The Western is the great American cinematic form, a uniquely American genre. More than that, some have suggested that it stands alongside jazz as America’s great contribution to the arts. It is America’s equivalent of the Greek tragedy, where filmmakers replay and reimagine stories of America. The Western genre was at its height in Hollywood’s studio era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Its conventional storylines and reusable sets and props made it one of the backbone genres of the mass production machine that was studio era Hollywood. Before World War II, at a time when the major studios were churning out approximately 500 films a year, B-grade Westerns accounted for 15% of all Hollywood production. As well as these quick and cheap B-movies the studio era gave us great Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the greatest of them all, The Searchers (1956). But by the 1960s the classical Western was starting to grow tired, audiences were growing tired of it, and the genre went out of fashion in Hollywood for a while in the 1970s and 1980s. While the Western has never quite re-established itself as a prominent genre in post-classical Hollywood, there have been a number of notable and interesting films that have employed the Western form. Here are six of the best of them…
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a disarmingly likeable film, and possibly the greatest buddy movie ever. Butch and Sundance are part of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, but are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. With an unshakeable posse on their tail, they head for South America to start afresh as Bolivian bandits. Butch and Sundance are the perfect pairing. Butch is a charismatic, smooth-talking, sharp-minded leader. Sundance is cool, quiet and deadly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who would again team up with Hill in 1973 for The Sting) give the film genuine star power, while William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives it its charm, humour and intelligence. The final freeze frame is one of the iconic shots in American film.
In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 saw the release of another film about the Hole in the Wall Gang, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and they could hardly have been more different. The Wild Bunch is a key film in the history of screen violence. Changes to American film censorship regulations in 1968, with a move from the all-encompassing Production Code to a ratings system, allowed for greater representations of violence on screen and Peckinpah took full advantage. The film is a masterpiece of excess and spectacle, with approximately 90,000 rounds of blanks fired in the production. The film’s final shootout is truly something to behold. But rather than spectacle for spectacle’s sake, violence penetrates this film at a thematic level. The Wild Bunch is a film about violence, about the passing on of violence from one generation to the next, as demonstrated through the evolving roll of children throughout the narrative.
Little Big Man is a comic Western saga which continued director Arthur Penn’s engagement with the strong counter-culture movement of the time. It tells the life story of 121 year old Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Having been captured by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb spends his life jumping back and forth between living as a native American and as a frontiersman, and thus experiences both sides of a very transformative period in America’s history. Little Big Man provides a debunking of the classical Western myth, portraying the pacification of the West as an act of genocide. The Cheyenne people are shown to be a kind and peaceful people, and Penn’s dramatization of an attack on their camp by Custer’s Cavalry is an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War at a time before Hollywood films were ready to openly discuss the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the lowest point for the Western as a film genre, it was Clint Eastwood who almost single-handedly kept it alive. Unforgiven is both a love letter and farewell from actor-director Clint Eastwood to the genre that made him a star. Set in the 1880s, when the days of the frontier were fading and a new world was rising, William Munny is of the old world. A retired gunman and a widower with two children, he is coaxed to pick up his gun once more by his old friend Ned to go after a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey. Rather than a Wild West romp, Unforgiven is a dark and melancholy film. Where once Eastwood played a part in romanticising the West, here he shows it for its grim reality. Beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, and featuring a tremendous cast including Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning performance as sheriff Little Bill. Eastwood dedicated the film to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The second feature film from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western with an almost art-film sensibility. The film uses the story of the final chapter of the life of one of the American West’s most iconic characters to show us the active process of the mythologising of the West. The young Robert Ford has grown up on the tales of the legendary exploits of Jesse James, so when he has the opportunity to join the James gang for their last robbery he idolises James. Theirs is a strange relationship built on Ford’s intense devotion, which can really only end one way. While this slow-paced, contemplative film is probably a bit longer than it needs to be, it is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and features some very interesting performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the story of True Grit has a beautiful simplicity to it which has been missing from the Western in recent decades. Despite this old-fashioned quality, the direction of the Coen brothers and the beautiful cinematography, again from Roger Deakins, gives the film a modern feel and aesthetic. Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross, the young girl who sets out with a hired Marshall to catch her father’s murderer, is simply brilliant with the role being undoubtedly one of the great young female characters. When the story was previously brought to the screen in 1969, John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but rather than simply imitate Wayne’s performance, Jeff Bridges brings his own characterisation to the part.
