July 2011, arsenal cinema

Once Upon A Time in the West (2) – The History of the Western Genre

THE WILD BUNCH, 1968

Our Western series continues until the end of July, showing films from all the key phases of the genre. The Western is essential for an understanding of the American nation, for it is here that its foundation myths are reaffirmed and challenged on a constant basis, as the genre moves between the conflicting demands of historical fact and the need to create myths and legends. The crisis in 1960s America that arose from social tensions, the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam is also reflected in the Western, with its heroes becoming insecure, melancholy and defeated. Finally, the Italo-Westerns and their opera-like, excessive staging ceased even to draw on reality anymore, taking their bearings instead from the Hollywood myths themselves.

RED RIVER (Howard Hawks, USA 1948, July 1) A trek of the megalomaniacal kind: driving 10,000 cattle across 1000 miles of impenetrable land. Tom Dunson (John Wayne) leads the months-long grind with an iron fist and a despotic, authoritarian manner. His unrelenting strictness breeds resentment among the cowboys, which threatens the success of the whole enterprise.

LITTLE BIG MAN (Arthur Penn, USA 1970, July 1 & 5) Centenarian Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffmann) tells a reporter about his adventurous life. He grew up as a white man among the Indians and experienced the frontier wars firsthand, living sometimes with the settlers and sometimes with the Indians. “Arthur Penn allows the sum total of myths and the unadulterated mania for showing how things really were to pass him by and creates a gigantic, ridiculous tableaux of American power mania, ignorance, and destructive urges.” (Harry Tomicek)

THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (Sam Peckinpah, USA 1969, July 2) Prospector Cable Hogue is robbed by his cronies and left behind in the desert without food or water. After wandering around in desperation for days on end, he discovers a spring, opens a stage-coach stop and ends up making his fortune. “CABLE HOGUE is thus different from the very start. Full of surprises, unique, strange, now and then brilliant, frequently steeped in a delirious humor, before becoming deeply sad again, gruff, and ultimately tender, with an peculiar lightness of touch with regards to the material.“ (Thomas Groh)

THE WILD BUNCH (Director’s Cut, Sam Peckinpah, USA 1968, July 2) Pike Bishop’s band hijacks a train and attempts to sell off the spoils in Mexico. It’s the year 1913 at the time of writing: the Wild West is already history and the outlaws have grown old and tired. Bishop wants to do just one last job before finally settling down. Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic masterpiece is the definitive late Western: radical, complex, and unflinching in its depiction of pain and violence.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (John Ford, USA 1946, July 3 & 9) The legend of Wyatt Earp is converted into a mythical, lyrical Western on a grand scale. In order to avenge his brother, Wyatt Earp takes on the sheriff’s job in Tombstone and eventually manages to destroy the Clanton clan with the help of Doc Holliday. The tone of the film is light and warm-hearted, with scenes from day-to-day life of an often captivating beauty taking precedence over the legendary showdown at the OK Corral: Earp and Clementine’s gentle courtship, scenes at the barber’s and in the saloon, and, as a highpoint, a dance as a tentative as it is tender.

WAGONMASTER (John Ford, USA 1950, July 3 & 27) A highly personal film by John Ford, that gets by entirely without either stars or aggrandizement. Two young cowboys are hired to lead a group of travelling Mormons, whose ranks are later boosted by a stranded show-troop and the Clegg clan. The director throws together a highly disparate group of people who are forced to prove their mettle in the face of danger. But above all, there’s always enough room to take in the small observations, camp life, adventurous river crossings, parties held to celebrate dangers vanquished: a wonderful balance of drama and comedy, movement and calm.

THE BIG SKY (Howard Hawks, USA 1952, July 4 & 21) Trapper Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and his adventurer friend Boone Caudill travel up the Missouri river to buy skins from the Blackfoot Indians, bringing along the daughter of the Indian chief as a hostage as a means of securing the Indians’ favor. A fur company is in pursuit of this group of travelers, with this latent danger forming a stark contrast to the beautiful natural surroundings of the river. Above all however, the film is about both the friendship between two men, which only intensifies due to the hardships they endure, and the type of adventurer that the wide, unexplored country gave birth to in the Western.

DEAD MAN (Jim Jarmusch USA 1995, July 7 & 22) William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, is no typical Western hero. Dressed in fine threads, he travels from Cleveland to a desolate Western backwater where he is supposed to start work as an accountant. Unaware of what’s really going on around him, he gets involved in a shooting and ends up with a bullet in the stomach. He then retreats back into the woods with an Indian who has lived in England and believes him to be the poet William Blake – a unique, hallucinatory trip back to the source, with a congenial musical accompaniment provided by Neil Young.

