What is a genre? A type of story, or book, or television drama — and in our case, narrative film. Not just any type — the category cannot be too broad, for example, “action” isn’t a film genre. There are too many kinds of action film, distinctly different from each other. War films, Westerns, martial arts movies, gangster movies, these can all be called genres. You can usually identify a film’s genre just by looking at stills from it. Genres have visually distinct locations, situations, costumes, character types.
Think of a musical – brightly coloured, all the characters leaping in unison, with outstretched arms. Think of a war film, with the guys gathered in their tent, or in their tank, or in their trench, the night before the battle. Think of a Western: two men with big hats and big guns, facing each other in an empty street. Think of a samurai movie, two ronin with big swords, facing each other against a background of acolytes. Genres are distinct, and at the same time they borrow from each other. Containing familiar elements, yet simultaneously able to evolve, genre movies have always made up the bulk of Hollywood film production, and continue to do so. Commercial cinemas in other countries – India, Japan, China, Korea, Europe – all developed their own genres, or borrowed those of other cultures.
Of the three directors whose work we discussed last week, only one of them began his career with a genre film – a biker movie. The others made films outside any existing genre – art films, original films without clear precedents. “Art films” were popular with the critics, objects of some esteem, but audiences were traditionally less taken by them. Genre, for all the studios, paid the bills.
The first American narrative film was a genre film: THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (USA, 1903) is a story of a horseback-riding gang of outlaws who rob a train and are pursued and shot by a posse. For at least three decades, the Western was the most reliable film genre of all. Smaller studios survived on Westerns alone, and larger studios relied on their box office revenue. It was a bad Western which didn’t make money.
But Westerns are only one of a porous panoply of film genres. I’ll talk about some of these genres today, but the great thing about this area of film study or filmmaking is: it isn’t fixed. New genres are constantly developing; old ones die off. In the 1970s Hollywood experimented with a genre called the Disaster Movie in which earthquakes destroyed cities, or people were trapped in upside down ocean liners, or caught in burning skyscrapers. It produced some good entertainments – in particular THE TOWERING INFERNO (USA, 1974) – but never got traction. After 9/11 it resurfaced briefly with WORLD TRADE CENTER (USA, 2006) and UNITED 93 (USA, 2006), then vanished again. Indeed, WORLD TRADE CENTER and UNITED 93 seem more like an attempt by Hollywood to “bolster” the official version of the 9/11 story in the face of popular disbelief and a subversive documentary, LOOSE CHANGE (USA, 2005), than to resurrect an unpopular genre.
For forty years musicals were a staple Hollywood genre. How many are made today? Twenty-five years ago, the notion of an industry focused almost entirely on cartoon superhero franchises would have been unthinkable. But the comic-book superhero franchise is certainly a genre now, having come to dominate production in recent years.
And what of the “mockumentary” – a genre which didn’t exist prior to THIS IS SPINAL TAP (USA, 1984), but which proves increasingly popular (see also MORE THAN FRYBREAD (USA, 2011) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (New Zealand, 2014)?
Some genres are national. The Bollywood musical still thrives. Some national genres become international: Westerns, samurai films and kung fu movies all crossed state boundaries to become international forms: quite often, international coproductions with a Hollywood studio as a partner.
Genres are recognizable but not fixed. There can be uncertainty. We can say that the Italian Western is a sub-genre of the Western. But what is the spy film: the form which contains the James Bond and Bourne franchises? Is it a genre in its own right, or a sub-genre of the thriller? Is the gangster movie a genre or a sub-set of the crime film or the detective film?
Your opinion is as good as anyone’s in these arcane areas. At the same time, there are also genres which are readily identifiable. And it is to these that we now turn. Here is a list of genres; to its right are sub-genres. But this is merely my list. Is the biker movie a genre or a sub-genre of the crime film? Is the spy film or the film noir a sub-genre, or a genre of its own?
Thriller sub-genre spy?
Crime sub-genre film noir, detective, gangster?