It technically isn’t a movie so wasn’t included in the six but no conversation about the Western genre in recent years would be complete without…
Created by David Milch, for three 12 episode seasons HBO’s gritty series Deadwood was arguably the best show on television and the best single piece of work the Western genre had seen in decades. Set in the 1870s, the show followed the development of the town of Deadwood, annexed from the Dakota Territory, from a basic camp into a thriving, organised, but incredibly uncivilised and corrupt community. Marvellously written, the show’s dialogue was at the same time almost Shakespearean in its poetry and the most horrendously coarse thing you’ll ever hear. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and puppet-master over the citizens of Deadwood, was one of the great television characters of that decade. Tragically the show was cut short after three seasons, and while there was talk of two television movies being made to complete the story they never eventuated.
By Duncan McLean
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson, Murray Hamilton
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw something unusual happen in the American cinema. A number of factors converged to create a window of opportunity for a different type of cinema to emerge from the Hollywood studios. For a period of just under a decade there was a mainstream American art cinema, with Hollywood studios producing youth-oriented films which borrowed stylistically from the art cinema of Europe and took advantage of recent changes in censorship laws to push the boundaries of sex, drugs, nudity and violence. This period, which came to be known as the New Hollywood or the Hollywood Renaissance, would provide some of the most celebrated films in the history of American movies, one of the best of which is Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Together with another 1967 film, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, it marked the starting point of the New Hollywood period for most critics and film historians.
The Graduate tells the story of a disillusioned young man who returns home from college and commences an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner only to then fall in love with her daughter. Produced for $3m, it would become the highest grossing film of 1967, taking $49m at the US domestic box office. The key to its success was its ability to tap into the burgeoning youth market at a time when Hollywood’s traditional audience demographic, the family, had become less dependable. One audience survey found that 96% of viewers of The Graduate were less than 30 years of age. 72% under 24. The Graduate was a film which spoke to the Baby Boomer generation through its thematic content, its sexual frankness, its visual style and its use of music.
Thematically, The Graduate is about the head on collision between two generations. Benjamin’s parents are post-war parents. They know what they want from life and they’ve fought for it. Benjamin is a Baby Boomer. He has come into a readymade world and doesn’t know where he fits into it. He represents a youth that are dreaming about a future that they haven’t yet defined. Trying to explain this to his father Benjamin states, “I want my life to be… different.” He doesn’t know what he wants but he knows it isn’t this.
Benjamin represents the burgeoning counter-culture. New Hollywood cinema is full of counter-culture characters, but usually when we think of them we are drawn to the extremes – the long haired, drug taking, hippies of Easy Rider for example. These are characters that consciously identify themselves as being something different. Benjamin doesn’t have than self-awareness. However, in his unwillingness to simply accept the world as it is, even though he doesn’t yet know what he wants it to be, he becomes the counter-culture figure. Not just a counter-culture figure, but a more identifiable counter-culture figure for the vast majority of viewers. Benjamin is an alienated character. Again, it is a different type of alienation to what we saw in other films of that year (Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke), but likely an alienation which is more in line with what a lot of young, middle class Americans were experiencing.
Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate is fantastic. He so perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness and uncertainty of a young man who doesn’t know who he is. He underplays the character beautifully, whispering rather than speaking, nudging rather than moving. Until Elaine comes into his life he doesn’t do anything with conviction.
Given how iconic Hoffman’s performance has become, it is interesting to note that he was not the obvious choice for the role that he seems to us now.
In the 1963 Charles Webb novel from which the film was adapted, the central characters are all WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants). Benjamin is described as a blonde haired, blue eyed, six foot tall athlete, “a surfboard” is how co-screenwriter Buck Henry described him, and a far cry from the Benjamin we come to see on the screen. It was originally Nichols’ intention to stick with this vision. His vision for the film saw Benjamin being played by Robert Redford, Elaine by Candice Bergen and Mrs. Robinson by Doris Day. While Doris Day turned down the part as it “offended [her] sense of values,” both Redford and Bergen read for the parts.
