Monday, August 01, 2005

Which Man Has the Gun?

One pleasure the Siren has discovered since starting her blog is A Girl and a Gun. George writes about movies as art--the ones that achieve that distinction, the ones that miss it, the ones that never even try. He knows how to start a good discussion, too, and recently provoked one with a post about his ten favorite Westerns. Rather than clog up his comments section, I decided to make my own post. And all right, I admit it, I am happy for an excuse to write about Westerns.

First, the Siren does not believe that the deepest theme of a true Western is the end of the frontier, despite George's eloquent arguments for that view. On the most basic level Westerns are, always and without exception, about manhood. They ask, Who's the man here?* Is it me? How do I make it me? If John Wayne is in the movie, he's the man, but can I still be the other man? If the movie is The Wild Bunch or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, is there any reason why anyone anywhere should even want to be a man?

Since the Siren has never worried about whether or not she's the man, she can afford to be flip. Her womanly insecurities are needled by something like Vertigo (must a woman change utterly to win a man's love?) or Mr. Skeffington (is concern with my appearance sucking out my soul?). But she never tires of watching men work out their own dark nights of the cinematic soul. And a good Western brings many other matters into the complicated business of male worthiness.

Ten favorite Westerns, in no order at all:

1. Stagecoach. One of the few Westerns to tackle class issues.

2. My Darling Clementine. A perfect illustration of the "end of the frontier" idea (but it's still really about manhood).

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. History as a bunch of stories told by people who weren't there, a theme Faulkner knew well. Do we ever revere the right men for the right reasons?

4. Unforgiven. See above.

5. Red River.

6. The Ox-Bow Incident. Superb direction from William Wellman, a well-written script and brilliant performances. The Siren has never considered a heartfelt liberal message to be an automatic demerit for a film.

7. The Searchers.

8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Of all the Westerns ever made, this is the one to make a viewer say, "My God. It probably did look exactly like that."

9. The Gunfighter. The Siren would pick this, and not To Kill a Mockingbird, as the late Gregory Peck's best performance.

10. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sheer entertainment. Heir to raucous man-fests like The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo and True Grit.

*Since we're on the topic (sort of) do check out this fascinating post, from the harrylimetheme blog out of Singapore, about the origin of the phrase "Who's your Daddy?".


girish said...

Nice choices.
I'm glad you picked "Liberty Valance" and "McCabe".
I just watched "Stagecoach" again last week--it's like Mozart, eternally relevant and moving and a perfectly balanced thing of beauty.

Diane said...

"McCabe" is such a great Altman movie. I liked the pairing of Christie and Beatty, too. I bet it did look like that. Which reminds me of a HS European History teacher who showed us "The Lion in Winter" and pointedly remarked that "it looked something like that."

"Unforgiven" is a wonderful movie and one of my favorites. Eastwood's tour de force in more ways than one.

girish: Your remarks on "Stagecoach" are so lovely and I quite agree. :)

girish said...

Oh thank you, Diane. So nice of you to say.

The Siren said...

I love Girish's Stagecoach evaluation too! I don't ever get tired of that movie, any more than I am tired of the Prague Symphony.

Diane, have you seen "The Gunfighter"? I am willing to bet you would like it. It is really an excellent movie, very much a noir Western.

Diane said...

No, I haven't seen "The Gunfighter," but there it goes on my movie queue. I love noir anything and everything.

I also wanted to let you know that I just read the link about the origin of "who's your daddy?" Fascinating read!

katiedid said...

I'm glad you picked Liberty Valance, too. It holds up well to so many multiple viewings. I don't think I've ever seen The Gunfighter, though. I'll have to see if my library carries it.

May I pester you with one of my faves? I'm not sure if Bad Day at Black Rock is strictly speaking a "western," but I always think of it as one. Perhaps thematically the plot is totally a "western" in my mind.

Uncle Gustav said...

One of my favorite touches in "Liberty Valance" -- other than that metaphoric name -- is the blocking of the actors. Unless I was seeing things, the left-wing Stewart character was usually on the left side of the screen (and after his right hand was injured, he had to shoot with his left), while Wayne's right-wing character was on the right side of the screen. Elementary techniques, to be sure, but I found them interesting.

The Siren said...

Katiedid: I like Bad Day at Black Rock very, very much. Another movie that wears its liberal values on its sleeve but to good effect I think. Black Rock shows how *sinister* small-town America can be, something you don't see as often as you might think (though I do think of my favorite Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt). I think Black Rock could easily have been done as a Western, but I can't put it on the list for the same reason I left off "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" ... wrong time frame. That's all, really.

Flickhead: I am heartened to see "Liberty Valance" still has fans. My late father, to whom I owe my love of John Ford, didn't like it at all. Said he thought Ford was trying to hard to convey a message, instead of just telling a good story as he did earlier. But considering that Ford made "My Darling Clementine," enshrining a version of the OK Corral that has very little to do with historical fact, it's fascinating to look at "Liberty Valance" as almost a mea culpa from someone who did his own share of mythologizing.

I *never* noticed the blocking but I certainly will now. Maybe it was some sort of weird in-joke for Ford, too, since Stewart in real life was a rock-ribbed Republican ... though I guess not as rabid as Wayne. Who was, really.

Jonniker said...

You're making me want to revisit the Western genre. The only western I've ever remotely liked wasn't even a Western, but a miniseries that I endured only because it was one of Diane Lane's early works.

Yes, I'm talking about Lonesome Dove. Robert Duvall is lovely in it.

*sigh* I know nothing of Westerns.

Sand said...

Both of my parents love Westerns and growing up they'd have us watch a lot of them. I have no idea which ones I have and have not seen because I hated them.

I remember one year they had a John Wayne movie that was going to air on 3D on NBC I believe. The glasses were sold through gas stations I believe and all proceeds went to charity.

So, we sat around the tv ready to watch it and I fell asleep and didn't wake up until it was over. When my parents asked me how I liked it and I lied and said I loved it!

The Siren said...

Jonniker & Atreau: For years I lived with two men who absolutely loathed Westerns. The only success I had with them was The Ox-Bow Incident, which they both loved. So maybe that one is worth a try?

Anonymous said...

When I was seven and living in an oil camp in Venezuela, I went to the "club" two-three times a week to see films shown on a giant white wall. This was 1950-51. I have this hazy memory of Winchester 73 and Broken Arrow, but the plot and ending of The Gunfighter stuck in my mind the rest of my life.

The Siren said...

It stuck with Bob Dylan, too, all the way to 1986 and "Brownsville Girl."

An oil camp in Venezuela, holy cow. You have quite the colorful background. No wonder NJ seems like exile. :D