposed to emphases from the late 1960s onward on feel-good values like tolerance, inclusivity, and especially multiculturalism, which Kitses calls "America's official ideology marking the millennium ... itself a revision of the melting pot thesis that underlay and underwrote the nation in the 20th century." So, while revisionist tendencies have always been present in the Western in the form of critiques of frontier justice or the genre's treatment of Indians, it is ultimately cultural change that precipitates an about-face in the genre. America loses her innocence, and so does the Western.
Treating movies as reflections of the social conditions of their production has long been a standard approach in cinema studies. The work of the critic becomes to interpret, or "read," a film for what Kristin Thompson calls symptomatic meaning: "We also use interpretation to create meanings that go beyond the level of the individual work, and that help define its relation to the world. When we speak of a film's non-explicit ideology, or of the film as a reflection of social tendencies, or of the film as suggestive of the mental states of large groups of people, then we are interpreting its symptomatic meanings." This particular methodology has been criticized on a number of grounds. While popular films undoubtedly reflect contemporary tastes to a certain degree, whether taste in movies can be taken as an accurate gauge of the mood of an entire nation is an open question. As Steve Neale points out, not only does such an approach ignore the role of institutional determinants, but the assumption that consumer decision-making, with its own multiplicity of determinants, can be considered a form of "cultural expression" is a questionable one. David Bordwell observes that reflectionist accounts often overlook how "movies are made by particular people, all with varying agendas," who will rework any given idea or concept in myriad ways during a movie's development from concept to script to screen — a process that can take years. How representative the personnel of the movie industry are of wider society is also a relevant question. Writes Bordwell, "[T]hese workers, we are constantly reminded, are far from typical, living their superficial lives in Beverly Hills. How can the fears and yearnings of the masses be adequately 'reflected' once these atypical individuals have finished with the product?" Yet, in spite of objections about the general viability of such approaches in the study of cinema, symptomatic readings have dominated criticism of the Western from the late 1960s to the present.
Excerpted from Still In The Saddle by Andrew Patrick Nelson. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Introduction: Born Game and Going Out That Way,
Part I. Revision and Regeneration,
1. The Scattered Formula in Western Movie Criticism,
2. A Conflict of Visions, or What If They Staged a Revision and Nobody Came?,
Part II. Critique and Convention,
3. Hugger of Trees, Scalper of Whites: Opposing Stereotypes in the "Pro-Indian" Western,
4. Legends in Changing Times: Cowboys, Lawmen, Outlaws, and Fools,
Part III. Popularity and Preponderance,
5. The Duke & Co.,
6. To the '80s, and Beyond!,
Conclusion: Old Westerns, New Frontiers,