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Short Cuts: The Western Genre Nov 13, 2001
Brevity is the soul of wit--and of wisdom. Brevity finally hit film studies in the last decade with the publication of the on-going BFI Film Classics and Modern Classics series, and continues with the welcome appearance of Wallflower Press' Short Cuts series.
Published in London, England, and so far almost exclusively featuring UK-based authors, the series focuses on genres, historical periods, production forms, and formal dimensions rather than individual films.
Always wise and occasionally witty as well, The Short Cuts series offer fast-paced, concise, learned, readable, and often fun studies of The Horror Genre, Disaster Movies, Science Fiction Cinema, The Star System, Early Soviet Cinema, with more topics on the way.
The seventh entry, The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey by John Saunders, is based on detailed summaries and analyses of 12 films, grouped around mid-century classics, the cinematic depictions of the outlaw Jesse James, the changing status of the Indian, the genre revisons of the 1960s-70s and the reconsidered genre in the 1990s.
Dutiful summary and description is the keynote of the book, which often has a dry Cliff Notes quality in the opening chapters. Although he focuses on just a few titles, and doesn't plow a lot of fresh ground, Saunders manages to fruitfully lasso most of the genre's major films, directors, stars, thematic variations, historical precedants, and references many of the classic scholarly works on the genre. And he is not at all shy to point out shortcomings in established classics and Oscar winners.
Surprisingly, Saunders first in-depth analysis is of Shane (George Stevens, 1953), a film which serves as "the archetypal western, a self-conscous attempt to reproduce the familiar themes and characters in a classically pure state," but a film which also appears when the genre is already half a century old, giving just brief consideration to predecessors like The Iron Horse and Stagecoach.
Shane has been analyzed quite a bit and Saunders' analysis lacks the profound, archetypal interpretation offered by Robert B. Ray in A Certain Tendancy of the Hollywood Cinema (1985), a book too many film scholars seem to have not heard of.
Although director Anthony Mann resides in Andrew Sarris' second tier of great directors, he is far from a household name. Saunders includes him in a classical troica of Ford-Hawks-Mann, suggesting that Mann's reputation will continue to ascend.
The book becomes more compelling when dealing with "revisionist" or "deconstructive" westerns like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, and Unforgiven. The tension between classic form and revisionist impulse, as well as the turbulant social history of the 1960s and its aftermath, quicken the pulse of his discussion.
He gives short shrift to the Sergio Leone westerns, which deserve at least as much space as forgotten entries like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and The Long Riders, and he completely ignores Robert Altmans' bitterly revisionist westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson) and the low-budget existential westerns of Monte Hellman (The Shooting).
He briefly considers the migration-extinction of western themes to other genres in a sentence on Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, but ignores the larger transference of western values to other genres--notably science fiction and the action film--as evidenced in postmodern/pastiche/hybrid films like Star Wars, Outland, and The Road Warrior.
I suspect that omission is deliberate. Saunders probably prefers his genres straight--or only bent so far--and films like Blazing Saddles, Dead Man, and MTV westerns like Young Guns may seem merely desacrations, unworthy of discussion.
The term "postmodern" is mentioned warily without definition--suggesting a menacing philosophical vulture circling over the dying western like the vultures seen at the end of The Wild Bunch.
Other Short Cuts titles, such as The Horror Genre and Science Fiction Cinema, are more willing to engage the high concept, more blatantly commercial variations on classic genres.
Like many western films, the book ends on an elegiac, nostalgic note; Saunders laments that Unforgiven could be the last memorable western.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a scholar of the classic western might identify with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in the last shot of John Ford's The Searchers: his job done, turning his back on a future in which he doesn't belong, may not be welcome, and may not want to take part in--striding into the whirling sands of memory.