Monday, March 31, 2008

The Rawhide Stagecoach at the Lone Pine Film Museum

I wanted to follow up the last entry with a picture of the stagecoach that was allegedly used in the movie Rawhide.

Rawhide will be coming out on dvd in May. It is worth a purchase. If you want a sneak preview regarding what the movie is about then refer back to my last entry where I talk about one of the locations in the movie.

The stagecoach is currently at the Lone Pine Film Museum in Lone Pine, CA. Jim Rogers, whose name along with his wife’s is part of the museum name placed it there. Some of Mr. Rogers’s collection is held in the museum. There are other items loaned there as well as permanent items.

One thing to note is that the museum is no longer free. Please note that the current website, as of this writing, and the recent True West (April 2008, page 51) are outdated. There is a $5 admission unless you are a member ($35 a year).

During the last film festival the only paid administrator was let go and the museum is now run completely by volunteers. Keep in mind that the town of Lone Pine is mostly a tourist town. It is a town that is somewhere in between where you start your trip and where it ends. For many it is a town you stop off at to eat and gas on your way to Mammoth, CA. For others it is where you prepare to climb Mt. Whitney or go camping at higher elevations. As a side note, there used to be a major chess tournament held there in the 1970’s that many from the former U.S.S.R. would come to with bodyguards. In any case, the town and the museum have had to find ways to bring in money in order to survive.

I remember traveling HWY 395 through the town in the early 1990’s seeing a sign that said it was the future place for the museum. I really thought that was cool. Then I remember seeing that sign each summer as I drove through for over a decade. Then the museum was recently opened for the public in the past few years.

I have been in the museum a bunch of times. It is a fun to go to at least once if you are in the area. I would encourage this. They have a short film they show you too if you would like.

When I went in recently to look at the merchandise the man behind the counter asked if this was my first time there. I told him I go to the festivals and come to the museum a bunch of times during the year. When I was about to head in to the museum he told me of the $5 fee, said he felt bad for regulars that come by regarding this, and then told me that I should become a member. I gladly paid, but realized that I probably won’t be coming in anymore unless I come to the film festival where I would get in free anyways. I did not have the heart to tell the guy that I was going to buy one of the books they had there, and the museum would have made much more money off me had I had the money I had just given him. As much as I love the museum, I don’t really need to constantly go in to see if there is something new, nor was I really going in this time to view the whole exhibit. In fact, the picture above of the stagecoach is what I really came for and you don’t really need to enter the museum to see that. I have taken enough pictures of the place in the past anyways.

As I was quickly walking through the some of the exhibits I had seen lots of times before I was thinking about how much time and money I have put into this town over the years since I was a kid that some of these people that live there will never know. On this blog alone I have freely plugged the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, and the museum more than anything. I have non-internet things I do that these locations come up a lot too. I will continue to show locations in this area because I truly love doing this as a fun hobby.

If it sounds like I am discontented here then I want to say nothing is further from the truth. Part of the reason I have not spent more time talking about samurai movies on this blog is because of some of the nonsense and dishonesty that I had to deal with in the past in that area with people just trying to make a quick buck; eventually in another entry I’ll explain some of my martial arts background and why I got into those movies. This isn’t the case here with Lone Pine, and in my experiences, not in the area of American western movies either. I just wanted to mention, in regards to the above paragraphs, that it takes a lot of money exchanging hands to enjoy some of these things that I have written about on this blog. There are lots of places I wish I could drop everything and go to right now. I wish I could explore other parts of the whole planet, but that is not realistic. It is up to others to show some of their local location treasures. Someday I will visit them.

Enough of this. I have another Alabama Hills location that I think is rather unique for next time. Until then...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Rawhide Burial Site (The Alabama Hills Series)

(GPS: N36 36.495 W118 07.615)

(Edit 1/29/10: this is one I decided to update with an HD version of the video. At this time, the old version is still up, but might be taken down at a later time. The new HD version is in the links below. There is a little more in this one and I do not explain every little detail. So, it maybe good to pause and repeat viewings if you want to get the most out of it.)

This is one of my favorite locations. I would have shown this one a long time ago, but I was never completely satisfied with the pictures and video I have done of it. Part of the problem is that the sun is always in the way at the correct angle when I showed up. Some areas of the Alabama Hills can be shot in the morning with no problems, but others require one to wait until the late afternoon in order to get the best shots.

