All I really remembered from The Hour of the Gun (1967) is mainly the blue skies and the train scenes which inspired a platform shelter I made a few years ago in the studio. After revisiting The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) I knew I would ultimately be taking a look at the later take on the Wyatt Earp biopic’s that was also directed by John Sturges which I’ve never known why. John Ford never thought to return to the town of Tombstone after My Darling Clementine (1946). Maybe it was a chance for Sturges to rewrite what he made a decade earlier. Feeling he could have served the legend more respectfully. I suppose he could have also wanted to carry on the legend beyond the gunfight at the infamous corral where the Clanton/Earp war came to a head.
I wonder what these two films would be like if played back to back? As one finishes at the gunfight, the later begins just before, no bravado, just silent build up, no dialogue, a few meetings of the eyes as both sides meet. Already the second half is more mature, we lose the big screen personalities of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for actors who can really be lost in the roles. James Garner (Earp) and Jason Robards (Doc Holiday) who are more suited, it’s not about the image of the actor, more about the legend which is being retold and extended. Going into more detail to the events after the gunfight that up to that point had been forgotten. That’s one thing film can do, draw on forgotten parts, all with a touch of Hollywood magic of course.
The first real attempt at full of realism of the events in both films comes in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) I still can’t decided which is the better film. Back to John Sturges gunfight we are now looking at the consequences of what was ultimately a questionable act by lawmen, who killed the Clanton’s with such force, the gunfight is over before you even realise it’s begun. We do still have Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) who is out for revenge and power throughout the film. Even thought Ryan comes from the golden age of film, due to his age he’s better suited to the, never quite making it to the star status of his contemporaries but could easily act the socks off of them.
Looking at this as part of two the Wyatt Earp legend the characters are paired down to just a few brothers. We loose Holiday’s mistress friend Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), written out completely, not even being mentioned. Its all about that important relationship and seeking revenge for the deaths and attacks on his family. Using the framework of the law to get revenge, loosely called justice, or his version of justice. Holiday becomes Earp’s conscience as Earp is more ready to release the lead from his six-shooter. And you can’t blame him. The law and order he has built up is being under-mind. His family at the receiving end of violence. What started out as a cattle war becomes a family war, there’s more at stake, more drama when blood is involved, both sides have been hurt here.
If I’m honest, this is not my favourite incarnation of the legend, however it does start to really explore what these two iconic men of the Wild West. They are not just cooped up in the towns the helped bring law and order to, We explore their lives beyond, as they travel the Arizona territory, trying to stay alive and settle the wrongs that have been made. The Hour of the Gun (1967) is a maturer take on a historical figure that he had not yet received. There are not great big set-pieces in this film that focuses more on character and fact which works in it’s favor. Maybe Sturges has matured also as a director, wanting to bring more truth the legend that has become that facts that everyone takes for granted.
A few years ago I reviewed Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) not really understanding what was really going on in this early neo-western. With my ever-growing knowledge of the genre I was hungry to re-watch this short but ever so sweet and tense western that gets to the point and scratches it like a rash until it bleeds allowing the truth to come out of the town that John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), the first stranger to step off a train into this tumble weed of a town that has stood still.
From the first moment that Macreedy steps off the train he is met with cold opposition from nearly everyone he meets. All he wants to do is find a Japanese man named Komoko. Is he investigating him for a crime, the strangers purpose is not fully explained until the last act, We and the town are left guess who this guy is, what does he want? We are all on tenterhooks as to what is going on.
A town led by Rene Smith (Robert Ryan) who is hot on the tail of a man who won’t b budged in his search for a man we soon learnt no longer lives out on adobe flats. Smith is a cold calculated man who has everyone under his thumb, able to incite fear in them, reminding them of four years ago, the last time that they saw Komoko who we are told was taken to a relocation centre in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. 4 years on there is still a strong hatred for the enemy who they have been fighting for four years. Mostly in the form of Smith’s resentment for not being accepted into the forces. Feeding out into the town taking the form of fear that pits the strong against the weak.
