The Twilight Western

Steve McQueen (left) as Junior and Robert Preston as his Dad, ‘Ace’ in one of the best ‘twilight Westerns’, Junior Bonner

These notes were originally written for an Evening Class in 2006 devised around the then topical reactions to the success of Brokeback Mountain in UK cinemas. The course began with a screening of The Last Picture Show (1971). I’m particularly interested in the idea of the ‘Twilight Western’ so this blog has a tag that links to several posts on specific films.

History and myth

The Hollywood Western focuses primarily on the ‘opening up’ of the American frontier which followed the end of the Civil War in 1865. There were several different kinds of Western narratives, partly dictated by location and the various forms of economic endeavour. There are the ‘exploration’ tales of the wagon trains, the engagements with and exploitation of Native Americans (and the narrative of colonialist expansion), the ‘settlement’ of the plains and the high sierra, the ‘mountain’ Westerns with railroads across the Rockies and gold-mining, the cowboy/cattle driving tales and finally the closing of the frontier in the South and West. New Mexico and Arizona were the last territories to be made states of the Union in 1912. 

The cattle business in Northern Texas as shown in Red River was eventually pushed West and in the 1880s the so-called Lincoln County War broke out in New Mexico territory between a group led by the cattle baron John Chisum and another group of local capitalists who controlled the trade in the territory. The fighting, which involved William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) and Pat Garrett provided the basis for many ‘late Western’ stories.

The ‘West’ began to be captured in various media – in paintings, poetry and song, ‘dime novels’ and journalism, as well as circus entertainment – almost as it happened and the first ‘Westerns’ in the cinema appeared early in the 20th century. What was presented in these stories was not the ‘real, historical’ West, but a mythological West in which the ‘frontier spirit’ was to be celebrated: 

. . . in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and the scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. (from Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, 1920 – first papers discussed 1893 and quoted by Calder (1974))

The early cinema Westerns, with notable exceptions, were relatively straightforward adventures and melodramas (which in the 1930s was a term for ‘action pictures’). The genre came of age in the late 1930s and 1940s, most notably via the work of John Ford and the creation of stars such as John Wayne, who appeared to embody the masculine values of independence of thought and surety of action. As early as the 1950s it is possible to see changes in the Western – not least because the genre became so familiar that it could be used to explore a wide range of contemporary concerns and still keep within the confines of the familiar.

The Twilight Western

The ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary Western’ is a film set ‘now’ in the those parts of America which were the locations for the historical and mythical ‘West’. It is also concerned with at least some aspects of ‘cowboy culture’. It’s hard to put a date on the first ‘contemporary Western’ but by the late 1940s Roy Rogers had become just about the most well known entertainer in America as a ‘singing cowboy’ in a host of B Westerns and his TV series (started 1951) was set in the contemporary West. Roy Rogers was the ultimate ‘good cowboy with the white hat’, but the contemporary Westerns in the cinema were different. They focused on the problems of the cowboy and Western culture as they became increasingly ‘out of touch’ with what was happening in urban America. This is well described in Ron Grundmann’s review of Brokeback Mountain:

Clearly in evidence is [Larry] McMurtry’s stature as the dean of twilight Westerns – a realist, demystifying subgenre that produced such classics as The Lusty Men (1952), The Misfits (1961) and Hud (1963) and depicts the West as an orphaned, beat down territory passed over by the great societies heralded by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.

McMurtry’s novels – most notably Horsemen Pass By (the basis for Hud), The Last Picture Show . . . , and Lonesome Dove (made into a popular TV miniseries in 1989) – have stamped their indelible mark on the twilight Western. The author understands how to expound the genre’s latent capitalist critique, which he unrelentingly harnesses also to Proulx’s story: the erotic rhythm of Ennis and Jack’s cowboy romance, we realise, echoes the kind of transience and mobility that lastingly constituted frontier life as the archetype of American social formations straight into industrial capitalism. Only that, once modernisation had steamrolled across many regions, this mobility designated little more than the meandering paths of the rural lower class’s disaffected wanderings; or else, it transmogrified into the nasty, dust-blown rinks of small time rodeo- traveling circuses of the West, a potter’s field of itinerant ex-cowboys. (Grundmann, 2006)

Hud (Paul Newman, Left) with his father (Melvyn Douglas) and his nephew (Brandon deWilde)

Hud (dir Martin Ritt, 1963)

‘Hud’ (Paul Newman), is the second son of ageing rancher (Melvin Douglas) somewhere in Texas. The two men live with Lorne, Hud’s nephew and a housekeeper (Patricia Neal). Hud is wild and wants to leave the ranch. He is constantly drinking, sleeping with married women in the local town and brawling. His behaviour disgusts his father and fascinates his nephew. Crisis comes when a foot and mouth outbreak hits the ranch.