A bunch of films have used this location. I show a bunch in the following video. It is known as the Rawhide Burial Site because it was where Edgar Buchanan was buried in the movie Rawhide. Check out the video:

Rawhide Burial Site (Youtube Version)

Rawhide Burial Site (Vimeo Version)

Here is a picture from the movie showing where the burial site was in the movie.

You can see the little rock that is like a headstone in this picture.
Here is a different angle of it. That little rock is still there in the middle of the picture. I say it is little, but when you get to it is a bit bigger than what these pictures make you think it is.

Another movie used this location just about 50 feet south of the site. This would be to the right of the above pictures. Here is the bad guy riding his horse attempting to attack Audie Murphy.

I stood right in front of this rock formation to get this picture.
I stepped out onto the road to shoot at this angle. Same rock formation, but Audie would have been behind the rocks in the middle of the photo shooting the guy.

In the video I showed that Posse From Hell, The Oregon Trail (a lost John Wayne movie), and Ride Lonesome were filmed here. I have seen it in others too. The Indian attack in How The West Was Won passed by here. I know Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers passed by here too. I am sure there are more.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Virgil Earp Home (The Earp Family Series)

This is one of those entries I struggled with in how I was going to present this. I went with a compromise. I will get to that down below.

Virgil Earp was really the "leader" in Tombstone since he had the authority as a law enforcement officer. I do not want to spend too much time rehashing that so let me just refer those who are not too familiar to a quick read of the Wikipedia article about him:

Virgil Earp Wiki

For those that want a more serious treatment of his life then I would refer you to this book:

Chapput, Don. Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer. Affiliated Writers of America. Inc. 1994.

After the attempt on his life, then the eventually death of Morgan mentioned in the previous entry, Virgil moved back to Colton, CA. After recovering, keep in mind his left arm was permantly crippled, he was elected the first marshal of the town of Colton. His time as marshal in Colton was nothing like Tombstone where he faced gunmen and cattle rustlers on a daily basis. It was a lot more routine with him doing menial jobs and making simple arrests. He eventually left that job and tried to start a business in nearby San Bernadino.

During his time in Colton he had purchased a house that is still standing. I have been near this house a few times. I do have pictures of it, but I decided I will not post them here. I have a rule with this blog, that except for special circumstances, I do not like to post pictures of houses that are privately owned with people currently living in them. I know they have been working on the house and were doing so when I was recently there.

Instead, I decided to just post the historical picture of the house. Right here:
Since the location is published in so many official books and on the internet I will just go ahead and say that it is at 528 West "H" Street. You will be able to recognize the house as it is today from the above picture. If you do go to this location please be quiet and respectful. I suggest you just "pass by" on the street.

I'll get back to more Earp family locations some other time. My next entry will deal with one of my favorite movie locations.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rest in Peace Morgan Earp (The Earp Family Series)

(GPS: N34 04.465 W117 20.835)

Morgan Earp (Apr. 24, 1851-Mar. 18, 1882)

(Edit: March 18, 2010. I decided to revise this video in HD. I used the more common picture thought to be Morgan Earp, but I will keep the other picture on here for reference purposes. I make note of that below.)

Here is an old west related location that many in my area do not know about. The Earp family was originally from Iowa. They came to California during the Civil War. They eventually went back east, but throughout their lives California played an important role as their home.

Wyatt Earp is the most famous of the Earp brothers. There were a few others, but the other two of major significance in old west history are Virgil and Morgan Earp. Both of these guys had were important in the locations I will be writing about. I will come back to Virgil in another entry.

It turns out I am not a hardcore fan of the Wyatt Earp history and legend. I do not think it is a bad thing, but the story has been told so many times that I just have burned out of every single movie and story of it. Whenever I look to anything regarding the old west, it turns out that when it comes to 19th century western law enforcement the first thing that is talked about is Wyatt Earp. This is understandable, but I do not think it is a good thing to exclude other personalities of historical significance. I am just a person that needs variation.

If you want to see something of what I am talking about you should click one of the old west historical discussion groups on the right side of this blog. A lot of those guys have really dedicated themselves to either supporting or debunking the Wyatt Earp history and legend. Some of those discussions get really heated. Those personalities dedication to supporting or debunking may be more interesting that the Wyatt himself. Someone should write a book about the authors and researchers of Wyatt Earp!