Comedy sub-genres rom-com, screwball, dumb
Martial Arts sub-genre samurai, kung fu
In Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz identifies four stages in the development of a genre. For him, these are the different phases (with my notes):
1. Experimental — in which the conventions of the genre are established
2. Classic — the genre is entirely known and accepted by its audience
3. Refinement — the genre expands its range of “typical” elements; new characters or locations; sub-genres appear.
4. Baroque — the genre becomes “mannerist” or self-reflexive; established plots and characters are inverted; parodies are popular.
Genres form somewhat like stars — from multiple, disconnected elements, pulled together over time. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY joined together the disparate elements of the outlaw gang, on horseback; armed robbery; a posse of pursuers; and a violent settling of accounts, ending in the death of the “bad.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these were all elements of Owen Wister’s Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published a year previously in 1902 (though the theft in the novel is cattle rustling, not robbing trains). This was the experimental period of the Western film genre, when its elements were still being chosen, before they solidified into something the audience could rely upon.
That reliability was important. Audiences go to see genre films because they know in advance what kind of story they are in for. They want to be entertained, rather than surprised (perhaps for this reason, or else due to studio reluctance to make them, “genre-breaking” films are comparatively rare). Schatz writes about two different types of genre: one tells stories of the enforcement of order, the other stories of integration, of community.
“Order” genres include Westerns, crime, and martial arts films. They feature lone male heroes and rely on violence for their resolution. “Integration” genres include musicals, comedies, and melodramas. They feature couples or collective groups, usually female-dominated, and they rely on the embrace – the expression of love – for their resolution.
War films, horror films, and science fiction could go either way. Often these genres feature a group rather than an individual (though war and horror films also depict a process of violent attrition, leaving us with one hero or heroine by the end). Science fiction can be the story of a group (the STAR TREK and STAR WARS franchises, ICARUS XB1) or of individuals – for example, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (USA, 1957) or 2001, which has three stories and three protagonists.
Genre is a big subject, and a flexible one. I’ll show you some examples taken from genre films, which seem to me to illustrate those four developmental stages.
1. As an example of genre’s experimental stage we view the road movie TWO LANE BLACKTOP (USA, 1971), made when the genre was still inventing itself. It follows Francis Coppola’s THE RAIN PEOPLE (USA, 1969) and was made the same year as another early example of the form, VANISHING POINT (USA, 1971).
Cars and highways had long featured in films, but in TWO LANE BLACKTOP the elements of the road movie coalesce. The film has a rural environment. People survive on junk food. The protagonists are men (after THE RAIN PEOPLE, which has a female protagonist, the form rapidly veers towards male loner heroes) who care about cars and have difficulty relating to women. Women find these men boring. Dialogue is minimal, and there’s an uneasy mix of professional actors, pop singers, and amateurs. Soundtrack music tends to feature country, and rock and roll.
2. As an example of the classic stage of genre, we view a detective picture, THE MALTESE FALCON. This was the first film written and directed by John Huston, in 1941. It’s based on a novel, written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929. Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective and a strike breaker, and was the inventor of “hard-boiled” detective fiction, a form which greatly impacted the detective film. Huston’s was the third film adaptation of the novel, which had also been shot in the days before the Production Code, in 1931, and re-made, as a comedy titled SATAN MET A LADY, in 1936.
In the first ten minutes of THE MALTESE FALCON we see the urban environment, meet the detective hero, the duplicitous woman client, are shown his ambiguous relationship with the police, and are presented with a mystery, potential for romance, a grave threat to the hero’s freedom, and a motive for revenge. This classic set-up would be used by many other detective pictures, and films noir.
3. Now for an instance of a genre refining itself – becoming more sophisticated, and developing concerns that weren’t part of the original package. A movie musical, in its experimental form, was a light-hearted affair. Classical musicals could address social issues: SHOW BOAT (USA, 1936) and WEST SIDE STORY (USA, 1961) both dealt frankly with racism. But Bob Fosse’s CABARET (USA, 1972) – an American film set in Berlin in the 1930s – went beyond agreed-upon norms, with positive depictions of gay sexuality, and a truly disturbing depiction of the appeal of Nazism, in its famous production number, Tomorrow Belongs to Me. This sequence is very sophisticated, going beyond the simple depiction of Nazis as ugly and evil, and probing how such a vile political movement could attract regular, good-looking people of both sexes to its cause.