The weak don’t stay down for long, with the local doctor Velie (Walter Brennan) who has had enough of the strangle hold on this old western town that has been lost to the ravages of time. Kept alive by a few, some of the old ways never die. It seems that the silent and weak won’t take anymore. Glad to see someone shake things up for them and boy does Tracy shake things up, even a veteran with only one arm can still stand his ground in this masculine world that seems to be lost in the wake of the recent horrors abroad.
We have all the regulars of the west transported to not so distant period in modern history, with as shirt, jeans and that classic hat we are back in the west, out in the middle of nowhere, a perfect place for the truth to be hidden. Made at a time when the fear of communism was at a high, livelihoods in Hollywood on the line in the “witch hunt”. The atmosphere of fear to speak up or stay quiet was at its height. Changing the themes to fears of Japanese Americans, fearing they were once the country’s enemy.
You can feel the tension in the classic western, with tight acting from all of the cast, a broad spectrum of character to represent the nation in a state of fear, The truth is a powerful weapon in the hands of both the weak and strong. Its how we handle it is what matters, making for a film that is on fire as we wait to see who will crack under the pressure of a stranger just wanting to do the right thing.
- GSK Faces a Bad Day at Black Rock (tfoxlaw.wordpress.com)
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- Two screen-specific scenes from Bad Day at Black Rock (filmschoolthrucommentaries.wordpress.com)
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1001films.wordpress.com)
I remember seeing My Darling Clementine (1946) very early on when I started to watch all these classic films which now inform my work. I wasn’t aware at all of what this film was really about. Seeing a man come into town taking the marshals job to ensure that he could seek out revenge for his brothers murder. It’s only with the passing of time, and seeing more film adaptations of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral that I can see a lineage going on here, as new information is found new films are made. Different directors give their spin to the events, John Sturges gave us two interpretations Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Hour of the Gun (1957) which expanded vasty on the events that we all know of. Here however in the events are told from the true perspective of Wyatt Earp who once met John Ford who’s version stands heads above the others I have seen, telling him how the shoot-out actually happened, making the audience wait until the end.
The build up is really non-existent as we drift from scene to scene, even over the short running time of the film, a lot actually takes places, from the very start we are introduced to the Earp brothers who are not as we expect them, out in the open country with cattle it feels out of place, yet strangely not, they just are. We are introduced to the Clanton’s lead by Walter Brennan who fitted easily from role good to bad guy with ease. Whilst Henry Fonda personifies the up standing Marshall Wyatt Earp who reluctantly takes on his old job in Tombstone to give him licence to avenge his brother James’s death. His remaining brothers follow.
Tombstone is not the classic boom-town that we know from later films, located once more in Monument Valley a location that becomes John Ford country in years to come. Photographed as a mythical land where these events take place, creating instead a small town in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilisation which is creeping up on the people of the town. Lit as a classic film and heavy lighting you could easily mistake it for a film-noir or one of Ford’s earlier films such as The Informer (1935) in the streets of Ireland. The lack of music is eerie at times, whilst other times you hardly notice it, swept away by the people who inhabit this small town.
The main characters of course are all there, from Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) taking on a more adversarial role, competing to enforce the law, whilst still suffering from tuberculosis. All of the Earp and Clanton brothers are present, with the addition of two women who create tension for the two lead men as they try and see eye to eye. Is this the truth or just a Fordian touch to the legend?
It’s classic Ford at his best, writing his own passages of American legend that easily tips into fiction into facts with a sense of grandeur with the lightest of touches. We can see a love for the open country and the people who helped shape it. Defined here by the stars of the day who were seen as god like figures who graced the screens. With breathtaking scenery and by chance shots of the sky that encapsulate everything that Ford is known for. This is what I missed the first time around with this film, all the little touches from the first shot of Earp/Fonda from below, a historical figure and hero of a not so distant past. Complete with the homely touches of the Ford Stock Company who becoming like a travelling band of actors who bring to life the ideas and visions of Ford. I love the director more now than I did a day ago.
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.