In other words, Wyatt Earp is cool, but obsessing over him at the expense of other persons and other histories is not something you will see me do. The one thing that I have found more interesting about Wyatt Earp is he went to so many locations that I have lived near or gone to. Then, those I have not been too, I have relatives that have lived near them. I mentioned the movie Warlock a few entries ago in that it is the Wyatt Earp legend turned around with different names. Henry Fonda hires himself out as a marshal and drifts from town to town. Wyatt Earp is the drifter model in western cinema.

I needed to get some of that out of the way before I talk about the person this really is about. Morgan was the younger brother. He was one of the participants at the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Rather than rehash that story let me just refer to the wikipedia entry for anyone that doesn't really know much about it. Also, the movie Tombstone is pretty good in this regard if you want the background, the gunfight, and including what this entry is about. A picture of Morgan taken from The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years by Nicholas R. Cataldo (and like a lot of old west pictures this one is disputed):

This other one (edit: added 3/17/10) is the more commonly accepted picture of Morgan.
A few months later Virgil Earp was shot in the streets of Tombstone, AZ. He was injured, but survived. Another entry, next time. Unfortunately, Morgan was not so lucky. He was shot while playing pool with brother Wyatt at Campbell and Hatch Billiard parlor on Tombstone's Allen Street around 10pm on Saturday, March 18, 1882. He was killed.

Wyatt Earp sent his brother's body back to the family in Colton, CA. Originally, it was buried near Slover Mountain, but the Southern Pacific Railroad was found to have the right away through the cemetary area. So, in 1892 the remains were sent to the new Hermosa Cemetery. Here is the tombstone dedicated in his honor:

I do not want this to be a major issue. It really isn't because I understand the spirit of why it was put there. This tombstone was added in 1991. It says U.S. Deputy Marshal. There isn't any evidence of Morgan having that authority. It would take some time to explain the difference between a sheriff, city marshal, and a federal marshal; it was actually one of the problems related to what happened in Tombstone, AZ. Virgil was given this status in Tombstone. Wyatt would get the status later after Virgil was shot. Wyatt could have deputized Morgan (and others like Doc Holliday), but Morgan did not have the actual status giving by the local U.S. Marshal Dake. I don't want to sweat the small stuff, but just in case someone sees the above and is puzzled.
Slover Mountain Cemetery area would be the near the moundlike structure in the middle right of the picture. That would be where the body originally was until it was sent here in 1892.

So, next time you read about Wyatt Earp or see movies, like Tombstone, this was the ending location for Morgan Earp. For me, I get a kick out of this only being less than an hour from where I live. It is amazing to be standing over the gravesite of a man who was a participant of the most well known gunfight in the west, but also seeing what caused Wyatt Earp to go on his vendetta ride against the cowboys! A classic case of, "I will avenge you!"

One final note. I actually know of a bunch of gravesites of historical persons, as well as, movie celebrities. That is part of location hunting. It is not something I talk about too much because I think being obsessed with gravesites is a tad morbid. I will on occasion try to find some of them, but it is not something I try to make a habit of. Some are unique and personal to me too. Once in a while I might mention or show one, but it isn't something you will see me posting too many of.

For more on the Earps during their time in California check out The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years by Nicholas R. Cataldo (2006).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Favorite Westerns

I was tempted into calling these last two entries, Diary of a Madman, parts 1-2, Due to the length. I wrote them to get some ideas out, but if someone is not in the mood for that then I bold faced all the westerns so one can skip to what he or she wants to read. I just did not want to make a list which leads to my next paragraph.

One thing I purposely avoid doing online is rating my favorite movies on a top 5, top 10, top 100 movies, etc. list. On the links I list on the right side of my blog there is usually many threads and messages dedicated to this sort of thing. One thing I have seen on IMDB is just about every variation of a “top something” list. I might take a cursory look at some messages, but those really do not tell me much. This is why I started with the last entry where I wanted to clarify what I mean by a “western” and some really broad criteria as to what I look for in judging my favorites.