Everybody talks about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as being a parable for the commercialisation and subsequent collapse of the West, but as amazing a piece of work as that movie is, I don’t think it cuts that deep; Hud, on the other hand, wrote the book on the subject – it understands generationalism, if you will: that torches are more often extinguished than passed. (Bill Chambers, filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/longhotsummer.htm – this 2003 review is not currently available)

The reference above to Sergio Leone also points us to the change in traditional Westerns that took place in the 1960s. Increasingly, they began to focus on the ‘closing years’ of the 19th century or ‘the End of the West’. The themes of these films were the same as those of the ‘contemporary Western’ – the closing of the frontier, the ‘industrialisation’ and ‘urbanisation’ of the ‘open range’. They also focused on the imperialism/colonialism inherent in the subjugation of Native Americans (and provided metaphors for the American action in Vietnam after 1965). A further factor was the real ‘twilight’ in the careers of ageing Western stars such as John Wayne (e.g. The Shootist, 1976) and Randolph Scott (e.g. Ride the High Country, 1962).

Both the contemporary Western and the ‘End of the West’ traditional Western have been classified as ‘Twilight Westerns’ and perhaps the most well-known director associated with the sub-genre is Sam Peckinpah who produced at least four ‘End of the West’ films (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrettt and Billy the Kid (1973)) and four films that are either firmly ‘twilight’ contemporary Westerns (Junior Bonner (1972)) or closely associated (The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Convoy (1978)). 

Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)

Steve McQueen is ‘Junior’ Bonner, an ‘over the hill’ rodeo cowboy who returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. He discovers that his father is in hospital and that his brother, a realtor, has bulldozed his father’s home to clear land for a mobile home development. Junior has to face his own failure and listen to his father’s plans to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep farmer. All this takes place on Prescott’s ‘Frontier Day’ with a parade and rodeo.

Summary

Many of Peckinpah’s films (and many Twilight Westerns generally) feature two male characters, both ‘cowboys’. The ‘hero’ is typically the character who still holds to the cowboy culture – the code of honour. The other character bows to the oncoming surge of ‘modernity’ (usually reluctantly). Often there is the prospect of ‘escape’ over the border into Mexico where the code still operates, but this means a ‘betrayal’ of sorts. In some of these films there is a generational difference with the older character representing the past and the younger the future.

Further reading

Ed Buscombe (2006) ‘Man to Man’, Sight & Sound, Jan

Jenni Calder (1974) There Must be a Lone Ranger: The Myth and Reality of the American Wild West, London: Hamish Hamilton

Roy Grundmann (2006) Review of Brokeback Mountain in Cineaste, Vol XXX1, No 2

Roy Stafford 18/5/06 

One comment

  1. keith1942

    This is an interesting article and I would agree with Roy generally. However, the silent westerns were more complex than he suggests. The diffculty is that, apart from a few iconic titles, it is not easy to see these films. I have been\ fortunate in seeing a number at both Il Cinema Ritrovato and Le Gironate del Cinema Muto: in addition the London-based Bioscope organised a whole weekend of films featuring early westerns including a feature by William S. Hart.
    I find him the most interesting of early western stars. Many of his films fit into the generic variations noted by Roy. But there are also more complex titles: ‘The Aryan’ (1916) has a distinctive treatment of the waggon train story:’The Gufighter’ (1917) offers a unsual variation on Hart’s frequent role as ‘road agent’ or outlaw. Both were seen this year at the latter Festival.
    We have in other programmes enjoyed westerns where women are the protagonists. Other films have treated the situation of the Native Americans sympathetically. And we saw a whole batch of early ‘Euro-Westerns’. There are other titles which, like ‘The Covered Wagon’ (1923), are not just celbrations of the West but parables of the young United States.
    Some sense of the complexities of early westerns can vbe found on the following web-based article:- http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue06/infocus/silentwesterns.htm:

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