Do you like Westerns? Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The schedules of the only two TV channels were dominated by long running Western series, from ‘Davy Crockett’ and ‘Wyatt Earp’ for children, to the more mature ‘dramas’ of ‘Wagon Train’ or ‘Bonanza’. Westerns then were even more ubiquitous than US cops shows today, and at least as pervasive of UK culture—especially if you were a boy under 10.
Of course, in the movies, the Western genre has led to many great peaks, and the first film I was allowed up to watch all the way through, on our black and white TV, was John Ford’s masterpiece ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. It was a formative influence, though I was an adult before I realised the original film was in colour. And Ford’s achievement was matched by directors like Howard Hawks (‘Red River’, ‘Rio Bravo’) and Anthony Mann (the series of 50s Westerns with James Stewart, such as ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘The Far Country’).
But those pinnacles were atop a mountain of other Western movies, stretching all the way back to ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903. And a lot of those Westerns were ‘B’ movies. We all know what a ‘B’ Western looks like, don’t we? The good guys wear white hats and the villains black. There’s a saloon with a honky tonk piano and a good time girl with a heart of gold. There’s a dipsomaniac doctor who patches up the gunshot wounds (usually, conveniently, in the shoulder). Oh, and ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. And the whole thing would have been filmed on the studio lot or, at best, in the nearby Hollywood hills. Well, if you think that, then you saw too many episodes of ‘Gusmoke’ as a nipper. The truth is both richer and stranger.
In recent weeks I’ve been exploring the more distant reaches of the Freeview schedules, and have come across a range of little known Westerns, none of which I have any memory of seeing before (not even on a wet Sunday afternoon), and all of which depart from the usual stereotypes in almost every respect. They range from just after the Second War until the late 60s, when the influence of spaghetti westerns was beginning to be felt in Hollywood.
The first is ‘Canyon Passage’ from 1946, starring Dana Andrews, and directed by the great (and still undervalued) Jacques Tourneur, just after his collaboration with producer Val Lewton on the great run of horror films that included ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’. ‘Canyon Passage’ is immediately unusual in opening in a downpour. This is because it’s set in Oregon, among the mining community, and Andrews plays a very untypical Western hero, a man trying to make his fortune in business, through running mule trains of supplies from the coast up to the miners. It has a detailed sense of realism. Men stick their guns in their trouser belts, rather than in tailor-made holsters. There’s a fantastic sequence of a house-raising that must have influenced both ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, and ‘Witness’. And the characters are complicated and uncliched, with no straightforward heroes, and only one outright villain, whose actions place him beyond the bounds of this emerging ‘civilisation’. It’s as rich as a novel, and the use of the unusual locations, in saturated Technicolor, is outstanding.
Coincidentally, my next example is the last film produced by Tourneur’s collaborator Val Lewton, before his early death. If, with its generous running time and big stars, ‘Canyon Passage’ is perhaps not truly a ‘B’ movie, ‘Apache Drums’ is the real deal. No big names (the lead is Stephen McNally, good enough to deserve being better known), and a taut running time of just 75 minutes. But there’s the same unusual choice of location, this time among a Welsh (!) mining community in New Mexico, so all the buildings are made of a rich orange adobe, which positively glowed in the good print that was screened. The bulk of the film tells how, after an Indian attack, the survivors of the town, and of a cavalry patrol, are besieged overnight in the adobe church by marauding Apaches. It is a genuinely original, chilling and tense half hour of screen time, which must surely have been a big influence on John Carpenter’s seminal ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, not to mention ‘Zulu’. In fact there’s one sequence, which I won’t spoil, that makes the ‘Zulu’ link certain.