But Nichols’ instincts told him something was off. He explained, “When I saw the test I told Redford that he could not, at that point in his life, play a loser like Benjamin, ‘cause nobody would ever buy it. He said, ‘I don’t understand,’ and I said, ‘Well let me put it to you another way: Have you ever struck out with a girl?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ It made my point.”
Hoffman had done a screen test for the part and despite not being the look they had been envisioning, all present were in agreement his test had been the most interesting. So Nichols’ made the decision to change the family from WASPs to Beverly Hills Jews and cast Dustin Hoffman. Rather than the strapping, stereotypical All-American boy that Benjamin was written to be, Hoffman became a sort of genetic throwback in the family line.
Prior to The Graduate Hoffman had done nothing of significance on screen. His only screen credit was 19th billing in Hap (1967). But Buck Henry had seen him on stage in a play called Harry Noon and Night in which he played a crippled, German transvestite. Henry said his performance had been so brilliant it was impossible to believe he wasn’t at least one or two of those things.
The casting of Hoffman over a young star like Redford was a big deal, with potentially huge financial ramifications, but it paid off handsomely, as Hoffman’s performance earned him the first of his seven career Best Actor Oscar nominations.
It should also be noted that the casting of Anne Bancroft was significant, given she was only six years older than Hoffman, but the two worked superbly together. The power relationship between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in the first half of the film is just brilliant comic acting. Mrs. Robinson is the polar opposite to Benjamin. She knows what she wants. She is authoritative and self-assured, although later we come to see her vulnerability. The power relationship between the two is perfectly demonstrated by the fact that at even their most intimate moments, Benjamin still calls her “Mrs. Robinson.”
The casting of Hoffman was representative of a greater trend in casting that would take place in the New Hollywood era. In the studio era, the industry operated largely on the understanding that people wanted escapism. They wanted a sense of distance between their own lives and what they saw on the screen. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, wanted to be able to engage with the movies. More to the point, they wanted the movies to engage with them. They wanted to see truth and reality up on the screen. So the New Hollywood period saw the arrival of a number of new faces, not just in the sense that they were new to the industry, but also in the sense that they were a different type of face to the faces we were used to seeing on the screen.
The New Hollywood period introduced a new type of movie star. A star that looked like an average Joe. Alongside Dustin Hoffman, the generation of actors who rose to prominence in this period of Hollywood’s history included Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Harvey Keitel, John Cazale, Christopher Walken and Elliot Gould. These actors banished the vanilla features of the studio era in favour of a gritty realism and ethnicity.
The same was true to a certain extent for actresses, with new beauties like Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway being joined by more normal looking actresses like Diane Keaton, Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. Obviously, there remained a gender double-standard which says it is harder for an unattractive woman to become a movie star than an unattractive man, but none the less these actresses displayed a different look to the wholesome pertness of a Doris Day in the 1950s, or the studio era bombshells like Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth.
Appealing to the youth audience in the late 1960s didn’t just involve telling young people’s stories, it involved telling them in a style which appealed to young people. This youth demographic that had been shunning traditional Hollywood fare were enthusiastically consuming foreign films, particularly the European art films. 1966, the year before The Graduate was released, was the highest grossing year for foreign films at the US box office. Much of that was due to the success of Blow Up. As Stanley Kramer put it, “Everyone in Zilchville [saw] Blow Up, not just the elite.”
European art films like Blow Up and, in particular, the French New Wave films of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol, introduced a new style of cinematic storytelling. Where the studio era had always operated on a principle of invisible style, the French New Wave saw cinematography and editing as narrative tools. Filmmakers employed an unconventional visual style which drew attention to itself, in complete opposition to the principle of seamlessness.
Mike Nichols was a fan of New Wave filmmaking, as well as the later Italian neo-realists like Antonioni and Fellini. So in The Graduate we see a lot of non-traditional Hollywood cinematography and editing, giving the film a very contemporary look. But, like with the European films, this contemporary look was not just style for style’s sake. It was not simply a cynical imitation of what was popular at the time in order to make the film marketable. In The Graduate visual style, as well as music, is used for narrative purposes, primarily through emphasising tone and visually representing emotions.
For an example of this, let’s look at a few of the different ways that Benjamin is shot.
Firstly, consider his positioning in the frame. Early in the film Benjamin is rarely centred in the shot composition. Instead he is largely situated to the right of the screen with expanses of space to his left. It is only later in the film, once he has met Elaine and found a sense of purpose and that his character possesses the conviction to dominate the image.
