The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey, by John Saunders. London: Wallflower Press, £11.99. New York: Columbia University Press, $16.95. 2001, 144pp, ISBN 1-903364-12-4
The best film books combine a love of filmic recollection with an enthusiasm for film literature. Academic John Saunders’ introduction to the western in Wallflower’s Short Cuts series contains some evocative rehearsals of particular films alongside valuable signposts to books and essays on the genre.
Saunders manages to pack a great deal into a short space, tracing a useful outline of the western from Stagecoach (1939) to Unforgiven(1992). In short absorbing chapters, he ranges from the classical — My Darling Clementine (1946), The Naked Spur (1953) — through the revisionist — The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970) — to that late flowering seemingly triggered by Dances with Wolves (1990). In doing so, he shows how the western’s archetypes responded to history and public taste during a half century in which reworkings of one seminal era in American nationhood saw filmmakers and audiences work through the consequences of another. Chapter 3 examines the legend of Jesse James as seen through the perspectives of three very different films: Jesse James(1939), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and The Long Riders(1980). Chapter 5 traces the representation of the Native American in Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves, and Ulzana’s Raid (1972). In his first chapter, “Reading a Western,” Saunders focuses on a film that distilled the genre’s essence; Shane(1953). In it he identifies the archetypal characters and events — outlaw, homesteader, acceptance, shooting lesson, gunfight, departure — that have structured western after western and recur continuously throughout the book.
Saunders teaches literature and film at the University of Newcastle in the UK, and his love of the western can be felt in the gusto with which he captures the look and feel of individual movies. Describing a scene from The Naked Spur, he writes: “The sun is still falling through the trees as beautifully as a few moments before the carnage began, while they mount up to strains of tragic melancholy on the cor anglais and accompanying strings. Howie is the last to leave the clearing, pausing head bowed to look back over the shadows on the ground and the spread-eagled body of the Indian he has killed.” You wish this kind of patient observation, reverence even, occurred more widely in writing on the cinema. After watching the film, I returned to Saunders and he brought the film back with enriched vigour. Elsewhere, the writer’s knowledge of western textures extends to isolating an archetypal exchange of dialogue in Ulzana’s Raid: “One can hear John Wayne saying many of the same lines, and indeed one sometimes has.” Saunders has a feeling for the interface between auteur, film and historical moment: “As several of the leading players entered their sixties, a fashion for reactivating ageing gunfighters who find themselves in a changing world links David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave, Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance and Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country; each released in 1962.”
But whilst acknowledging that the conception and reception of Jesse James was likely coloured by America’s experience of the Depression, Saunders seems oddly reluctant to surmise in that film’s abandonment of what it saw as “the tragic war between the states” a need for national solidarity in the face of the possibility of another war. Again, the decision to have Henry King, veteran picture maker with a penchant for the American vernacular, direct the film records the play of auteur, genre, film and historical moment.
An air of wistful regret for the passing of the horseman suffuses the book, Saunders grateful for the literature the western has bequeathed us. Turning to his bibliography, a rigorous catalogue of debates in book and periodical, we face an embarrassment of choice. In The Western Reader (1998), Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman wrote that “we are all auteurist, genre, formalist and ideological critics now,” and the postmodern predilection for picking and choosing critical positions is well facilitated by the books Saunders introduces. The Western Genre may begin its survey in 1939, but was prepared by the lights of a wealth of opinion set down since reviewers in 1908 complained that they’d seen it all before. For its vistas and its kinesis, the western has been described as the genre most given to cinema, the cinema having emerged as the West was won and organically, so it seemed, out of the embers of actual frontier history. Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking novels (1823-41), Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893), and Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) remain touchstones for that ’60s and ‘70s efflorescence in the literature of the western. Indeed, aimed primarily at undergraduate Film Studies majors, Saunders’ guide is essential to what, if you are lucky, can be dug out of the library. From Bazin’s plea for a pure western in the ‘40s, through Franco-American auteurism in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I paused in 1969 at the appearance of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and Horizons West, Wollen and Kitses’ structuralist keynotes and magic moments in this reviewer’s education. With Levi-Strauss to underpin them, Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique and Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society in the ‘70s continued the search for a totalizing account of this quintessentially American genre. In the ‘90s, gender and spectatorship fed into The Movie Book of the Western (1996), in time for such releases as Unforgiven, Geronimo (1994) and Dead Man (1995) in which the play of gender, ethnicity and new masculinities find fresh expression.
In spite of the book’s generic focus, its filmography is noticeably more inclusive —Bonnie and Clyde, Reservoir Dogs, Death Wish — presumably suggesting the western’s organic relationship with other genres. But doing so exposes a flaw. The estimation of ‘Post-westerns’, set well into the twentieth century — “often seem to involve Paul Newman in blue jeans, driving around in a pick-up truck” — seems lazy. For example, what about The Misfits (1960), Comes a Horseman (1978), A Perfect World (1993), Hi-Lo Country (1998)? Nevertheless, The Western Genre remains an incisive, lovingly written, and tantalizing introduction to its subject.