‘The Last Frontier’ is from just four years later, 1955, and is one of the astonishing long run of Westerns directed by Anthony Mann that began with ‘Winchester ‘73’ in 1950 and ended with ‘Cimarron’ in 1960, just before he switched to epics and made the greatest of them all, ‘El Cid’. Mann’s Westerns are often called ‘psychological’ because the drama so often turns on flaws and quirks of character, rather than external plot devices. ‘The Last Frontier’, probably the least known of the set, is very much in this vein. Victor Mature gives a career-best performance (yes, really!) as a scout who’s been brought up as a ‘child of nature’, and Robert Preston is the career-driven Army officer who leads his command to destruction. Oregon is again the location, far from most of the normal Western stereotypes, and Mann uses the landscape as imaginatively as his namesake Michael Mann (no relation) would do on ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, a film surely indebted to this older Western
My last movie is a much later example. On the face of it, ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, (1968) starring those two Western stalwarts Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, shouldn’t really be considered a ‘B’, but the director, Jerry Thorpe, mostly worked in TV and will never be called an ‘auteur’. The film shows the influence of Sergio Leone’s then popular movies in being set in Mexico, and the high body count certainly mirrors that of the average spaghetti western. But something odd is going on: Ford, ostracised by the community as a former gunslinger, never actually shoots anyone in the course of the film. Instead the film traces the descent of Kennedy’s character, from ‘man of peace’ to ruthless killer, with pitiless detachment.
For all their differences, and the time range of over 20 years, these films have a surprising amount in common. I’ve already alluded to the unusual settings, and the complexity of the characterisation. But the biggest contradiction to the stereotypes of such films lies in the treatment of Native Americans. In all four films the ‘Indians’ are shown as being brave and resourceful, with a rich culture, a strict honour code, and legitimate (and often very explicit) grievances against the ‘white man’ . Even in ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, where the plot requires them to be both renegade and dangerous, there’s a remarkable sequence where the Apaches are shown carefully collecting their dead after a shoot-out, whereas their white opponents walk off, leaving their dead companions where they fell.
The female characters, too, are often strong, individual, and self-motivated—no mere props for the male heroes. The community in which each film is set, from mining town to cavalry fort, is lovingly realised, with a wealth of ‘bit part’ characters of real individuality. Fight scenes are often surprisingly realistic in their clumsiness, brutality, and ultimate failure to resolve anything. And all four films, short or long, tell their stories with great economy and subtlety, relying heavily on visual narrative, or on dialogue that is spare and distinctive.
If we want to find a present day equivalent to films of such richness and depth, we have to look to TV, to ‘Games of Thrones’ perhaps, or the revisionist Western series ‘Deadwood’. In Hollywood, the studio system that produced these little gems is now locked into blockbusters, sequels and franchises. So my recommendation is, study your Radio Times carefully—with a magnifying glass, if need be—as there are treasures to be found at 9.30 on the morning on 5USA, or 3.00 in the afternoon on FilmFour. And if, as I do, you record them, they make a great distraction while doing the ironing!
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A recent TV interview with Clive James—dying, but still remarkably chipper—prompted me to get down to what I’d been planning to do for some time, and start re-reading his magnum opus, ‘Cultural Amnesia’. At just short of 900 pages, this could be a daunting prospect, but first time round, just after it was published in 2007, I devoured this inspiring, engrossing, infuriating book in just the three weeks of a standard library loan. Indeed, it’s partly because I raced through it so enthusiastically the first time round, that I wanted to go back for a more considered second encounter.
There are many areas of the arts in which length can be a serious drawback, especially in literature: crime novels, thrillers and SF were all much better when the novels were, on average, half the length they are now (see my earlier blog on Michael Gilbert). And that’s not just true of literature: blockbuster movies, ‘event’ exhibitions, prestige TV series, even, some might argue, operas, can all suffer from the inverse ratio that, the longer (or bigger) they are, the less effective their impact (often due to sheer exhaustion). Initiatives like ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’ have shown how much time-poor audiences can be attracted by something short and pithy.
