As part of my summer reading I have been re-perusing some hefty guides to the Western, in particular three, Brian Garfield’s Western Films: A Complete Guide, Phil Hardy’s The Encyclopedia of Western Movies and The BFI Companion to the Western edited by Edward Buscombe.
These three have something in common. They all came out in the 1980s. This was a time before internet databases, when the printed encyclopedia was an invaluable work of reference. Such tomes needed to be comprehensive (hence the weightiness) and accurate and give a lot of factual information about cast, crew and production. Nowadays, we just go onto IMDb and in a couple of clicks we have all the Westerns made by a given producer, director, actor, cinematographer and so on, and we can list them by popularity, date, runtime or whatever we want. We can see at a glance all the Westerns released between dates X and Y. We can find any pictures in which certain actors starred together, or ones that actors made with a certain director, or all the times producer Harry Joe Brown worked with Randolph Scott, whatever. It’s wonderful, really. And to anyone who reads or writes or just thinks about Westerns, inc. yrs truly, it’s a precious resource. But in those days we looked it all up in books.
The 1980s were also a time of drought and famine in the production of Western movies. Through the 1970s the genre seemed to be running out of steam. John Ford and Raoul Walsh had both made their last Westerns in 1964, and pretty weak by comparison they were too, Howard Hawks’s last was the lackluster Rio Bravo in 1970 and Henry Hathaway’s equally unstunning Western adieu was in 1971. The great Western actors were disappearing too. Gary Cooper died in 1961. Henry Fonda bid adieu to the genre with the (dire) My Name is Nobody in 1973, Gregory Peck made his last oater in 1974, the Western screen farewell of John Wayne and James Stewart came in 1976 with The Shootist (one of the few very fine Westerns of the decade), and so it went on. When Michael Cimino’s overblown and Titanic-like Heaven’s Gate sank so disastrously in 1980, taking United Artists down with it, studios decided that the Western was over. Big-budget A-picture oaters simply stopped. People aren’t interested in Westerns any more, they said.
This was just the moment, however, that these books, and many others like them, came out. Perhaps they were tapping into a nostalgic interest in the “now dead” Western and casting a retrospective look at the genre. Or perhaps, actually, there was still a fascination for and admiration of all things Western, the form was still alive and well, and not just in the US (two of my exemplar three, the BFI Companion and Phil Hardy’s book, were British). And it’s worth noting that when VHS sales and rentals came along, and really took off in the 1980s, Westerns were always right near the top of sold or rented movies.
The printed compendium isn’t dead, anyway. A book I frequently refer to is Herb Fagen’s The Encyclopedia of Westerns (2003) and those who read French will often look up oaters in Patrick Brion’s Encyclopédie du Western (2019). There is also a growing number of books about the Western, not necessarily encyclopedic guides, many of them issuing from film studies departments of universities, and some in-between books for the popular market, such as Paul Simpson’s The Rough Guide to the Western (2006).
Today, though, I think such books are better read as I did these this summer, for general interest, picking Westerns at random, meandering through them, rather than as works of reference to look up who directed this or who produced that.
And all the three books I have been reading contain, as well as the film listings, prefaces, introductions and essays on different aspects of the Western.
The BFI Guide is in fact mostly essays and deals with the films A – Z in 65 pages, only 15% of the book. The rest is devoted to a history of the Western film, a ‘cultural and historical dictionary’ (you can look up such items as stagecoaches, saloons, hats, and so on), separate entries on Western film makers, a chapter on television Westerns, and so on.
Garfield has nine sections dealing with the directors, the writers, the crews and the actors, among other matters, but 73% of the book is given over to the alphabetical move listings.
Hardy’s book is mostly a dictionary of films, rather annoyingly not in alphabetical order but divided into decades, and has only eight pages of general discussion, though it does contain interesting appendices at the end listing all-time top rentals, the most successful box-office hits adjusted for inflation, the biggest money-making Western stars, Western Oscars, and a list of other critics’ top tens.
Garfield’s book is the most personal, and in tone is entertainingly opinionated. He waxes lyrical about films he likes and pulls no punches on ones he doesn’t. I love this book. I found it first by chance in a used-book store in the 1990s and by now (it’s a paperback) it is so used that it is near death, held together by scotch tape and elastic bands, and each time I open it, which I do often, flyleaves and endpapers flutter to the ground, but I haven’t replaced it, partly because each entry has my own scrawled addenda, agreeing with Garfield or not, usually agreeing.
Hardy’s Encyclopedia is a hardback and has fared better. It is more formal and restrained in its opinions but I like its pithiness. He doesn’t deal with the silents at all, starting in the 1930s, but he has quite a lot on non-American Westerns, including spaghettis. There are some curious omissions. He doesn’t have entries on some quite mainstream films, for example Wayne’s The Cowboys, Rory Calhoun’s Apache Territory, the Randolph Scott picture Belle of the Yukon, those Bob Steele Billy the Kid flicks, and others you would think he would deal with. Pressure of space, I suppose, though he does include some pretty obscure pictures.
As for the BFI Companion, it is indeed a companion and I’m rather fond of it. The entries on the films are closer to ‘film studies-speak’ but are still in plain English enough for the general reader and contain insights that repay reading them.
Edward Buscombe is a knowledgeable and experienced writer on the subject, having written the British Film Institute’s volumes on The Searchers, Stagecoach and Unforgiven, among others, and a book on Native Americans in the movies, for example. Phil Hardy was a music and film journalist who died suddenly in 2014 and in the movie domain wrote books on horror, gangster and sci-fi movies, one on Samuel Fuller and one on Raoul Walsh. Brian Garfield (1939 – 2018) was a great Western novelist (we’ve reviewed some of his works on this blog) who also wrote non-Western movies such as Death Wish and Hopscotch. All three writers were clearly passionate about the Western genre.
And if you like such books, I’d recommend any or all of them.
Leave a comment and let me know if you have other favorites.