Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Wild West Movies by Kim Newman

 

A highly entertaining guide

 

Kim Newman may be better known to film buffs as a horror expert. Author of fiction like The Vampire Genevieve and Anno Dracula, he has been accorded such honors as The Horror Writers of America Bram Stoker Award and The Dracula Society’s Children of the Night Award, and in the field of cinema he has written Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films, as well as Horror: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made, and so on.

 

Kim Newman

 

However, he is also a lifelong fan of the Western. Born in the year Rio Bravo, Ride Lonesome and Day of the Outlaw were released, he largely looks at the genre retrospectively, but that’s fine, and after all, even your own geriatric Jeff wasn’t born till Fort Apache, Yellow Sky and Red River.

 

Some time ago I wrote an assessment of a few guides to the Western movie that I like and have found useful (click the link for those pearls of wisdom) and in the ensuing conversations, also around another book on Westerns (click here for that), Mr Newman’s book was mentioned, favorably, by several JAW readers, notably RR and Chris Evans. I had the paperback on the shelf but hadn’t got round to reading it, so the chat prompted me to do so, and I must say I am glad I did. It is highly entertaining.

 

 

(And by the way, isn’t it interesting how many enlightened and enlightening books on the Western are by British authors?)

 

Wild West Movies, or How the West Was Found, Won, Lost, Lied About, Filmed and Forgotten, to give the book its full title, was published in 1990, at a time, ten years after the Titanic-like Heaven’s Gate, when many thought the genre was dead or dying.

 

Many guides, like say, Herb Fagen’s The Encyclopedia of Westerns (2003) or, for those who read French, Patrick Brion’s Encyclopédie du Western (2019), are essentially alphabetical listings, with details of the cast, crew and so on and opinions on each movie. Others, such as, say, The BFI Companion to the Western (1988), edited by Ed Buscombe, or Brian Garfield’s Western Films: A Complete Guide (1980), have an alphabetical section for looking movies up but also contain essays on different aspects of the Western. Newman goes for a different approach, and rather a refreshing one.

 

He gives Westerns what we might call a historical treatment. He deals first with movies set in colonial times, buckskin-and-flintlock yarns like The Last of the Mohicans and so on, then Westerns about mountain men, Texan Alamo pictures and suchlike, moving on to wagon-train settler Westerns, Civil War stories, and so on. I found this interesting, and given that these days we use printed guides much less to look movies up, for example to find out who directed, produced, wrote or starred in such-and-such a Western (IMDb providing that service for us now) and we tend to peruse such books in a more leisurely fashion, for general interest, and given also that the Western is at least nominally a ‘historical’ genre, set in a certain time and place, the approach works well.

 

There’s an enjoyable foreword written by Joe R Lansdale, in which makes this last point. “The Western is about gods (and, not nearly enough, goddesses) who roamed a strange and exciting never-never land that we know, in part, actually existed.”

 

Foreword by Joe

 

Mr Lansdale also says, “Kim Newman has paid due homage to that great Western mythology.” He adds, “It’s not blind homage. Newman is delightfully opinionated.”

 

I agree. One of the things I like so much about Brian Garfield’s guide is that he is so “delightfully opinionated”. There’s nothing bland about his book, or Newman’s either. I don’t always agree with the writers, but I do enjoy the opinions as expressed!

 

Newman talks about the origins of the Western movie, the dime novels, the stage plays, the wild west shows, but asserts that “the Western is a form that cannot be adequately contained by the stage or the page.” That’s right. It needs the great outdoors, the big sky, the desert and mountain and valley and plain. There are ‘town Westerns’, static affairs set in houses and streets, and if they are very well done, they are tense and gripping, and they are true Westerns (High Noon comes to mind first) but ideally, as John Ford knew, the genre requires sweeping vistas and a hero on a horse.

 

 

I obviously can’t rehearse here all the ideas Newman expresses (you wouldn’t want me to!) but just as a taster, perhaps to whet your appetite for reading the book, here are a few points that I selected, more or less at random:

 

* Such as how few pre-Columbian Westerns there have been; Newman can only think of Kings of the Sun (1963) with Yul Brynner as an unlikely Apache and George Chakiris as an equally unlikely Aztec, and The Norsemen (1978), in which Vikings like Jack Elam arrive in Vinland to rescue Mel Ferrer from Indian captors. He suggests this might be because of “the difficulty of locating the essential Americanism of the West in a historical period when there were no United States.” He also remarks on how few American Revolution movies there are and how that genre has a reputation as box-office poison.

 

* Then, talking of Unconquered, “All of DeMille’s sound Westerns play more like historical-religious epics than anything else” and, conversely, in The Ten Commandments, DeMille’s Moses (Charlton Heston) “leads the Israelites through the wilderness as if they were a wagon train of pioneers bound for Oregon.”

 

* Characters in buckskins (Newman points to Shane, Run of the Arrow, The Last Wagon and Midnight Cowboy) are dressed “to indicate that the fringed protagonists are living in a world that has passed them by.” And, as far as costumes in Westerns go, Mexicans in frilly shirts and hair oil “are decadent and flabby aristocrats” while the rest wear white pajamas and are “lazy peons” who “do not deserve to own such desirable and naturally American pieces of property such as California.” There’s something in that alright. Many Westerns went in for stereotypes.