Something I did not mention, but I think I should mention here is related to the storytelling. I good western does not take that long to tell the story. The reason for this goes back to the B-western era where the movie was only about an hour long. The movie was short enough to support the A-movie playing on the same night. Eventually, these B-movies evolved into co-features and, by the end of the evening, you would have seen about 3 hours of movies. Since westerns tend to be more visual than depend on the spoken word they do not really need hours to be told. In my view, a good western can be told in less than an 1 1/2 hours long. Any western that goes beyond this time length has to do more to justify its extended use of time. This goes contrary to a lot of recent western movies where over 2 1/2 hours are used to tell the story. There are some good reasons they do this, but I will not go into it here.

Relating to what I just mentioning, let me start this by mentioning one of the best western director/actor teams of all time. That would be director John Ford and actor John Wayne. These men made a lot of really good movies. You can not talk about westerns without these men. This may come as a shock to those who have read this blog in the past, but I am not most hardcore fan of those type of westerns. I have watched them in the past and on occasions will do so in the future. The problem is they tend to be a little too epic with storylines that I do not have interest in. The main story I find interesting, but then there is usually something I do not care about that takes up a lot of the movie. So, I would encourage people to watch the Ford/Wayne epic movies, but those are not my favorites. Watch Stagecoach, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and Fort Apache. Those tend to be the most talked about of the Ford/Wayne team. I can not honestly say I could watch these over and over again like I can some others, but they are some good ones. A lot of those have Monument Valley in them which is a very awesome scenery location.

On the other hand, let me give an epic movie that really is worth the extra time. That would be Red River directed by Howard Hawks with John Wayne. This is the best movie I can think of that illustrates the big cattle drive. I will mention a few others, but I think this is my favorite in this regard. Like a lot of old movies and westerns, sometimes the endings are weak to create a happy ending, or the old Hays Code would prevent the director from creating a downbeat satisfying ending. This is the case here, but this should not stop one from enjoying the whole movie.

Another one often listed is the movie Shane. This is a must see. Alan Ladd plays the iconic gunfighter versus the evil Jack Palance gunfighter. What I really like, and I think this is part of Alan Ladd’s acting, and probably his personality, is his slowness. This is a tradition in western movies that the gunfighter is really slow and does not speak much. Then at the very last second he has lightning fast reflexes when he pulls his gun out. Meanwhile, Jack Palance is considered by many to have the best western villain role with this movie. The thing that is interesting is, in some ways, the two gunfighters are very similar to each other. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur have good roles as the parents of the young boy, Joey. A lot of the movie is seen through the young boy’s eyes. The bonding Shane and Joey have is really “cute.” I think that is the best way to describe it since Joey, like most young boys and girls, has a very sincere way of dealing with Shane. The ending of this movie fits perfectly with this and may bring a tear or two to the eye. Finally, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming are a beauty to see.

High Noon with Gary Cooper is a classic. There are lots of stories out there about why this movie is left-wing politically; do a google search. From what I have been told this is the most requested movie of an President in office. I do not really look at this movie politically though, nor do I look at this movie as the realistic old west. I mentioned in my last entry why this would not bother me. Here is why it is great. If you have ever been in stressful situation where you think the world is not on your side then this is the movie for you. Guess what, you will have a clock in just about every scene letting you know that time is running down on our hero. The movie is almost in real time. You can check the clock and see what time it is. Can Will Kane convince others to help him against the villain who will reach his men in town at noon? One thing interesting about me liking this movie, is that there really is not scenery since it takes place all in town. What is cool though is the one chance you get at real scenery you do not really want to see it because it means the villain might arrive soon. The claustrophobia works really well here. The movie is not relaxed and filled with open scenery. This is an example of where scenery was not used and it works. The music helps create the tension, along with the Tex Ritter sung theme.

I wanted to get out some of the 5-6 classic western movies that I do not think one can skip. The movies listed above are the most common ones talked about being the “Greatest Westerns Ever.” Just writing about them makes me want to watch them again.

Another team of classic movies are the ones from director Anthony Mann and actor Jimmy Stewart. Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and The Naked Spur. Stewart has some nice emotional moments in these movies, “Oh, You Scum!” from The Man From Laramie. The Naked Spur might be the one I like the most, but I can not say for sure. The others lesser known Mann movies that are classics are The Man of the West with Gary Cooper. Originally, it was intended to be another Stewart movie. This will get a dvd release in May, 2008. Another being The Tin Star with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. The Tin Star is a nice one with Fonda showing Perkins the ropes of being a lawman. I like the practical advice he gives.

