Westerns have been declared dead more times than all the sheriffs of Tombstone, but like their own legendary heroes, they keep springing back to life in the public imagination.
To be sure, the days have long vanished when oaters, horse operas, and frontier melodramas filled movie theaters and TV screens with weekly megadoses of Old West mythology. Critics and historians have blamed all kinds of factors for causing the genre’s decline, from the waning credibility of American exceptionalism after Vietnam to the weakening of historical memory in the postmodern era.
But every time you think the western has bitten the dust at last, a new one scores an unexpected hit. At the moment, Deadwood is riding high on American television, captivating a new generation of fans and finding yet another way to revise the genre — having someone say “fuck” an average of 91.6 times per episode, according to a statistic in The Rough Guide to Westerns by Paul Simpson.
An engaging and unpretentious writer from the get-go, Simpson starts his book with a brief look at the basics, acknowledging that the simplest questions — What is a western? What accounts for the genre’s charisma? — have no simple answers. A law unto themselves, westerns can take place far from the Western frontier (e.g., Drums Along the Mohawk) and in modern times (e.g., Hud) as well as in other countries.
They have evolved over time, as well. At the turn of the 20th century, when The Great Train Robbery inaugurated the genre, the West was still wild and westerns were timely as well as exotic. In the heyday of studio filmmaking, from the 1920s to the 1950s, they transformed the violent, unruly facts of frontier adventurism into a body of myth, legend, and “moral clarity” that self-satisfied Americans could be proud of. In the contemporary post-studio era, revisionist westerns have tempered nostalgia with naturalism, optimism with pessimism, simplicity with complexity, and larger-than-life heroics with political nuance and psychological realism.
As for the genre’s appeal to people who’ve never set foot on American soil — Simpson ferrets out westerns made everywhere from China and India to Russia and Czechoslovakia — credit goes to the universal allure of sweeping historical sagas. Italian director Sergio Leone considered western characters to be latter-day avatars of the ancient Homeric heroes, and Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges praised westerns for keeping epic forms alive in the modern era.
After raising these and other issues, Simpson backtracks to the beginning. Nothing if not thorough, he starts the chapter called “Once Upon a Time in the West” by pinpointing the origin of the American frontier at “16,000 years ago when the first humans crossed over from Siberia,” presumably carrying clubs rather than six-shooters. From there he hits “The Trail,” tracking the western’s progression from the silent era, when movies like The Wind and The Iron Horse laid down ground rules for the genre, to recent innovations like Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant psychodrama Dead Man and Ang Lee’s innovative Brokeback Mountain, the boldest (although not the first) exploration of gay themes in a western setting.
Then comes the part of the book most readers will be keenest to peruse: The Canon! With more than 8000 westerns to choose from, by Simpson’s count, any selection of the top 50 is bound to seem arbitrary, capricious, and downright daft in spots. Simpson picked movies of “a certain quality,” as he cagily words it, but he also wanted a varied list, which means some of his choices were based on diversity rather than excellence.
Many aficionados will be astonished to find Howard Hawks’s penultimate picture, El Dorado, canonized instead of his 1959 classic Rio Bravo, which is “the most overrated western,” in Simpson’s not-so-humble opinion. But unashamed subjectivity is what makes movie rankings fun. In my own not-so-humble opinion, it’s ornery to put Sam Peckinpah’s uneven Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid near the top of the list; still, a top 10 that contains Nicolas Ray’s loony Johnny Guitar and Clint Eastwood’s quirky The Outlaw Josey Wales can’t be all bad.
The remaining chapters cover the rest of Simpson’s vast territory. “The Icons” portrays western-movie legends; “The Stock Company” does the same for the genre’s archetypes and ideals; “Western Country” visits key filming locations; “Way Out West” looks at westerns from around the world; and “Over the Horizon” wraps up everything from novels to websites to soundtrack albums. Appearing like trail markers along the way are colorful sidebars about sexy westerns, right-wing westerns, acid westerns, “JFK westerns,” unusual screen gunfights, High Noon spin-offs, movies influenced by The Searchers, and plenty more. There’s also a brief anti-Canon of the worst westerns, including The Terror of Tiny Town, an all-dwarf atrocity of 1938 that stands with the worst movies, period.
The biggest problem with The Rough Guide to Westerns is figuring out how to make the best use of it. I read it through, since I’m reviewing it, but it’s really designed for browsing, skimming, sampling, and looking things up. As a reference book it’s poorly designed, though; the table of contents only gives chapter titles, except for the Canon section, so you’ll be making a lot of trips to the index if you want to check out particular movies. And the only way to revisit sidebars is to poke around until you find them.
Back on the bright side, the book strikes an excellent balance between information and entertainment, blending persnickety precision with good-humored fun. Breezily written and generously illustrated, it should please movie buffs and western fans alike.