Today he's announcing his latest project, a blog concerned with Westerns: Observations From the Slash Y.
Like everything he tackles, he's obsessive, insightful and completely unable to stop once he gets going and I expect this blog will be the go-to resource for all your western questions in the future. I asked him for some thoughts on the Western as it bleeds easily into crime fiction and below are those same thoughts. Give it a read.
by Brian Lindenmuth
I've been tinkering with a new method to judge western films and, after watching three more recent westerns in quick succession, thought I'd kick it out to anyone interested. Really, its just the way that I judge westerns. It's an odd mix of subjective and objective that, in some cases can yield interesting results. Really, I suppose, I'm just trying to look at westerns a little differently, maybe scratch below the surface to see what makes them tick, and think about the film language of westerns. In short, the criteria boils down to how the movie showcases and utilizes faces, landscapes, and horses.
Westerns are great showcases for men's faces. Think about some of your favorite westerns over the years, think about some of the best westerns over the years. Now think about those faces. Weather beaten faces with crooks, crags, crevasses. Unshaven faces with scruff, mustaches, and beards. From John Wayne and Ben Johnson to Robert Ryan and Woody Strode. The western is so kind to the male face that it even does wonders for non-traditional faces like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, Gabby Hayes, Dub Taylor, Strother Martin. When the studios were cranking out westerns these non-traditional looking actors had robust careers. Not everyone can be Randolph Scott and in westerns they don't have to be.
The landscapes of the faces on display relate directly to the land itself. Hard travel and living, on hard land, is going to produce hard faces.
Westerns are as much about the land as the people that live on it. The two go hand in hand in a symbiotic way (which arguably became parasitic but that's a topic for another day). Landscapes are key to the film language of westerns. There should be wide shots, long shots, and medium long shots that show off the land (close ups are for the the great faces). The land is its own character and it should be featured accordingly. There should be more exterior shots than internal shots.
The greatest trick the genre ever pulled was convincing people that gunmanship was more important than horsemanship. Horses have a place of almost invisible importance in westerns. For something so ubiquitous, little thought is given to horses.
You expect the sage dotted plains, buttes, the town with its false fronts, sandy main street, saloon, livery stable, cowboys in jeans and ten gallon hats. And horses: in town tied to the hitching rail, being ridden by a single rider outlined against the sky, pulling covered wagons, free on the prairie. In the background, in the foreground, on the margins, at center, horses are the screen constantly, seen in every conceivable attitude. The presence of such beings has an extraordinary influence on our experience of Westerns. The sheer energy of the posse, chasing the bandits at breakneck speed, pulling up short, the horses' mouths foaming, bridles clanking, saddles creaking, hooves churning the sand; the fleeing villains stopping at a lookout point, wheeling around, pausing for a moment, then turning and galloping off again in a cloud of dust-these images are the heart and soul of a Western.
The master symbol for handling the cowboy is the symbol of the horseman. The gunman had his place in the mythology of the West, but the cowboy did not realize himself with a gun. Neither did he realize himself with a penis, nor with a bankroll. Movies fault the myth when they dramatize gunfighting, rather than horsemanship, as the dominant skill. The cowboy realized himself on a horse, and a man might be broke, impotent, and a poor shot and still hold up his head if he could ride.
Horses are an important part of westerns because they were important to life in the west. They were tools, a means of travel, a way to work, a way to achieve and accomplish most tasks. So westerns should have horses and actors riding them, and if the actors can't ride, they need to be at least able to sit a horse.
At one time, when western films ruled the land, actors were practically required to be able to ride a horse. If an actor excelled at riding horses (or a related skill) they were guaranteed work.
"One day he got sore at me and said, "You big tub of lard, I don't know why the hell I'm using you in this picture." I answered him right back: "Because Ward Bond can't drive six horses."
The artist Frederic Remington understood the nature of the relationship between man and horse. Look at his statues and paintings, the two are one. Ben Johnson, one of the great western actors, got his start because of his great skill in riding a horse. John Wayne will always be one of the most iconic actors of all time (and rightly so) but Ben Johnson riding a horse is pure poetry.
The next time you are watching a western ask yourself a couple of questions. Was this movie a showcase for interesting faces? Did this movie showcase the land in such a way as to make it a character? Did this movie show the close relationship between the land and those who live on it? Did this movie have any horses? If so, how were they used? Did this film show actors mounting, riding, or dismounting a horse? How about just sitting on a horse? At the very least, are their stuntmen or body doubles riding horses?
The recent westerns that started me down this path were Bone Tomahawk,
The Magnificent Seven (2016), and Slow West.
Horses: C (at best)
Before we get to the third western: Does utilizing this admittedly subjective criteria mean that one movie is better than the other? Specifically, in this case, do my grades mean that Bone Tomahawk is better than Magnificent Seven? Not necessarily. I enjoyed both of these movies in different ways and would recommend each of them but, I think The Magnificent Seven is the better western.
Stop by if you like.