Now, let me give my absolute favorite team, Director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott. Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Decision at Sundown, and Buchanon Rides Alone. Anyone that has read my blog knows I have talked about the first four repeatedly. I know the exact locations for those movies almost inside and out, and if not, I can tell you the general area where they took place. They specifically filmed these movies with the scenery being an important part of the storyline. They would create new scenes just to film extra scenery. Someone online criticized Ride Lonesome as one of the worst westerns of the 50’s. Then he said, only the cinematography of the Eastern Sierra is the highlight. Imagine being in a court of law and a defense attorney says, “Apart from your eyewitnesses, the prosecution's case is very poor!” That is they way I felt when I read that review of the movie. The way I see it, the first five movies I mentioned are variations of the same story. The story is simple. Randolph Scott is dealing with the death of his wife. There is usually another woman he bonds with, but she is usually already married. Darn! The villains are charismatic themselves. Sometimes old friends of Scott’s. Boetticher’s strength is making the most out of simplicity. The movies are only about 80 minutes long. Burt Kennedy wrote and reused a lot of the dialogue in different ways, but it is not a real talky series. There are key conversations, but just enough to figure things out and keep the movie going. Unfortunately, only Seven Men From Now is officially released on dvd. The rest are seen on Encore Westerns and sometimes on TCM.

I wanted to say one more thing about the movie Decision at Sundown. This movie is looked at as one of the lesser efforts compared to the other movies. By itself, this maybe true. I see it as a High Noon turned upside down. It one looks at it from this perspective then they may appreciate it more.

Three other Alabama Hills movies I want to mention are The Violent Men, Rawhide (1951), and The Yellow Sky. I love those movies. Rawhide, with Jack Elam giving my favorite villain role in westerns, will get a dvd release in May. I have said some in the past and will do more in the future. I have tons of location stuff on those movies, but since I do a lot of that in other entries I will skip here.

Sam Peckinpah was a great film director that many know because of his ultra-violent movies like The Wild Bunch. My favorite is Ride the High Country. This was partially filmed in Mammoth for the nice scenery and the town was filmed at Bronson Canyon. It ended up being Randolph Scott's retirement movie. As far as I am concerned this was the last golden age western. A nice realistic western gunfight at the end, as well as, the final picture shot with the Joel McCrea with the mountain behind him makes me like this one right up there with the Boetticher movies. I can watch this one over and over. I like Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid a lot too.

Audie Murphy, our most decorated WW2 veteran, is one of my favorite western actors. He, like Randolph Scott, acts in pretty much a way you can expect in every movie. The advantage he had was that he actually had seen violence in the real world. The classic movie that is his best role is No Name on the Bullet. He walks into a town and everyone freaks out since no one knows who is going to kill. He did three in the Alabama Hills that I have mentioned before and intend to do more of in the future: Hell Bent For Leather, Showdown, and Posse From Hell.

Robert Mitchum is always cool to watch. The Man with the Gun will be coming out on dvd in May. Pursued is tad long, but good. Blood on the Moon is a favorite, but not on dvd. The above three are black and white noir westerns.

Speaking of noir westerns, The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck, is a nice gloomy one about a gunfighter trying to settle down with his wife and son. It is getting a dvd release in May. In westerns there is that old gunfighter that tries to retire, but can not escape is past.

The Shootist, deals with the theme that I just mentioned. John Wayne plays an aging gunfighter who is dying of cancer. What really makes this movie is Wayne was going through the same problem with his real life problems with cancer. If I had to throw out every western John Wayne ever did, but could only keep one this would be it. With that said, True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, The Sons of Katie Elder, and Hondo are some others I come back to every few years.

The Ox-Bow Incident and Silver Lode are my anti-mob favorite movies. I am not a big fan of mob justice in the old west. This probably deserves another entry, but I am not a big fan of “let’s gang up on people,” or the idea that a fair fight is 10 on 1. These two movies show the problems of “mob justice.”

My two favorite Steve McQueen westerns are Nevada Smith and Tom Horn. Nevada Smith is a revenge story with many locations I have been to. Tom Horn is based on the end of the life of the hired gunman.