Secondly, on a few occasions the camera adopts Benjamin’s subjectivity, often as a means to demonstrate his claustrophobia in the suburban world of his parents. This is, of course, most notable is the scene in which a reluctant Benjamin is forced to model his new scuba suit for his parents’ friends. For this scene we see the world through Benjamin’s scuba mask – as well as hearing the muffled audio and his breathing. This same sense of claustrophobia is stylistically represented in a different fashion at the first party scene, the welcome home, through the use of very close shots of Benjamin’s face with other faces squeezing their way into the frame.
Thirdly, Nichols makes use of zooms. Using a zoom shot was traditionally considered bad filmmaking. However, Nichols uses zooms at a number of points throughout the film for particular emotional effect. When Nichols zooms out, it is to emphasise the isolation of a character (the opening shot of Benjamin in his seat on the plane). When he zooms in, it is to take us into their soul (this strategy is employed later in the film with Mrs. Robinson as we start to discover more layers to her character).
The stylistic influence of the French New Wave extended to the editing. Like the New Wave filmmakers, Nichols chooses at times to abandon the principles of classic continuity editing in order to use his cutting as a narrative or emotive device. Two particular moments come to mind.
The first is the moment when a naked Mrs. Robinson corners Benjamin in Elaine’s bedroom. In a reflection on a portrait of Elaine, we see Mrs Robinson sneak into the room unbeknownst to Benjamin. As the door bangs shut behind her, Benjamin spins. Nichols breaks his turn down into three different shots, exaggerating the movement through editing. We see his face in an over-the-shoulder shot as he looks at Mrs. Robinson. He is panicking and this panic is reflected in the cutting of the scene. As Mrs. Robinson propositions Benjamin, the over the shoulder shot is interrupted by five very short flashes of different parts of her naked body. Quick glances, like those of a panicking young man who doesn’t know where to look. In all, there are 15 cuts in this very short moment between her entering the room and him running away downstairs. This rapid cutting emphasises his panic in that moment, and is beautifully juxtaposed by the calm, measured way in which Mrs. Robinson speaks.
The second I call the “Out of the pool and onto Mrs. Robinson” transition. We see Benjamin in the pool. He goes to pull himself up onto his lie-lo, and the motion that starts with in the pool finishes with him on top of Mrs Robinson. While lying on top of her we hear his father’s voice, which brings us back to the pool. This one cut works almost like an entire montage in itself. This is Benjamin’s life at the moment: lying in the pool and meeting with Mrs Robinson.
One of the primary ways in which The Graduate aligns itself with the youth counterculture of the time is through its soundtrack. Rather than a traditional orchestral score, Nichols employs the songs of folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, with the resulting soundtrack being one of the most striking features of the film. The use of popular music in the place of a traditional score was a recent innovation. Richard Lester’s two Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), had employed the group’s music to great effect, and films like The Graduate, Easy Rider and American Graffiti would see the popular music score become a prominent feature of the New Hollywood period.
Nichols had always wanted Simon and Garfunkel for the soundtrack. They had risen to prominence in 1965 with their hit single ‘Sounds of Silence,’ and were strongly identified with the counter-culture movement that was bubbling up in the 1960s in America.
While the majority of Simon and Garfunkel songs used on the soundtrack were pre-existing, the producers made a deal with Paul Simon to provide them with three new songs. However due to a busy touring schedule, Simon did not get around to writing the agreed upon songs. When Nichols pleaded with Simon to show him something new, he played him a bit of a song he had been working on about time past, about Joe DiMaggio and Eleanor Roosevelt. Nichols persuaded him to change it from Mrs. Roosevelt to Mrs. Robinson and the song made its way into the film. Paul Simon only recorded as much as appears in the film. The producers of the film wanted him to write the rest so they would have a promotional tie-in, but Simon was reluctant. However, the movie becoming a big hit was enough to persuade Paul Simon very quickly wrote and recorded the rest of the song. So, for any Simon and Garfunkel fans out there, this accounts for why the version of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ that appears in the film sounds significantly different to the version which was released as a single.
As well as providing an iconic score and serving as useful cross-promotion for both the band and the film, Nichols used Simon and Garfunkel’s music to very specific narrative purposes. