Quentin on the Western
Quentin Tarantino is a movie-buff’s movie buff, in fact the buffest buff I know of. His passion for film dates from a tender age, if he ever had one of those, I’m sure he did, as he tells in Little Q Watching Big Movies, the first chapter of his 2022 book Cinema Speculation.
And of course the Western was clearly a major influence, especially the Italian kind. His use of Franco Nero in Django Unchained – and the Django name – and the obvious quotation of Il Grande Silenzio in The Hateful Eight are just a couple of instances of that. At one point in the book the author refers to his own admiration for Leone in the same sentence as that of De Palma for Hitchcok, Bogdanovich for Ford and Carpenter for Hawks. Personally, I think that Q drew the short straw there.
Because our noble genre loomed large in his life, Mr T has a fair bit on Westerns in his book, and particularly mentions The Searchers, which, he says, was a great influence on other contemporary filmmakers – in different ways.
He calls the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn and Monte Hellman “Post-Sixties Anti-Establishment Auteurs” and says that when they watched The Searchers
they didn’t see a conflicted man trying to find his place in a society that had outlived his usefulness
They saw a movie about an Indian-hating racist bastard who is ultimately offered absolution by a grateful (white) community.
Tarantino says that these directors
wanted to remake Fort Apache from the Apaches’ perspective. And in the case of Arthur Penn with Little Big Man and Ralph Nelson with Soldier Blue and Robert Aldrich with Ulzana’s Raid, they did.
Those pictures weren’t all about Apaches but I take his point.
Jesse James wasn’t Henry King’s dashing Tyrone Power, he was Robert Duvall’s homicidal religious fanatic in Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.
And other erstwhile Western heroes were debunked.
Billy the Kid wasn’t Johnny Mack Brown’s smiling charmer or even Paul Newman’s brooding method acting turn in The Left Handed Gun, he was Michael J Pollard’s creepy little punk in Stan Dragoti’s Dirty Little Billy or Kris Kristofferson’s Billy in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. A Billy who slays with all the callousness of a modern-day serial killer.
And he goes on to talk about Custer in Little Big Man where he is racial cleansing nincompoop and Wyatt Earp in Doc, where he is portrayed as a fascist cop.
Other auteurs, however, greatly admired The Searchers and even, Quentin thinks, remade it. He points out that in Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the lead character (Harvey Keitel) talks to the girl Zina at some length about that film, and also about Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance, and when the hoods in Mean Streets go to the movies it’s The Searchers they go to see. Then the 1976 picture Taxi Driver, says Quentin, is
about as close as you can get to a paraphrased remake and not actually being one.
Robert de Niro’s taxi-driving protagonist Travis Bickle is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
We may struggle with that but in Scorsese on Scorsese, Martin says, “I was thinking about the John Wayne character in The Searchers.”
Not only Scorsese. Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader also wrote and directed Hardcore in 1979, in which George C Scott ventures into the underworld of pornography in California to look for his runaway teenage daughter who is making porno films – a very contemporary take on Ethan Edwards to be sure.
And it wasn’t only John Ford. Quentin has a well-known penchant for Rio Bravo. He has said that he would screen it to a new girlfriend and she better like it…
He talks too about Elvis movies, though he says
They weren’t real movies, they were ‘Elvis Presley movies’.
He adds a snippet that after Steve McQueen dropped out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the role of Sundance was offered to Warren Beatty but he wanted to be Butch Cassidy (a non-starter as that was always Newman’s) and he wanted Elvis as Sundance. And he talks quite a bit about Siegel’s 1960 Flaming Star (a Western your Jeff admires, Presley’s best and maybe Siegel’s too).
Talking of 1970s Westerns, Quentin says
If you wanted to watch a western-western, it was usually directed by Andrew McLaglen or his buddy Burt Kennedy and starred old farts like John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Henry Fonda or Dean Martin. The youngest guys still doing straight westerns were James Garner and George Peppard. But if it was a true seventies picture, and not a nostalgic throwback for an aging star’s aging audience, then it was an anti-western.
There’s more than a grain of truth in that and you sense that though he doesn’t say so, he doesn’t have the highest opinion of McLaglen or Kennedy. That’s probably right: McLaglen was second-rate and as a director, Kennedy made a good writer.
But really, Quentin says,
The seventies [were] the decade when cops replaced cowboys as the action film heroes of choice.
A Western buff is a sub-genre of the movie buff and as such, sad oater nerds will probably enjoy Mr Tarantino’s ramblings, even if they don’t always share his enthusiasms (such as for Charles Bronson and From Noon Til Three). This oater nerd did anyway.
(Thanks to James for the present of the book!)