Call of the Wild West
Harrison Ford loves westerns. He's been in quite a few of them on the small screen, having played roles in classic television westerns such as The Virginian and Gunsmoke when he was starting out in the late 1960s. If he had his way, he'd still be acting the part of a gunfighter decked out in a cowboy hat and chaps. 'I loved making those shows,' he says, 'but in the end they stopped making westerns, so I couldn't be in them anymore. I haven't made a western in years.'
Until now, that is. Ford's new film, Cowboys and Aliens, is a western, of sorts. Directed by Iron Man's Jon Favreau, it's a story about a group of cowboys who are attacked by a horde of vicious extraterrestrials. A kind of Predator set in the Wild West rather than Vietnam, the film has a touch of Aliens thrown in. It's a ham-fisted affair. But it does highlight the enduring qualities of the western genre.
Like jazz, westerns are a thoroughly American invention. Until the early 1970s, they were the art form the US used to depict its history and forge its myths. Thousands of westerns were made between the turn of the 20th century and the mid-1970s. Master directors such as John Ford made marvellous films such as The Searchers and My Darling Clementine about American legends like Wyatt Earp. Westerns are the single most important genre in American filmmaking.
Favreau agrees, saying the western set the blueprint for Hollywood action films. 'When they stopped making westerns, they picked the genre apart. They deconstructed it and used it as the foundation for other types of film. Look at Bruce Willis in Die Hard - he's a classic western sheriff. Han Solo in Star Wars is definitely a gunfighter, a bandit. All the films I grew up watching were taken from westerns. The storylines provide enduring myths for storytelling.' (Harrison Ford disagrees, saying his Star Wars character had nothing to do with any other films.)
Westerns were much more than action films. The beauty of the form was that it could be used to tell many different types of stories. Ford's The Searchers, one of the greatest films ever made, is a multifaceted drama about race, family and revenge. But there were also comedy westerns like Cat Ballou.
Some films, such as Fritz Lang's Western Union, were historical in nature. Other productions, such as Budd Boetticher's Ranown cycle, verged on the Shakespearean. B-movie, or 'series', westerns were actioners made to play in cinemas before the main film on a double bill.
Western films are part of a long tradition of western stories that dates back to the cheap cowboy novels of the late 19th century. They have their own stock characters and even their own visual language. For instance, the villains would usually wear black hats. Even modern films such as Cowboys and Aliens attempt to follow some of the rules of the genre, says Favreau. 'I had to pay close attention to the films in the genre that came before mine. That's always been the tradition. Even when John Ford was making Stagecoach in 1939, he looked at what had come before. He referenced all the silent westerns.'
Ford's name crops up a lot in discussions about westerns. That's because he was the undisputed master of the form. Orson Welles once said there were three great filmmakers in American history: 'John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.' His films are detailed examinations of the pioneering spirit that built America. Along the way, they mythologise characters from American western history.
While formally coherent, Ford's films vary in tone and theme. My Darling Clementine, one of his greatest, features Henry Fonda debating the nature of justice in a harsh place that seems bereft of such high-falutin' concepts. The famed Cavalry trilogy - Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande - stars John Wayne and portrays the hardships the settlers faced during the Indian wars of the late 1800s.
Cheyenne Autumn, Ford's moving final western, is made from the perspective of the native Americans. It details the horrors the Cheyenne tribe faced at the hands of the US Cavalry when they tried to flee from their reservation for their ancestral homelands in Wyoming. Ford even reflected on the western genre itself in a roundabout way: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which stars James Stewart, examines the nature of western mythmaking.
Favreau says that he, and many of his Hollywood contemporaries, are still entranced by Ford's work. One of the highlights of his life was when Steven Spielberg played him a new print of The Searchers in a private screening room. 'He told me it was even better quality than the original release print,' Favreau says. 'Steven talked me through the whole movie. He explained every actor, every shot, how they did certain things, and what things they were inspired by. I saw how much Ford had influenced Spielberg's work. I felt I was being handed down a sense of tradition.'
The western genre almost died out in the early 1970s. The counter-culture of the 60s was one of the things that nearly killed it, although it had gradually been declining since the late 1950s. The traditional social mores of the western seemed out of date compared to freewheeling 1960s movies such as Easy Rider.
Audiences had changed, too. The Wild West period of the US only ended in the first decade of the 20th century, and many American viewers remained close to it in the subsequent few decades. But audiences had changed by the later part of the century.
Younger viewers relegated westerns to a past age. Revisionist westerns - films that showed the brutality of the Wild West - did something to counter the declining trend. Soldier Blue and The Wild Bunch, two hard-hitting movies, were much discussed. But the box-office disaster of Michael Cimino's expensive and rambling Heaven's Gate seemed to have sealed the genre's fate in 1980.
Since then, there have been occasional westerns of varying success. Young Guns, which featured the so-called Brat Pack, picked up on the gloss and superficiality of the 1980s, and was moderately entertaining. Clint Eastwood returned to his gunslinger roots to direct and star in Unforgiven, the film that will stand as his masterpiece. Kevin Costner hit big with the sentimental Dances With Wolves, but his Open Range (2003), an elegiac film about two ageing gunslingers, was a true western classic. The Coen brothers recently remade the John Wayne classic, True Grit, in their own inimitable style.
Harrison Ford would like to see more westerns made today - that way, he says with a smile, he could act in them. He points out that the themes of the revisionist westerns may suit the current recessionary times in the US.
'I think it would work,' he says. 'You would just need a well-crafted script. It would have to have a degree of newness to it, and it would have to be smart. It would have to be visually interesting. But yes, I think it would work, and I'd like to be in it.'
Cowboys and Aliens opens on Aug 25