Vera Cruz with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as gunfighter mercenaries in Mexico is important viewing for people that like European Spaghetti Westerns. Made in 1954, it is the master plan for those movies.

The Professionals with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, and Claudia Cardinale is a good one with use of Death Valley and other desert areas.

3:10 to Yuma (1957) with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin is a classic. I talked about this movie a over a year ago on a message forum, and did not get much response because no one knew what I was talking about. I suspect now most know the recent movie was a remake. The opening song is good for that period of movie. The problem this movie and the remake had is trying to figure out how to end it. I can live with the original ending, but I do not know of a way to do it any better.

How the West Was Won is okay to watch. It combines three generations of stories with different directors into a huge epic story. I really like parts of it. Visually, part of the problem with it is the old dvd has a 3 frame view. One feels they are watching three parts of the same movie combined. There is supposed to be a new remastered version of this coming out this year correcting this problem. If someone fixes that then I eagerly await seeing the Indian raid in all its glory. One of these days I have to head back to Convict Lake to show where Jimmy Stewart met up with the Indians at the beginning. Wait, I thought Nevada Smith was there? They both were.

I like Henry Fonda in most westerns he has done. Warlock, with Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn is a good psychological western. It is a bit long, but here is why I like it. It is a Wyatt Earp fictional film. Change the names around, but it is essentially the Wyatt Earp legend. Sometime soon I will talk about how I feel about the Wyatt Earp history legend. The relationship between Fonda and Quinn is seen by some as controversial. I really do not believe it is anymore than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s friendship. There was a certain dependence on the each other to survive in the west.

I have said very little about European Spaghetti Westerns. I mentioned them in the last entry and regarding Vera Cruz. I am not the biggest fan of them compared to when I was younger. Of the 500 made, I only like, at the most, about 25-50 of them. I haven’t seen all of them, but from what I have read, talked to others about, and seen I would rather spend my time on other movies. A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Duck, You Sucker! are good, but I have seen them so many times since I was kid I would rather spend my time on other movies. Sergio Corbucci would be the other director I like because he had some good scenery in his movies. The Great Silence is my favorite of his. It takes place all in the snow with a mute gunfighter who fights bounty hunters. The ending puts people off, but this is a western where everything is turned upside down. There are a few others, but I need more than violent action to sustain my interest.

This leads me to the 1970’s. I am going to put Will Penny in this category even though it was made in 1968. At this point, most American Westerns took the “realistic” turn. I am not the biggest fan of this time period. A lot of these westerns are meant to be dirty, depressing, and un-heroic. Will Penny is probably my favorite of these movies. The Culpepper Cattle Co., Bad Company, Mr. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Heaven’s Gate all have something worth seeing in them. Again, I refer you to my last entry on this. The recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is much like this. That actually had good use of cinematography, but did not feel like a western to me.

Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford, is the best mountain man movie out there. I love this one since the first 20 minutes reminds me of some of the places I have hiked, but during the summer.

High Plain's Drifter is probably my favorite Clint Eastwood, apart from his Leone movies. It is as if High Noon went wrong. It is sort of like High Noon 2: The Nightmare. Filmed exclusively at Mono Lake I usually visit the old area, or drive by it once a summer.

Progressing a little further to 1988, the tv mini-series, Lonesome Dove, is much like the above showing the ugly conditions of the western era. It is good, kept my interest, but not something I want to watch too much of.

Up into this point, I have thrown out mentioning any b-westerns of the 1930-40’s. I’ll just say that Hopalong Cassidy movies are really good to watch along with the kids. Nice visuals with Hopalong Cassidy and his sidekicks helping western society. About half of the 66 movies were filmed at the Alabama Hills. Tim Holt was another cool b-movie western hero.

Finally, my favorite tv series is Richard Boone’s Have Gun, Will Travel. Richard Boone easily made one of the coolest roles in the history of television. A gunfighter who is well traveled and well read in the classics hires himself out to those who need him. Even though this show is over 50 years old now I am still amazed with the writing they did on this show. Some of those Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek creator) episodes continue to amaze me.

