I wasn’t raised on westerns the way many film fans were. Maybe it’s because of my age – the western has been a relatively dead genre for most of my life. I remember going to the theater with my dad in 1992 to see Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” I liked it, but I couldn’t appreciate it the way he could because I wasn’t familiar with the genre conventions. I’d never seen a “classic” western. I didn’t know who John Ford and Howard Hawks were. I hadn’t even bothered to watch any of the post-modern spaghetti westerns on TV, though they aired on TBS practically every Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t until I started taking film classes in college that I realized what I was missing.
One course in particular, taught by Ralph A. Cohen (founder of the American Shakespeare Center), instructed me and my peers in the lost art of two “dead” American genres: the musical and the western. I never got too hooked on musicals, though I loved the RKO movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (especially “Swing Time”) and I watched Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” repeatedly. Westerns were another story - I loved every single film we watched.
I now realize that the course focused pretty exclusively on the “classic” period of the American western, starting with John Ford’s 1939 film “Stagecoach” and ending with his 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve branched out a little more – into the b-westerns of the 1930s and postmodern westerns that have been popping up randomly since the 1970s like lone gunslingers on an empty plain. The main thing that has renewed my interest is the fact that this genre relies heavily on scenery – not just as a backdrop, but as an aspect of the storytelling – and much of the scenery from these films is more or less in my backyard.
In Lone Pine this past weekend, I realized that I was walking on sacred ground for western fans. Location scout Dave Holland wrote a book about the films (mostly westerns) shot in and around Lone Pine and the neighboring Alabama Hills – from a Fatty Arbuckle short called “The Roundup” (1920) to iconic westerns like “The Lone Ranger” (1938), “Rawhide” (1951) and “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955). From the “eastern” colonial epic “Gunga Din” (1939) to the Humphrey Bogart / Ida Lupino film noir “High Sierra” (1941). From modern-day science fiction B-movies like “Tremors” (1991) and “Crossworlds” (1997) to recent action films like “G.I. Jane” (1997) and “Gladiator” (2000). Mind you: these are just a few of the titles that jumped out at me as I went down the list. Holland names literally dozens of old westerns that I have yet to watch.
A few weeks ago, I felt so bad about my ignorance of the genre that I asked a few knowledgeable people, including film critic Dennis Fischer and a fellow filming locations blogger ("The Great Silence"), to compile a list of “must-sees.” In addition to the legendary westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and genre staples like “High Noon” (1952), “Shane” (1953) and “The Big Country” (1958), they pointed me to the films of Anthony Mann (“Winchester ’73,” “Bend of the River,” “The Naked Spur,” “The Far Country,” “The Man from Laramie,” “The Tin Star”) and Budd Boetticher (“Seven Men from Now,” “The Tall T,” “Decision at Sundown,” “Buchanan Rides Alone,” “Westbound,” “Ride Lonesone,” “Comanche Station”). Boetticher shot a fair number of his films in the Alabama Hills, right out the front door of our hotel. Unfortunately, I was unable to identify any specific filming locations. No matter… Dave Holland has already done that work in his excellent book, and “The Great Silence” has provided numerous posts on the Alabama Hills and on the Lone Pine Film History Museum (a nice companion to the Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park).
In the introduction to his book, Holland enthusiastically writes: “If as a kid, you went to the movies on Saturday afternoons for a dime at that little neighborhood theater over by the cleaners or were a baby boomer kid raised on Saturday morning TV, then these rugged rocks and narrow passes were the scene of so many of the great cowboy adventures with Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And Tom Mix and Ken Maynard and Buck Jones. And The Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley, and Have Gun, Will Travel. On the other hand, if you were a little older and went to the movies on Saturday nights down town, then the Alabama Hills weren’t associated with the cowboy heroes at all. Instead, you remember the ‘A’ pictures: Gregory Peck as The Gunfighter or Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd or Kirk Douglass in his first Western, Along The Great Divide.” I wasn’t around to experience the A pictures or the B pictures in the theater, but reading this book and visiting these hills sure makes me wish I had been. The best I can do is to watch the films on DVD and plan another trip to Lone Pine in the not-too-distant future. Maybe for the annual film festival in October…
In the meantime, I’ll be doing my homework – my Netflix queue is full, and I’ve been reading up on the genre. Last week, I came across an internet article that categorized westerns into four distinct phases: Early Westerns, covering the period between the battle of the Alamo (1836) and the Civil War / Middle Westerns, covering the period between the Civil War and the Indian Wars at Wounded Knee (1890) / Late Westerns, covering the period between Wounded Knee and the Mexican Revolution (1920) / and Postmodern Westerns (Spaghetti westerns? Space westerns?). I think it’s fascinating to look at the genre in terms of American history… though probably also a bit frustrating. From what I can tell, the classic Hollywood westerns weren’t half as concerned with history as they were with entertainment.
In his 1973 book “The Western: From Silents to Seventies” (Penguin), film critic George Fenin wrote that, in the postmodern era, the western has become more ambitious – serving as “a tool for interpretation of that era in terms that we can understand, and hopefully a weapon against repetition in the future of the evils of frontier mentality, its violence and intolerance.” This, he says, is why the Western is today more “relevant” than ever before… “Spurred by the cinema’s re-creation, past errors and injustices may be corrected and possibly even kept from being repeated.” This seems like an apt explanation for why we’re witnessing a minor Western-revival (“Deadwood,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” etc.) in the age of the Iraq War. Maybe this is a genre that’s long overdue for a comeback – a genre that could give a new generation of Americans a taste of history, reminding us of founding principles and mistakes.
In his influential 1992 book “Culture Wars,” James Davison Hunter argued that “our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans are now at odds.” I believe this is even more true in 2008 than it was in 1992. And what genre could better address “who we are as Americans”? It shows us at our worst (in our ignorant obsession with violence and power) and at our best (fighting for our beliefs, even when hopelessly outgunned by mobs and bureaucrats). I say keep ‘em coming…
This is the last leg of the Badwater ultramarathon, leading up to Mt. Whitney. It's also where Humphrey Bogart eluded police in "High Sierra."
Khyber Pass (from “Gunga Din”)
Movie Road in Alabama Hills
Movie Road, looking west. If I'm not mistaken, this is where "Tremors" was shot.
Screenwriter S.S. Wilson explains the origins of the film: "The original idea for Tremors was written while I worked down on the China Lake Naval Base as a film editor, one of my first jobs. While out hiking near town, I became aware of what is called an Ant lion. They make cone shaped holes in the sand, when an ant comes by the Ant lion will flick dirt up and suck the ant into its hole. I was hiking on some large rocks, similar to the ones in the Alabama Hills, when I happened to see this happen. I thought to myself, 'what would happen if there was something like that under the sand and I couldn't get off this rock?'"
The Lone Pine Film Museum is now home to the giant graboid worms.
Next – “The Wild West, Part 3: Red Rock Canyon”