A NOT-SO-ACCURATE prophet once wrote, "As recently as 1972, there were a tremendous number of quality Westerns being made . . . and since there seems to be a ten-year cycle in Western movie making, I'd say we'll see more in about 1982." 1 In 1982 only two Westerns were released, and neither was exactly a major success. Barbarosa, starring Willie Nelson, drew some respectable reviewsand some very damaging onesbut nobody went to see the film. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez appeared first on PBS television, then later went into general release. Today the Western seems to be deader than the California Med-fly. Critics and aficionados of the form can only hear, as with Arnold's sea of faith, its long receding roar. Everything except fluoride in the water has been blamed for the death of the Western. Even critics themselves have come under attack of late. Stephen Tatum, writing in 1983, called critics such as Brian Garfield and Don Graham "shootists," indicting them for a variety of sins. They are said to hold a "fundamentalist," transcendent conception of the Western. They are "redeemer" critics who wish to stop the clock, deny history, and halt the inevitable evolution of genres. Not only that, Garfield and Graham are moreover accused of being "authoritarian" and suspiciously close to the "moral majority" position.' It seems quite possible, however, that the roots of the Western's decline lie deeper than in the likes and animadversions of benighted critics. The Western has lost its audience. An entire generation of moviegoers has seen one big-screen Western in their lives, and that, sadly, is Blazing Saddles (1974). For this generation, who as children were glutted with television Westerns, such a legacy makes the Western an impossible form. Blazing Saddles is the final debunking of a long tradition and exposes the Western's moral preachiness, its presumed insensitivity to blacks, reds, women, and other minorities, its good-guy-bad-guy schematic oppositions. Blazing Saddles took the Western into the terrain of the scatological, and from that defamation, nothing could be regained for an entire generation. By the early 1980s, the Western seemed hopelessly irrelevant to the largest share of the moviegoing audiencethe teen market. How could it ever compete with the simpleminded eighth-grade prurient voyeurism of Porky's, the futuristic and infantile fantasies of Star Wars, the primal fears of Jaws I, II, III, etc. ? Obviously it couldn't. For all subsequent generations, then, the Western has to be rediscovered, like some store of ancient literature one studies in school. Reviewing the last twenty-five years of the Western, 19601985, is salutary for both aficionados and novices. The sixties began with a great film done in the sparest, most austere classical manner, Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station (1960). The last of the Renown cycle of seven films that Boetticher made with Randolph Scott, Comanche Station reduces the elements of the journey Western to create one of its purest expressions ever. Scott is an aging knight, a man "always alone in Comanche country," who, reminiscent of John Wayne's searcher, hunts endlessly for his wife, taken ten years previously by the Comanches. He buys a woman out of captivitynot his wife, of course, whom he will never findand escorts her back to her husband. The journey pits him against a charming, evil adversary (Claude Akins), and the trip becomes the occasion for a moral dialectic of the kind for which the Western seems the perfect vehicle. In the end the villain adopts Scott's code, dying honorably, and Scott delivers the wife to her husband. He turns out to be a blind man, a fact that surprises and pleases because all through the film we have worried, along with Scott, about what kind of man would leave such a woman to another's care. It is a great film, and anybody wanting to know what the old-time Western was about would do well to review all of the Boetticher-Scott Westerns....
Bibliography: Frayling, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. Rigorous intellectual examination of the meaning of the American Western in the European imagination. Indispensable for understanding the spaghettis.
French, Philip. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre. Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Last chapter is one of the most enthusiastic appraisals of post-sixties Westerns to be found anywhere.
Garfield, Brian. Western Films: A Complete Guide. New York: Rawson Associates, 1982. Highly opinionated and vigorously written. Especially valuable for its insistence upon the importance of the writer in the creation of good Westerns.
Graham, Don. Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas. Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1983. Focuses on changes in the Western as reflected in its preoccupation with Texas and its various myths.
Hardy, Phil. The Western. New York: William Morrow, 1983. A large, handsome book containing lively annotations of Westerns through 1983. Invaluable for anybody wanting either quick reference or the big picture.
Hyams, Jay. The Life and Times of the Western Movie. New York: Gallery Books, 1983. Useful if unexciting survey of the Western from its beginnings to 1983.
Lenihan, John H. Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Definitive study of how the post–World War II Western reflects such contemporary issues as civil rights, the Cold War, and Viet Nam.
Pilkington, William T., and Don Graham, eds. Western Movies. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. Contains explications of several major films released during the 1960s and '70s.
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