 

 

* Newman remarks on the Western movie’s prejudice against mining, always preferring farming and ranching. This hadn’t occurred to me before. From the early days of the Western, gold strikes brought greed and villainy, and mining the mineral led to killing and lawlessness, even madness. When gold is discovered in wagon train movies such as The Covered Wagon (1923), Gold Is Where You Find It (1937) and Bend of the River (1952), the nobility of pioneers continuing to Oregon to farm is contrasted with the decadence and get-rich-quick urge of those who diverge from the trail (of righteousness) to mine the yellow metal. In Bend, gold turns a friendly town into a gambling Gomorrah. When some wagon trainers head for California and gold, a caption in Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936) reads, “Not pioneers, these adventurers were for the most part ruthless fortune-seekers.” When gold is struck in The Hanging Tree (1959) the camp goes crazy, under the sway of evil Karl Malden and psychotic George C Scott. You will be able to think of plenty other gold-fever Westerns.

 

* The journey is an essential ingredient of the Western, more than other genres. So many different types of Western depend on movement and travel: the wagon-train story, the railroad-building epic, the cattle drive, the hero as drifter, the hostage rescue drama, the cavalry patrol Western, the revenge quest and villain pursuit, stagecoaches under attack, all these and more depend on movement through the Western landscape.

 

* In one sense, the Indians won. Aside from a very few charismatic characters such as Custer and Buffalo Bill, the white fighters have been forgotten while the Indian ones remembered. There are Westerns named Geronimo, Taza Son of Cochise, Chief Crazy Horse, Chato’s Land, Ulzana’s Raid, Sitting Bull, Tecumseh and so on. There are none named General Nelson A Miles or General George Crook.

 

* “Rarely recognised as a seminal Western because Western fans mainly cannot bear to watch it, the saccharine Little House on the Prairie follows the fortunes of a farming family who have more trouble with home baking than with outlaws. Less prosperous than the Cartwrights, the Ingalls of the Little House are quite as annoyingly self-satisfied.”

 

Comments like this will give you a notion of the light-hearted yet sometimes perceptive tone of the book.

 

I learned a lot from it. There were movies mentioned I didn’t know, and ideas expressed that I hadn’t considered, and I consider myself reasonably well versed in the genre. I also liked Newman’s ‘epilogue’, his last chapter, which I thought very perceptive. He was writing it at a time when many thought the Western dead or on its last legs, and indeed, Newman suggests that mid-1980s pictures like Silverado, which he calls “fun but shallow”, were only “pretending” at being Westerns: they were more homages to the true form. “The heroics were gone.” I’m not sure about this, and the fact that there have been some very fine Westerns since Newman’s book might indicate he was wrong. I think that, if so, he’d be glad to be wrong.

 

Anyway, I’m not sure Wild West Movies is still in print but if you can get hold of a used copy, I’d recommend you do so. It’s a highly enjoyable read, and will get you thinking!

 

 

 

18 Responses

  1. I’m delighted that Chris Evans’ and my recommendations prompted you to read it, and your review makes me want to return to it, not having dipped into it for many years, I think I still have my original copy somewhere on my heaving shelves. You’ve captured the book as I remembered it, the sweep of its coverage and the unpretentious intelligence of the writing.

    I think you can call yourself more than ‘reasonably well versed’ in the genre! But it’s remarkable how many films including obscure ones Newman was able to amass into his wide-ranging text – writing in a pre-internet era.

    1. Newman has sure passed a few hours in darkened theaters!!
      I think your phrase “the sweep of its coverage and the unpretentious intelligence of the writing” captures it very well.

  2. Great review! Thanks for the mention. I really love this book. When I picked it up I was blown away. All the connections to the Westerns I have seen (and ones I needed to). Being a Civil War fanatic really enjoyed that chapter with none of the Lost Cause moonlight and magnolia nonsense. Plus great stuff on the real life historical characters and the movies on them though now more could be written on Wyatt Earp, Jesse James etc. Such smart chapters. I just love dipping into it anywhere. Anyone who loves Westerns should read this book as it reads like a charm! With your wonderful review as a prompt I’ll be going again through my well worn copy once more.

    1. Newman has rather swallowed the anti-Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp line whole, and thinks them out and out charlatans and/or crooks, but that’s OK, it’s a point of view. Certainly these ‘heroes’ needed taking down a peg or two after their absurd glorification on the screen, though I think the pendulum swung too far the other way.

      1. I agree. I think the way negative view of them is way overblown. I am far more in line with the view of Earp espoused by Allen Barra in ‘Inventing Wyatt Earp’. He is fair and not a screed.

  3. “The Western is about gods (and, not nearly enough, goddesses) who roamed a strange and exciting never-never land that we know, in part, actually existed.” — like the myths of ancient Greece. Been said before but well put Mr. Lansdale.

    1. I agree. ‘The West’ IS American mythology (the other parts of American history I would include would be the Revolution, World War II, and perhaps most of all the Civil War).

    1. Nice to see a new look at ‘Black Bart’. Such a gentleman and poet even if a robber too. So when it came to do the movie on him he was of course evil as sin.

          1. It’s quite hard to find. I’m a bit of a Dan fan (slightly less of Yvonne) and I’d like to see it. Plus, ’48 was a great year!

      1. That would be something !
        Did you get the time to get in touch with publishing compagnies interested in translating your book ?

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