The early 70s marked a turning point for the American western. Arguably the prototypical American film genre, the western had existed since at least Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in 1903, an early landmark of the silent cinema. From the rise of Ford and Hawks to the omnipresence of TV series like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke“, the western dominated the culture.
But as times changed and audiences began to hunger for more variety in their programming, the grip of the western began to slip. Fewer and fewer films and series were being made each year, and the stalwarts of the genre were forced to react to the changing landscape.
I chose both Clint Eastwood’s HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) and the John Wayne vehicle ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) to take a contrasting and interesting look at those 70s Westerns. In the Wayne film we have the archetypal western hero, the Duke himself, sticking rigidly to the form that made him a star. A sequel to his Oscar winning TRUE GRIT from six years before, the film is overtly classical in style. Wayne and Katherine Hepburn (in their only on screen pairing) spar amiably in a way that reminds you equally of Mattie from TRUE GRIT and the banter of Hepburn and Bogart in THE AFRICAN QUEEN. The film is light and entertaining, the definition of giving the audience what it wants.
Eastwood’s HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is a different beast altogether. If Wayne was the iconic western hero, then Eastwood might rightly be considered the last person that the genre made into a superstar. After spending the late 50s and early 60s on TV in “Rawhide“, he signed on for Sergio Leone’s low budget but wildly successful Dollars trilogy in a move that would radically alter the direction of his career. Eastwood had cut his teeth in the grind of TV, working 12-hour days 6 days a week turning out generic episodes he was frequently unhappy with. From that he flies to Spain to work with Leone, a director with a self consciously modernist style and morally ambiguous characters, whose influence can be seen on Eastwood’s films for decades. After the films play in the States in 1967, he finally becomes an American film star.
Cut to 1973: Eastwood is preparing to shoot his second film as a director– after the interesting but little seen PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)– and it’s going to be the first Western where he’s calling the shots. The film is a synthesis of the styles Eastwood has encountered in his 15 years working in the genre. From “Rawhide” and his frequent collaborator Don Siegel, he brings the classical language of the western film: the sleepy town, a cast of colorful locals, a simple framing style. From Leone, he took a moral ambiguity, or even ambivalence, and he populates the film with characters it’s easy to be engrossed in but not easy to like. It’s hard not to find echoes of the violence in Vietnam in Eastwood’s ghost town.
But that’s where the western was in the early 70s: old lions making the same entertainments they’d been making for years, while hoping the audience didn’t notice that they were certainly moving a little slower, mixed with a younger generation looking to make the western relevant to a new society. It’s not for nothing that following the release of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER Wayne sent a letter of admonishment to Eastwood, complaining that in his film “the townspeople did not represent the true spirit of the American pioneer, the spirit that made America great.”
One genre, many different viewpoints.