4. As a genre develops, it soon reaches the point where it is not only fair game for parody, but where it parodies itself. Most of the performances of Arnold Schwartzenegger are so tongue-in-cheek that whatever he’s supposed to be – a robot from the future, a Special Ops war hero – invariably renders the film parodic: a self-reflexive entertainment, impossible to take seriously. This is the baroque phase of genre, where not just the actor’s performance, but the film itself ironically comments on the genre. At this point decadence kicks in. Audiences have seen so many of these films that they want more stimulation, and the baroque genre entertains them with role reversals, hero-villains, unhappy endings, or simply generic overkill.
The horror film has been around almost as long as the Western, and by the 1970s both forms were fairly exhausted. The Western didn’t survive, but horror films did, reinventing themselves as serial killer one-offs, or POV-stalker-killer franchises like FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, HALLOWEEN, and SAW. Most baroque genre films are quite terrible, but some are sublime. An example – which both exploits the sheer dumbness of the night-in-the-old-dark-house movie while reveling in multiple opportunities to shock the audience and reference other horror films – is Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II (USA, 1987).
It’s worth noting that IMDB, which categorizes films according to genre, lists EVIL DEAD II in two categories, Comedy and Horror. Popular genres have often overlapped. There are a number of Western comedies, BLADE RUNNER is a crime/science fiction movie, and the ALIEN franchise is a series of horror films which take place in a science fiction setting.
Further reading on genres: Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System, by Thomas Schatz, McGraw Hill, 1981
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, made in 1903, was the first American narrative film, the first genre film, and the first Western. What is a Western?
Strictly speaking, a Western takes place west of the Mississippi. So John Ford’s film DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (USA, 1939) – though it’s a tale of frontier pioneers fighting Native Americans – doesn’t count. The Western, as it’s developed, has a specific time frame: from the Civil War (which ended in April 1865) through to the second decade of the twentieth century. Westerns taking place in the twentieth century tend to be located in Mexico, and set against a background of the Revolution there.
The term “Cowboys and Indians” might suggest that a principal concern of the genre is the conflict between the European settler and the indigenous American. In fact this isn’t so. Westerns rarely feature Indians, except as background extras or as a distant, potential threat. In the classic Western, women, Native Americans and other minorities are rarely seen, and have little agency. Contrary to what one might expect, animals are largely irrelevant, also. Of course, plots sometimes revolve around a cattle drive, involving numerous steers. The cowboy has a horse, but how often do we know the name of the horse? Roy Rogers’ horse is called Trigger. The Lone Ranger’s is Silver. John W. Burns, hero of one of the last great American Westerns, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (USA, 1962) has a Rocky Mountain Horse called Whiskey. Beyond this, animals are anonymous. The real West was full of dogs and cats and mountain lions and coyotes and javelinas and lizards and snakes and other critters. Rattlesnakes appear from time to time because they add to the danger, emphasize the hostility of the environment. But when did you ever see a Western where the hero has a dog?
The classic Western is a story of isolation and suffering. Jane Tompkins writes in her book West of Everything:
“The land revealed … in the opening shot of a Western is a land defined by absence: of trees, of greenery, of houses, of the signs of civilization, above all, absence of water and shade…
“It is an environment inimical to human beings, where a person is exposed, the sun beats down, and there is no place to hide. But the negations of the physical setting – no shelter, no water, no rest, no comfort – are also its siren song. Be brave, be strong enough to endure this, it says, and you will become like this – hard, austere, sublime. The code of asceticism founds our experience of Western stories. The landscape challenges the body to endure hardship – that is its fundamental message at the physical level. It says, This is a hard place to be: you will have to do without here. Its spiritual message is the same: come, and suffer.
“For the setting by its hardness and austerity seems to have selected its heroes from among strong men in the prime of life, people who have a certain build, complexion, facial type, carriage, gesture, and demeanor: who dress a certain way, carry certain accoutrements, have few or no social ties, are expert at certain skills (riding, tracking, roping, fistfighting, and shooting) and terrible at others (dancing, talking to ladies).”
For many years, the American Western hero was personified by an actor named John Wayne. Wayne made his Hollywood debut at the age of 23, in a big-budget Western directed by Raoul Walsh, THE BIG TRAIL (USA, 1930).
THE BIG TRAIL was a very early talking picture, quite remarkable for its ambition and its achievement: huge sets and a big cast on remote locations, live sound recording, shot simultaneously with multiple cameras, in Academy 35mm and widescreen 70mm. As a result, there are two versions of the film. THE BIG TRAIL, even though it was not a financial success, set the tone for the Westerns that came after it, particularly with its flashback-based revenge theme.
In an early scene the director establishes the character of the hero – the white man who knows Indians, and is good with a knife – the nature of his vengeance trail, and the identities of the villains. The scene is urban, located in a bustling, trail-head town. Westerns were often urban, especially as the genre settled into its refined phase. But every Western must get out of town at some point, to confront that hostile, comfortless landscape, and THE BIG TRAIL does this in a spectacular way, in the scenes in which the wagon train confronts an immense cliff-face.
No special effects were used. The crew went out with oxen and Conestoga wagons, and lowered them down sheer cliffs, on ropes. The reach of THE BIG TRAIL was massive. The shoot began in Santa Fe, and travelled across five states, ending in California, just as the wagon trains did. Note, in this early Western, there are still significant roles for women: not only the attractive, intermittently imperiled heroine, but the tough matron who takes the first hit of whiskey from the jug after her grandchildren are born. Here the Western was still in its experimental stage, and there was still an element of the communality of genre comedies and melodramas. The lone-wolf hero had yet to dominate.
THE BIG TRAIL ends in a dappled grove, the wagon train having reached its destination, hero and heroine united among the big trees. Such an ending would be increasingly rare as the Western genre progressed, and its hero became more lonely, less talkative, less likely to marry the girl. The film did poorly – the depression had begun and theater owners showed no interest in installing 70mm projectors – and it was almost a decade before big-budget Westerns returned to the screen. John Wayne spent the 1930s acting in very low-budget, two-reel Westerns and even tried his hand at being a singing cowboy – “Singin’ Sandy”. Then, in 1939, two big Westerns broke the genre’s run of bad luck. The films were STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford, starring Wayne, and JESSE JAMES, directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power.
Both films tell the story of a heroic outlaw, but they are different in significant ways. Richard Slotkin has written a three-volume history of popular fiction and the mythology of western expansion. In his third book, Gunfighter Nation, he makes a distinction between “populist” Westerns, which emphasize community, and loyalty to the family or outlaw group, and “progressive” Westerns, protagonized by a lone individual whose quest – usually for revenge – brings order in its wake.
John Ford – born in 1894, died in 1973 – was one of the most prolific, popular, and revered directors of the American cinema. He began as a director of short silent films, many of them Westerns, and directed his last feature in 1966. Today many of his talking pictures are regarded as classics, including STAGECOACH (USA 1939), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (USA, 1940), MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (USA, 1946), FORT APACHE (USA, 1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (USA, 1949), THE QUIET MAN (USA, 1952), THE SEARCHERS (USA, 1956), and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (USA, 1962). All but two of these films are Westerns.
The original trailer for STAGECOACH begins with shots of aircraft, locomotives and a space-age bus – as if to say, this film is no antique: the Western is still relevant, still with us! Ford’s name is prominently featured. STAGECOACH is a “progressive” film. Its hero, the Ringo Kid, is an outlaw bent on revenge. Having killed his men, he departs with the heroine for Mexico. The Kid is still a killer on the run; she is a prostitute. He has brought order and improved public safety by killing the Plummer boys, but there is no room for him, or her.
Jesse and Frank James, in Henry King’s film, are folk heroes, forced to become outlaws by a corrupt system dominated by railroad money and its hired gangsters. There is no question as to their integrity, or their place in the community. The first scenes show railroad goons forcing poor farmers to sell their property for a dollar an acre. Jesse and Frank drive them off with fists and guns. When they are forced to go on the run, they do so with the blessing of family and friends. In this “populist” Western, family and community loyalty lead both brothers to outlawry and one of them to a violent demise.
Frank James was played by Henry Fonda – a clean-cut actor who for many years portrayed uncomplicated heroes. A few years later he worked for John Ford on a film often regarded as his and Ford’s best work: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (USA, 1947). This, like JESSE JAMES, is a fictionalized story of a real person – the gambler, brothel guard, saloon-keeper, and U.S. Marshall, Wyatt Earp. Earp died in 1929, having moved to Los Angeles and spent several years massaging his legend with writers and Hollywood film directors. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is partial to Earp and his faction, and hostile to their adversaries. Unhistorical but highly exciting, its climax is a celebrated Western shootout, the gunfight at the OK Corral, and provides a template for how gunfights might be choreographed thereafter.
It’s worth restating that none of this is history. What was, in reality, a messy afternoon affair, most of whose protagonists had been drinking, is transformed by John Ford into a necessary ritual of revenge and civic improvement, at dawn. The unappealing outskirts of Tombstone, Arizona, are replaced by the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, some of the loveliest landscapes on earth. These are Westerns, fantasies from optimistic times. It would be three decades before Henry Fonda (who played Wyatt Earp, and Frank James) would portray a villain by the name of Frank in the Italian Western, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
By the late 1940s, Ford had become frustrated with the Hollywood bookkeeping system known as creative accounting. This term, frequently used within the industry, refers to the studios’ ability to keep adding charges to the accounts of any film, in the form of distribution costs, marketing, advertising, and overheads (studios routinely add a 20% “overhead” to the budget of any film they finance — money which is then owed to the studio) so that the film never “breaks even”. This meant (and still means today) that while the director, producer and lead actors may be well paid up front, they will never share in the profits of the film, because, according to “creative accounting”, there are no profits to share.
Clearly this is an unfair state of affairs, and over the years filmmakers and actors have tried various ways around the problem. John Ford tried, partnering with the co-producer-writer-director of KING KONG, Merian C. Cooper, to form an independent production company, Argosy, which they hoped would let them own their films. In 1946, Argosy made a deal with RKO to distribute their first four pictures. But the company’s first film, THE FUGITIVE (USA, 1946) was a failure, earning less than a million dollars at the box office. After RKO deducted their distribution fee, Ford and Cooper were left half a million dollars in debt.
In the 1940s, John Ford was the most popular director — of Westerns. His other films, even if critically admired, tended to do less well at the box office. So Ford and Cooper decided to make a Western to recoup their company’s fortunes. Ford wanted to make a Cavalry picture, about a US garrison deep in Indian country. Ford was famously economical as a director, but much of the film was to be shot in Monument Valley, on the Navajo reservation, and two sets were to be built – a partial cavalry fort there and complete one in Corriganville, outside Los Angeles. For both sets, a full cast and numerous extras and horses would be needed. It was impossible to keep the budget down.
In his biography of Ford, Print the Legend, Scott Eyman writes,
“A preliminary budget drawn up for FORT APACHE mandates a sixty-day schedule, and a cost of $2.29 million. Ford was down for $150,000, Merian Cooper for $50,000, with the script costs divided between an uncredited Frank Wead ($25,000) and [Frank] Nugent ($15,000). [John] Wayne, [Henry] Fonda, and Shirley Temple got $100,000 apiece. Victor McLaglen received $52,000, and Pedro Armendariz got $20,000. Behind the camera, art director James Basevi got $17,325 for 21 weeks of work, while chief cinematographer Archie Stout received $9,600 for twelve weeks’ work, and William Clothier got $4,000 for that same twelve weeks as second cameraman. For writing the score, Richard Hageman got $8,000, with another $30,000 allocated for recording. For housing the unit in Monument Valley, Harry and Mike Goulding were to receive $9,750.
“Argosy signed for another large note – $1.64 million from Security First National Bank. They then borrowed $360,000 from Leo McCarey’s Rainbow Pictures, and prevailed upon McCarey to deposit another $220,000 for the Completion Bond. Argosy then went to RKO and got a loan of $610,000 so they could repay McCarey, and pay Ford and Cooper their salaries. Ford and Cooper got John Wayne and Henry Fonda to defer $25,000 apiece from their salaries in exchange for 5% of the profits apiece. As security for this morass of debt, Argosy pledged the picture itself. In addition to their distribution fee, RKO’s share of the profits was increasing, from 33.3% on THE FUGITIVE to 40% on FORT APACHE.
“In almost every respect, it was a wretched deal. Before Argosy saw a dime, RKO deducted their distribution fee, the bank got their loan money with interest, and Fonda and Wayne got their deferments with interest… Merian Cooper could feel the noose tightening, and wrote Ford accordingly: “… I will depend on your ingenuity to cut off a few days – if possible – from the shooting schedule.”
Scott Eyman concludes that the deal Ford and Cooper got “gives some idea of just how badly the cards were stacked against independent production in Hollywood.” Particularly egregious was the requirement of a completion bond — an extra form of insurance by which third parties agree to finish the picture if the director and producer fail to do so. At $220,000, the bond cost almost 10% of the picture’s budget. This was a ludicrous, unnecessary additional expense, which the bank insisted on. It was ludicrous and unnecessary because Ford and Cooper were highly experienced professionals. Both men’s careers would have been over if they abandoned a project during production (something neither ever did). Nevertheless – because they were working outside the studio system – they were obliged to buy a bond. Completion bonds remain a problem faced by independent filmmakers to this day: though the cost has dropped to around 5% of the budget, a completion bond remains, for most professional filmmakers, an entirely unnecessary expense.
John Ford listened to his producer, as good directors should, and shot FORT APACHE in 45 days. When it was released, it grossed just over four million dollars – enough to break even, but not enough to make any real money for Argosy. The company existed till 1956, when Ford and Cooper shut it down. Argosy had made nine features, some of which were outstanding, and one of which – THE QUIET MAN – made a lot of money. Ford and Cooper had failed to make a killing, but they had made a decent living.
And what of the film itself? FORT APACHE is one of John Ford’s finest Westerns. It was shot in the location he loved best and returned to most often, Monument Valley, during the gap between the Second World War and the Korean War. It’s loosely based on the story of General Custer, who led his troops to defeat at the Little Big Horn. FORT APACHE depicts several well-intentioned people’s attempts to avoid a war, and one bigot’s ability to provoke it. John Wayne, as in THE BIG TRAIL, plays the white man who knows Indians; Henry Fonda plays his adversary and hierarchical superior. The scene where Capt. York (Wayne) challenges Col. Thursby (Fonda), and throws down his glove, has been overlooked by film critics: Wayne’s character, doing this, is challenging his superior officer to a duel. This is the highest form of military insubordination – yet Capt. York is right, and Col. Thursby is a racist ass whose vanity will bring about disaster.
FORT APACHE is uncommon in that it has Indian characters with names (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor, Miguel Inclán) who exercise autonomy, respond rationally, and aren’t savage, mysterious, or unknowable. Several times, Ford leaves us in no doubt as to the racism and immorality of Thursby; then, in a mysterious coda, Capt. York opposes the film’s message up to this point, insisting that the heroic memory of Thursby must be maintained, to promote the reputation and prestige of an ongoing, unspecified, military mission. Was the last scene a late addition, or always part of the story? World War Two had recently ended; US troops still occupied Germany, Italy, and Japan; the Korean War was only two years away.
Westerns are Westerns, set in the 19th century west of the Mississippi, yes. But they are made in the context of other films, of contemporary events, and as the genre refined itself, Westerns started to function as allegories. HIGH NOON (USA, 1952) was the story of a sheriff (Gary Cooper) desperate to raise a posse, whom no one would assist: it has, ever since its release, been regarded as a critique of popular passivity in the face of McCarthyism, witch-hunts, and the blacklist. RIO BRAVO (USA, 1959) was made as a riposte to HIGH NOON and told the story of an embattled sheriff (John Wayne) who needed no help, but got it anyway.