THE GREAT SILENCE (Il grande silenzio, Sergio Corbucci, Italy/France 1968, July 8 & 18) Utah in the winter of 1896: a group of outlaws are holed up in the snow-covered mountains and threatened with starvation. Bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski), whose satanic grin is indicative of his modus operandi, is also decimating their number in a coolly calculated manner. Mute gunslinger Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is hired to kill Loco, who is clever enough to lead his opponent into a deadly trap however. Corbucci himself on the film: "I dedicated the film to Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Bob Kennedy and everyone else who had been murdered and whose death served some purpose, if only to condemn violence at the very least."

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (Sam Peckinpah, USA 1973, July 9 & 31) Peckinpah’s last Western, "A reformulation of how a Western should end, and another final, definitive Western about the end of the West after the genre itself had reached its end" (Harry Tomicek). Pat Garrett, who is now on the side of the law, kills his old friend Billy the Kid and himself, his youth and his freedom with it. The story of a friendship with shades of a father-son-relationship that is so symbiotic that their two lives can no longer be separated from one another. With music by Bob Dylan (who also has a small role as a member of Billy’s gang).

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (C'era una volte il West, Sergio Leone, Italy/ USA 1968, July 10 & 19) Leone's baroque Wild West opera provides a dazzling finale to the era of the Italo-Western. A nameless mouth-organ player (Charles Bronson) intervenes in an argument between the unscrupulous boss of a rail company and an Irish immigrant family. "The ideas and images contained in this film are, more than in any other European Western, a dream about the universal American legend and the American promise that was not to be fulfilled." (Georg Seeßlen)

THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (Clint Eastwood, USA 1976, July 11 & 23) During the Civil War, a peaceful farmer sets out to avenge the murder of his family and gathers together a group of outsiders to this end over the course of his long journey. They end settling on the Mexican border, where this substitute family founds a farm. "A key film in Eastwood’s oeuvre not just due to the way in which his directorial style is confidently balanced between that of his mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but primarily because it represents a quantum leap forward in the expansion of his own (star) persona. His wordless, mythical avenger learns to (re-) integrate himself into society and shows a level of vulnerability unheard of up until then. One of the best American epics of the 1970s and one of the richest creations with regards to Eastwood’s key theme –how to live and survive both during and after the war." (Christoph Huber)

DUEL IN THE SUN (King Vidor, USA 1946, July 12 & 24) A Western that can hardly be topped in terms of Technicolor artificiality, telling the story of a love-hate relationship that manifests itself in unbridled passion, staged by producer David O. Selznick and director King Vidor as a bombastic drama. Half-Indian Pearl is loved by two brothers who could not be more different from one another: while Jesse shows her respect, Lewt follows in the footsteps of his father’s racism and despises and desires her in equal measure. These calamitous proceedings culminate in a deadly duel that brings together the lovers for one final time.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (John Ford, USA 1949, July 14 & 17) John Wayne is a widowed cavalry captain about to retire. When he escorts two women to a post wagon station, he finds it razed to the ground and is forced to admit that the Indians are gathering themselves for new attacks. He sets out on a controversial peace mission and is able to avert an attack. Ford’s atmospheric images are reminiscent of Western painter Frederic Remington in both color and composition and form the framework of this melancholy portrait of a farewell, which is nonetheless punctuated by several amusing interludes.

RIVER OF NO RETURN (Otto Preminger, USA 1954, July 14 & 25) A man, woman and child on a raft on a roaring river trying to escape from the Indians. Widow Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) and saloon singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe) both have a past: he spent time in prison and has to learn how to be a family for his son, while she was left behind by her gambler husband. They are now dependant on each another and are both struggling with ambivalent feelings, which fluctuate between dislike and fascination. A film loved by Herbert Achternbusch: “I changed seats for the next film, so that no-one would think that the bloodstain under the seat was from me, for my heart really did bleed.”

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (John Ford, USA 1962, July 15 & 17) Ford’s late-period Western, which looks to uncover the truth behind the legend. Senator Stoddard has built his career on having famously killed feared bandit Liberty Valance in a one-on-one duel. Years later, he no longer wants to live a lie and tries to set the facts straight. But the reporter to whom he tells his story ends up throwing his notes into the fire, deciding to print the myth instead of the truth. “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (Sam Peckinpah, USA 1961, July 20 & 28) The heroes of Peckinpah’s second Western are old and tired, need glasses and can no longer get into the saddle by themselves. These two gunfighters looking to do one final job are played by two aging Western stars, Joel McCrea und Randolph Scott. The Western world of 1900 no longer has any use for its old heroes, who have nothing left to do but fade in dignity.