But I make an exception for certain kinds of books that focus on history and culture. Here’s a list of some of those I’ve had no trouble in getting to the end of, in the last 10 years or so:
Norman Davies: ‘The Isles’ (1220 pages) and ‘Europe’ (1364 pages)
Orlando Figes: ‘A People’s Tragedy’ (922 pages; the story of the Russian revolution)
Christopher Clark: ‘The Iron Kingdom’ (777 pages; the history of Prussia)
A N Wilson: ‘The Victorians’ (738 pages)
Diarmid MacCulloch: ‘A History of Christianity’ (1216 pages, and one of my favourite books of all time)
Tony Judt: ‘Postwar’ (960 pages, a history of Europe since 1945)
Simon Schama: ‘Landscape and Memory’ (652 pages, and one that definitely repaid a second read)
Peter Watson: ‘The German Genius’ (964 pages)
Kenneth Roy: ‘The Invisible Spirit’ (542 pages; a history of Scotland, 1945-75)
Amanda Foreman: ‘A World on Fire’ (1040 pages, Britain and the American Civil War)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: ‘Civilisations’ (636 pages)
Sorry, that can’t avoid looking a bit like boasting, but I’ve drawn up the list to make what I think is an important point. What all these books have in common–apart from the fact that they’re well written, of course—is that they are each a truly immersive experience. By the time I had finished each of these books, my mind was in quite a different place, and I would never be able to think in the same way again about, say, the history of the British Isles, Prussian ‘militarism’, or ‘Victorian values’.
Short books can of course also have a similar impact. Richard Holloway’s ‘Godless Morality’ is a slim 164 pages, but I don’t think anyone with an open mind could get to the last page without having that mind altered in significant ways. But that’s a work of ethics and philosophy. When we’re talking about history, or cultural history, there is something about the accumulation of significant details, about being drawn into a complex web of themes, narratives, personalities and events, about living intensely with the subject, for the weeks (or even months) that it takes to navigate through such long books, that is essential to the process of true learning, the kind of learning that changes minds.
Of course, no-one is going to retain all the detail contained in any of these books, not even after a second, third or fourth reading. But what I find is, that the knowledge that that detail exists, that these complex webs of connections have been mapped, that the author’s conclusions—should they choose to come to any—have been arrived at only after years of living with and sifting through this mass of material, is essential to the process of absorption and understanding.
In the age of the sound bite (or byte), of the shared item on Facebook, of 15 minute TED talks, this is not, perhaps, a popular view. But maybe it’s a necessary one. I didn’t know, when I started any of the books listed above, how reading them was going to change my view of their subjects, or of the wider world. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t pick them up with the intention of reinforcing already entrenched views. In many cases, these books surprised me (as a convinced atheist, perhaps most of all ‘A History of Christianity’) and often encouraged me to read further, or to enter into debates less dogmatically. Take Norman Davies ‘The Isles’, for example. His policy of referring to the British Isles, and their constituent nations and regions, only by the names by which they were known during the particular period he is writing about (eg Britannia, Alba, even made-up names for prehistoric eras) is such a forceful demonstration of the contingent nature of history that I’ve never thought the same way about nation states since. As Davies’ other great book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, forcefully demonstrates, nation-building has never been a teleological process.
It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who first famously said that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Perhaps if British and UK politicians had had the chance to read William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’ (608 pages) they would have thought twice about once again becoming ensnared in the troubled history of Afghanistan but, sadly, that book was published too late to make that possible. But even if it had been around to influence the policymakers, back in 2001, would any of them have thought to read it? John Major’s favourite bedtime reading is apparently Trollope, and if that includes the devastating critique of society in ‘The Way We Live Now’, then that’s no bad thing, but I don’t see many of our present leaders, or their advisors, as serious readers.
But, just maybe, instead of investing the 80 hours it takes to watch the five seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, we put a similar time into a bit of serious reading, we might be better placed to challenge the policy-makers in terms they’d find hard to ignore. Which brings us back to Clive James, who pondered the book that became ‘Cultural Amnesia’ over a forty year period, as a defence of Humanism, and a celebration of diversity of thought. If he can spare forty years to write it, perhaps we can spare as many hours to read it.