In the 1950s, Westerns became darker and began to doubt what the genre and its practitioners had previously known for sure. In THE SEARCHERS (USA, 1956), John Ford told the story of a man who both knows Indians and is dedicated to their extermination, Ethan Edwards (not surprisingly, played by John Wayne). By the early 1960s, the Western appeared to have run its course. 1962 saw two great ones, Ford’s LIBERTY VALANCE (again, with Wayne) and David Miller’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, starring Kirk Douglas. One was a progressive Western, the other populist; both were deep, respectful meditations on the disappearance / irrelevance of the old-style Western hero.
And just as it staggered ignominiously into the sunset, the Western was saved – by the Italians. Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy was vastly successful in Italy. Its wider distribution was delayed: Leone had “borrowed” the plot of his first Western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Italy/Spain, 1964), from a Kurosawa samurai film, YOJIMBO (Japan, 1961), and Kurosawa soon wrote to Leone,
“Signor Leone, I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film. As Japan is a signatory to the Berne Convention on international copyright, you must pay me. – Akira Kurosawa.”
A lawsuit between the Kurosawa Company and Leone’s producers ensued. Kurosawa won the Japanese rights and a share of the international profits. The film and its two sequels cleaned up abroad, as at home. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY made Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef movie stars, and gave a the genre a burst of energy – in the form of multiple shootouts, sadistic acts of villainy, striking sets and landscapes, and loud electric guitars. This was the Western in its baroque phase – as any of the set pieces of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (especially the final gunfight in a huge graveyard) will demonstrate.
Not all Italian Westerns had the budget or scale of Sergio Leone’s films. Leone is certainly the best-known director of the sub-genre, but there were other fine filmmakers working in the form. One of them was Sergio Corbucci, who like Leone began his career as an assistant director of gladiator movies. Corbucci made Westerns which were darker and even more violent than Leone’s. The most famous of these was DJANGO (Italy, 1966) — another film banned by the British film censor for many years. I’m going to show you the end of another of his films, perhaps the finest of all Italian Westerns, THE GREAT SILENCE / IL GRANDE SILENZIO (Italy, 1967).
THE GREAT SILENCE is the story of a mute gunfighter, played by the French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who makes his living as a killer of bounty hunters. When a group of innocent farmers are taken hostage by the villain, played by the Polish actor Klaus Kinski, Silence agrees to face him in a fair gunfight — even though his gun-hand has been badly burned in a fire. This is Corbucci’s take on the Western gunfight. Very different from Ford’s, it shows the hero gunned down and killed by villains who lie in wait for him. This is the way most Western gunfights went! I have researched these things, preparing for a Western on this very subject, and face-to-face showdowns, in daylight, like the one at the OK Corral, were extremely rare. Almost all the shootouts I have read about were ambushes, like the one Corbucci depicts (while the delicacy and beauty of Ennio Morricone’s score works in counterpoint to the horror of the scene). Nevertheless Corbucci’s pessimistic ending was considered extreme even by Italian standards, and the director – who as you might guess could be quite cynical about these things – shot an alternative ending, in case foreign distributors wouldn’t go for the original end. That ending (which can be found on the internet, with Italian dialogue) resurrects a subsidiary character, who rides to the rescue of Silence at the eleventh hour.
The Italian Western had a profound effect on the American Western. Many American directors simply chose to imitate the Italian form, shooting their films in the same Spanish locations as the Italians did. Even directors who didn’t simply copy the Italian aesthetic made films which were clearly informed by the Italians’ art direction and rich visual style. Consider McCABE & MRS MILLER, directed by Robert Altman four years after THE GREAT SILENCE, in 1971. Like THE GREAT SILENCE it is a populist Western, with a strong female protagonist and a pessimistic conclusion, set in the snow. Unlike Vonetta McGee (whose role in THE GREAT SILENCE was limited to a revengeful love-interest), Julie Christie plays a character every bit as strong as the male hero (Warren Beatty), who is more than able to best him in their verbal duels.
Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film: A Director’s Perspective, Kamera Books, 2016
Further reading about the Western:
West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, by Jane Tompkins, Oxford, 1992
Print The Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, 1999
Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America, by Richard Slotkin, U. of Oklahoma Press, 1998
10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Italian Western, by Alex Cox, Kamera Books, 2009, 2nd Edition 2019