Writing long entries like this is rare thing for me. Somewhere down the line I need to do a few more of these on other topics. One on comedy westerns I skipped, any other westerns I have forgotten, and one on my martial arts movies interests. My next entry will be back to normal. In the meantime, get the netflix queue filled up, watch TCM, Encore Westerns, and FOX Movie Channel.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What is a Western and How do I Judge My Favorites?

This post will be a long one. Usually I do not like to do long ones like this because I think the average internet reader does not like to read long articles. I used to write long ones, but in the past few years I really like to keep things simple. Joe over at wanted me to do a write up of my favorite westerns, but before I do that I want to lay down some groundwork about what a western is. Then I want to mention the criteria that I use in determining what my favorites are.

What is a Western?

Let me start with some loose criteria as to what I consider a western. I say this because there are a lot of movies out there that one might consider a western, but I do not. Although one should not watch a western thinking it is the same as reading a scholarly historical book on the old west, there are some things to take into account in regarding the historical time period and geography of the old west.

What a lot of people think of as the western time period usually deals with the cowtown era. The heart and soul of the old west in the public mind is the cowboy, and this was his time. After the Civil War, during the late 1860’s to the mid-1880’s, Texas cow hands drove their cattle to Kansas. The cattle were shipped on trains to the east. There were five major towns: Abilene, Ellsworth, Caldwell, Wichita, and Dodge City. This was a very temporary period since most of these towns lasted only a few years doing this, and that is all they wanted of the cattle trade. It was a way to build up their towns using the cattle trade, but then move on to sustain themselves by other means. At best we are only talking about 15 years of the golden age of the cattle trade. This period covers a good portion of western movies.

The tradition date of the closing of the American Western Frontier is 1890. Historian Fredrick Jackson Turner came up with this thesis. The 1890 census came in and it was decided there was no more frontier that needed to be settled. There was still Alaska, but from coast to coast the country was explored and settled. The final Indian conflicts were ending as well.

If one really wants to expand the frontier era out I think one can argue that it really started with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Anything prior to this really should be in the context of the American Revolution period. If this is the case, then anything regarding explorers like Louis and Clark a few years after the purchase, the mountain men era after that until the 1840’s, the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and at least some territory of the Civil War years in the west (more on this later) can be considered a western. However, keep in mind, most of the above are not westerns in the mind of the average movie watcher. This is due to the popularity of the cowboy era. Historically speaking, what really made the majority of people come west was the California Gold Rush. But, stories and movies about people mining for gold are not as interesting as the taming of cattle towns or cowboys in the trail.

On the other end of the timeline I think one can go past 1890 in regard to westerns. One can probably push the final years of the western era to right before World War I. So, we are talking somewhere in the 1910’s. Again, this is way outside the classic era of the cowboys, but there is a good reason one can push it this far. It has to do with the common transportation. Although the trains had made going long distances in a few days commonplace, the use of the horse was still prevalent in many areas up until this time. Once the car became of use I think it is safe to say that the western period was over.

The western period, using the most broad criteria, can be cast between 1803-1910’s. There is a lot of “but’s,” and “if’s” about this. Anything prior to the earliest date or after the latest date really should be considered something else.

Another thing to consider is the geography. My rule of thumb is anything west of the Mississippi River to the west coast is the frontier of the western. Crossing into Canada is okay, as well as, crossing into Mexico. Anywhere else the movie really can’t be considered a western. Why? It is not taking place in the American West. Earlier I mentioned the Civil War. I don’t really think of these movies as westerns. The true struggle between the Union and the Confederacy took place in the east. The exception, which I made above, is if the Civil War movie took place somewhere on the western frontier. A movie like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had a Civil War scene regarding the taking of a bridge. I am not going to say that movie is not a western because of that scene. The thing to keep in mind is that a western really has to have the less settled western frontier as a setting.

Those are my main criteria of what I consider a western. When it comes to things like history and authenticity I am not that strict. This is because I try to keep movie entertainment separate from historical accuracy. I do not expect a writer or director of a movie to be a historian. On the same note, I do not expect the historians I read to try to entertain me by changing the facts around where things may not be very exciting. I feel the same way about samurai movies and almost any historical movie. I have seen too many people really get hung up over this online. For some reason many people seem to think that some of these movies are really documentaries, and if they are not factually accurate then this lessons their value.

