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YEE-HAH FOR WESTERNS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 1, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the re-release of one of my favorite westerns, ‘The Big Country,’ in a new Blu-ray 60th anniversary edition from Kino Lorber, this 20-year-old column came to mind, which I wrote in defense of the genre after it had taken a hit in a national magazine. Under the headline, ‘Westerns silly? Newsweek slam was ludicrous,’ this one was published on Dec. 18, 1998, in the Deseret News. ('The Big Country' isn't listed in this two-decades-old column, but I highly recommended it, along with 'The Searchers' and others listed here.)

In last week's issue of Newsweek, the one with Nicole Kidman on the cover, there is a decidedly goofy, off-handed remark in the magazine's "All I Want for Christmas … " gift guide, which was part of the Arts & Entertainment section.

It takes a broad swipe at Western movies as "a fundamentally silly genre."

Apparently, Newsweek feels that Westerns are sillier than musicals, where people burst into song at the drop of a hat; or science-fiction thrillers, where bizarre creatures attempt to destroy the Earth; or horror movies, where teenagers are slashed to bits by masked killers who can't be killed; or … well, you get the idea.               

The comment is in the last item of the gift guide, labeled "Videos," as the writer recommends the new widescreen videotape release of John Ford's 1956 classic "The Searchers," which stars John Wayne.

For the uninitiated, "The Searchers" is often cited as one of the best Westerns ever made, and just as often, one of the best movies ever made. And this new release includes a half-hour documentary about the making of the film, complete with home movies shot on the set and running commentary by people involved in the production.

There are also insightful observations about "The Searchers" — and about Westerns at large — from filmmaker John Milius, whose screenwriting credits include "Geronimo: An American Legend" and "Jeremiah Johnson."

Among other things, Milius comes to the defense of John Wayne, who is often talked about as if he could play only one role. "For people to actually sit there and say John Wayne wasn't a good actor is the stupidest thing in the world," Milius says. "All you have to do is show 'The Searchers.' "

     

Indeed, Wayne's character in "The Searchers" could easily have been a completely unsympathetic villain. He is a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece, and he is consumed with racist hatred toward the Indians who have taken her. But as played by Wayne, he is also a complicated human being with a depth many actors would have been unable to convey.

Indeed, Edward Norton's portrait of a racist who finds redemption in "American History X," as good as it is, has nothing on Wayne's performance in "The Searchers."

But I digress.

As the writer of that little item in Newsweek is unidentified, we can only hope it's not the magazine's longtime, well-respected movie critic, David Ansen.

Perhaps it's some new guy, too young to have a strong sense of movie history and too inexperienced to realize the importance the Western genre played in cinema during its first 70 years; someone who can't recognize all the cribbed Western elements that give life to modern movies: 

— In "Patch Adams," Robin Williams is the new gun in town, vowing to make hospitals safe again for women and children. (See "Destry Rides Again," "High Noon," "Shane.")

— "A Civil Action" is John Travolta as John Wayne, looking to redeem himself as he goes up against all odds to clean up the town. (See "Rio Bravo," "El Dorado," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," etc.)

— And every time the crew of the spaceship Enterprise defies a commanding officer and strikes out on its own in the name of justice, including "Star Trek: Insurrection," there is a John Ford cavalry movie in there somewhere.

     

Of course, it's hard to argue against the notion that there are a lot of silly Westerns. For every "Stagecoach" or "Red River" or "Ride the High Country," there are dozens of formula cowboy yarns that are quite silly indeed.

On the other hand, for every "West Side Story" or "Star Wars" or "Psycho," there are dozens of movies from those respective genres that are equally silly.

Actually, for someone in a national magazine to be dismissive of any particular genre as a whole shows a ridiculous lack of forethought.

Kind of makes you wonder if the Newsweek writer has given any thought to how magazines stack up.

In fact, one could make a case that the magazine is a pretty silly genre within the realm of the printed word.