The Undiscovered Gems of Western Cinema

 Lee Clinton rediscovers two gems of western cinema, Stagecoach and The Big Trail, that have long been lost to many fans of western films. 

 

Every Western lover has their favourite books, the ones that immediately grab and grip by telling a compelling story well. The very best of these are those rare novels that can be re-read and enjoyed all over again at a later date. They are the ones with that touch of brilliance about them, be it through engaging characters or dazzling dialogue or an unpredictable plot. My top three are True Grit by Charles Portis, who we lost this year in February 2020; The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout who had a PhD in Victorian literature of all things; and Open Range Men by Lauran Paine, a prolific author who has been published in the Black Horse Western series.

All three books were adapted to the screen but only one makes my top three Western movies and that’s Open Range Men, which was retitled as Open Range. Directed and starring Kevin Costner, the final shootout is a cinematic masterpiece and, in my humble opinion, yet to be topped. The other two movies are Unforgiven directed and starring Clint Eastwood and High Noon, directed by Fred Zinnermann and starring Gary Cooper.

What? I hear you ask. Where is Shane, The Searchers or The Good the Bad and Ugly, or maybe Rio Bravo or The Wild Bunch, then there is The Magnificent Seven to consider and let’s not forget a Fist Full of Dollars, and…

Yes, I accept your point, but like most preferences in life where emotion is involved it is a subjective choice, and I agree that all of the above-mentioned nominees are excellent movies in their own right. I would even throw into that stew some notable B-movies like Will Penny starring Charlton Heston and released the same year as Planet of the Apes, along with Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle of movies starring Randolph Scott – and for those who may be pulling a face at such contenders, check out movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz ten-minute documentary titled Straight Shooting: Budd Boetticher’s West (rough cut) on YouTube. His critique on the quality of the storytelling and cinematography may just change your mind.

“Two Very Late Challengers”

However, it was only recently that I had cause to pause and reconsider my top three favourites on stumbling across two late challengers. In fact, very late challengers. One made in 1939 and the other in 1930 now some eighty-one and ninety years ago respectively. Both movies star John Wayne and both are available to watch on YouTube, but for how long who knows as full length movies seem to disappear once they gain a following.

The first is Stagecoach made by John Ford, which reminded me a little of Lifeboat, that Alfred Hitchcock movie made some five years later in 1944 from a John Steinbeck story. The central theme of both revolves around a group of disparate characters confined to a small space, in this case a stagecoach, who desperately want to get to journey’s end. The fellow travellers include an alcoholic doctor; a whiskey salesman; the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer; a prostitute driven out of town by the Law and Order League; and Marshal Curley Wilcox riding shotgun in the search for the Ringo Kid, who has escaped the pen in order to seek vengeance on hearing that his father and brother have been murdered by an old adversary named Luke Plummer. It’s a good setup you have to agree, and it gets better when Ringo turns up to join the stage after his horse went lame and had to be put down. He has no choice but to hitch a ride, which lands him back into the arms of the law and a return trip to jail.

You just can’t help bad luck.

Then comes the complication and Ringo’s way out. Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath collecting scalps and the stagecoach makes for easy pickings. What follows are frayed nerves, an unscheduled birth and a frantic race to stay in front of the redskins. It all comes to a climactic scene when chased across a desert saltpan while running low on ammunition. It’s a classic. Wiki quotes Orson Welles as saying that this movie was a perfect textbook of filmmaking and claimed to have watched it more than 40 times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane. I tend to agree and think it is worth at least four and half stars.

But the other movie titled The Big Trail is a straight-up five-star epic with a bullet. Like Stagecoach it is in black and white, but don’t let that put you off, or that it is one of the very first talkies. It is stunningly modern and was shot in both standard and widescreen formats, and it is the widescreen version taken from the original restored 70mm print that is available on YouTube. I’ve seen nothing to compare in quality for its time. Yet, surprisingly, it was a box office flop. However, the reasons for this had nothing to do with the movie but rather its timing. In 1930 there were only a handful of widescreen cinemas and the cost of conversion was expensive. Added to this was an industry already having to adapt to talkies, which came with significant costs. It was just a case of a great idea coming way too long before it could be successfully implemented; what a lost opportunity.

“A 90 year old gem of  a movie.”

Nevertheless, Rotten Tomatoes has given it back some long overdue kudos by awarding a 100% rating, which is richly deserved. Some of the scenes are exceptional in layout and action and deserve every inch of that widescreen magic. Such as the attack on the settlers by Indians. The wagons are circled, the men take to the barricades while the women reload their rifles, and the children huddle together covering their ears and cry from the noise and danger around them. It is a touch of the gritty reality that comes with being a pioneer.

The movie opens with the settlers coming together on the banks of the Missouri River for the journey West. The year is around 1840 with the opening of the Oregon Trail. The scenes on the riverboat are eye popping as are the assembly of wagons, livestock and supplies required for the long and difficult journey ahead of some four to six months duration, depending on the conditions.

This was John Wayne’s first leading role in a big budget production. It would take another nine years for that to happen again in Stagecoach. He is in his early twenties and has the looks and stature of a Greek god that is framed beautifully in the trading post where the trappers sell their skins. Another scene that is done skilfully is through a flash back on Wayne as he identifies the killer of his dead trapper friend. It demonstrates that Raoul Walsh, the director, was a master of his craft. His would be a long and varied career from the first gangster movie titled Regeneration in 1915, through to the early film noir High Sierra in 1941 with its Western undertones and starring Humphrey Bogart, and towards the end of his career The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw a British comedy starring Kenneth More and Jane Mansfield made in 1958.

The running time for The Big Trail is two hours, so if you have a little spare time one Sunday afternoon to indulge in something Western, I highly recommend a viewing and hopefully you will be as impressed as I was.

Lastly, I would love to know your big three in Western novels and movies along with the reasons why. I have no doubt that there are more gems out there of which I am totally unaware but would love to know about.

 

An article by Lee Clinton.

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