Western stories grew out of the old dime novel era of the time they represent. Most of those novels were overly exaggerated stories published in the east of things supposedly taken place on the frontier. These stories were very sensational. This carried over into western movies. If one were to watch nothing other than westerns and never read history, then one would think that all anyone wanted to do on the frontier is get a gun and kill others. The reality was that people died mostly from the harsh environment, disease, bad working conditions, or just old age. One had a better chance dying working on the railroad than a violent death at a cow town. If one met an Indian on the frontier the chances were very good that he or she would try to be friendly, would pursue trade, and be helpful. The gunfighters one always hears about were really rare. Most of the famous ones usually only had a few kills and lived off that reputation. The dime novels would play off this, and stories would be created where a gunfighter had killed dozens of people. With these stories, and what might be reported in newspapers over and over again, the public mind had the idea that the west was a very violent place. This really was not the case. The exception to this was if the area was hotbed of hostility or conflict. Passing through Texas right after the Civil War one might encounter violent areas. Certain Indian territories might not have been the safest to travel through during different periods based on if a conflict had arisen. For the most part, the historical reality of violence in the west as portrayed in westerns is overstated.

I mention all of that because a lot of what one sees in a western movie is really fantasy based on the actual year it was made. As long as I don’t see airplanes flying around, cars driving around, space ships, laser guns, disco era clothing, etc. I am fine with what I see in westerns. Okay, I spent this entire article trying to show why Star Wars is not a western! It might be, had I not mentioned the time frame and the geography parts. The funny thing is a lot of people think of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers b-movies as westerns. Practically everything they ever did was in the modern era of the 1930’s-1940’s. It was a cowboy in the depression era taking on whatever news events were current. They would look in the newspaper and get their stories from there. Taking on the mafia, dealing with government subsidy issues, trying to stop the Nazis, international espionage, etc. were stories they might come up with. These movies were designed as family fun during the hard era of the depression that one might watch on the weekend. One of my favorites is The Phantom Empire series Gene Autry did. Again, fun to laugh at, watch it once, and probably throw it away after viewing these days, but not really a real western since the time period is more of a “modern era.”

What Makes a Good Western?

With the time period, the geography, and very loose ideas of history/authenticity mentioned let me say what I really enjoy a western for. As one might expect from just about everything I have done on this blog, part of what makes a really good western is the scenery. I look for really beautiful places in these films. Compared to other genres, the western has the biggest opportunity to film in awesome environments. Honestly, a great many westerns have common themes and stories, but put into the right environment they can greatly be magnified. I will tell you in the next entry there are stories that have are basically the same with a few variations, but the director knew exactly the best areas to film the movies and with that made them really good. There are some exceptions to this where showing a lot of scenery may not work for the movie, but usually this is what I look for. One example of a recent movie that I do not think worked out for the best because of this. The recent 3:10 to Yuma could have been a lot better had this allowed for more scenery to be shown. The editing was very quick at some points. As side note, even though it is fantasy, I love The Lord of the Rings movies for this. Although a lot was CGI, I think it is so cool to see men on horses or people hiking through enormous terrain that dwarfs and towers over them. You can probably see how this connects to places I love to hike to.

Action scenes are important, but not as important to me as when I was younger. A lot of the 1950’s-1960’s westerns are pretty tame by today’s standards. There are few reasons for that. A lot of it had to deal with the Hay’s Code that did not allow certain types of violence. By the late 1960’s when the code was lifted this would change allowing more of the in your face bloody violence. For me, a few gunfights in these movies and I am fine with it. The people that tend to want more violence in their movies tend to enjoy spaghetti westerns more. I liked them in my younger days, but have a hard time watching too many of them these days. Apart from the Leone movies and a few others, they are a little too one dimensional in this respect. It is more important to see how the story builds to the violence rather than violence just for the sake of violence.

Finally, the story and the actors are other considerations. You need both to have a good western. Most stories tend to be about taming cattle towns, water rights, mining rights, land rights, cattle rustling, the cattle trail, saving lost kin, dealing with Indians, being a captive, and a little bit of revenge mixed in based on whatever the villain(s) had done. One of the key themes usually is the strong hero(s) protecting the weak and that justice is done in the end.

That pretty much covers what I wanted to say about defining westerns and what I look for in my favorites. In my next entry I will mention a bunch of my favorites.