Understanding Hollywood’s western movies

The Hollywood Western is strikingly similar to the tales and poetry about the Knights of old Europe. Like the cowboy or gunfighter, the knight wanders from place to place on his horse, fighting villains and restoring justice according to his own code of honor. And like the knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. The Western genre combines these elements to tell tales of justice and morality.

The Hollywood Western

Some of the greatest Westerns were directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks. The Stagecoach is remembered for the incredibly daring stuntman who rolled under the stagecoach horses’ thundering hooves. It was a huge hit in the box office and shot John Wayne into stardom. John Ford became well-known for his exceptional Westerns; The Searchers, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, How the West Was Won, and Fort Apache, among many others. Howard Hawks, who frequently worked with William Faulkner, also found success in the Western genre with films like; Rio Lobo, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Red River, and Sergeant York. Anthony Mann was a tour de force with Winchester ’73, A Far Country and The Man from Laramie. Interestingly enough, the Western mirrored American foreign policy; the US adopting the role of the cowboy: coming to a foreign land to bring justice and to liberate the oppressed.

Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, particularly John Ford.

The Spaghetti Western

The Western Genre has been revamped into many subgenres including the Spaghetti Western, which was made famous by Sergio Leone in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, A FistFul of Dollars and A Few Dollars More. Generally, the Spaghetti Western was more violent than the Hollywood Western and the protagonist more selfish. Charles Bronson, Lee van Cleef and Clint Eastwood found their fame in the low-budget Italian Spaghetti Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns, perhaps influenced by the political events of the 1960s, crossed over into the acid genre along with other Western subgenres.

The Acid Western

The Acid Western evolved out of the 1960s and 70s, giving an existentialist spin to the Western genre. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s innovative experimental film El Topo is a cult Western and underground film about a violent gunfighter’s quest for enlightenment. Enzo Castellari’s mystical Spaghetti Western Keoma was in dialogue with Ingmar Bergman’s existentialist Seventh Seal. Jim Jarmusch also tried his hand at the Acid Western with Dead Man.

Western meets War

Most recently, the Spaghetti Western genre was superimposed on a World War II story; Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino. Through an exciting use of the genre, Tarantino demonstrated the US, “cowboy”, reaction to the Nazi threat. Tarantino’s film is a remake of a Spaghetti Western of Castellari’s, Quel Maledetto Tremo Blindato.

The Western genre has been modified into many subgenres and continues to evolve into new and exciting films; such as Inglourious Basterds. Where it had once seemed that Westerns had lost their audience, there came a new wave of the genre to entertain us, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brokeback Mountain, Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Chinaman’s Chance.

Audie Murphy Movies – Classic Westerns

Westerns evolved from simple representations of good guys in white hats and bad guys dressed in black to the ambiguities of the spaghetti western (films of Italian origin filmed in Spain) that proliferated in the 70’s. The newer westerns blurred the line between heroes and villains and produced the cowboy anti-hero. Movie star Audie Murphy began his career in 1945 when films were governed by a strict code that dictated movie character behavior.

Westerns filmed from the 1930’s to the 1960’s were influenced by the Hays Code of movie making. The code guided the development of characters and plots in film. Among the general principles of the code:

Until 1968, when the Hays Code was replaced by the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) rating system – movie westerns featured leading characters who possessed classic hero qualities that set them apart from the common man. The “good guys” could also be easily distinguished from the “bad guys.” This was the era during which Murphy made the majority of his, predominantly western, movies.

The morals and actions of the characters that Murphy portrayed were influenced by the Hays code; nonetheless movies produced during the era featured characters with depth and complexity; they were not one-dimensional caricatures. Murphy’s role as the gunslinger Reb Kittredge from Gunsmoke (1953) and Banner Cole in Posse from Hell (1961) both highlighted the character’s inner conflict.

Audie Murphy in the Movie Gunsmoke

In Gunsmoke, the character of Reb Kittredge yearns for a quiet life of farming, but his sometime partner Johhny Lake (portrayed by Chales Drake) tells him “You better stop thinking about that ranch kid. You’ll never make it…You been hiring out that gun too long.” In the midst of gunfights, quick draws, and other battles, Murphy manages to communicate inner turmoil and nobility in his screen character.

The character of Banner Cole in Posse from Hell also has inner struggles and nobility despite being a gunfighter. His sense of honor is revealed during the early scene of the movie, when his character is tasked with pursuing murderers who terrorized the town residents and killed the sheriff. As Cole makes preparations to pursue the criminals he is approached by the town’s banker (actor Ray Teal).

Audie Murphy stars in Posse from Hell

The banker tells Banner Cole “the men who robbed my bank left Paradise (the town) with exactly 11 thousand two-hundred dollars.” Banner replies “and one girl I’m told” and walks away dismissing the money-obsessed banker. The character of Banner is clearly focused on rescuing the captive girl, not retrieving the money.

As the story progresses, the motives and insecurities of members of posse are revealed as well as the emotional trauma of the outlaw’s kidnap victim. Audie Murphy appeared in classic western tales that involved more than gunfights and one-dimensional characters.

He ventured into the genre of the spaghetti western only once; he starred in The Texican in 1966. The movie is available on DVD, but the Texican being a spaghetti western was filmed in Barcelona, Spain. The cast – with the exception of a few members – spoke exclusively Italian; accordingly, the movie was dubbed in English. Audie Murphy fans endeavoring to own the complete collection of Murphy’s films should make note of the language and subtitles prior to purchasing a DVD of The Texican.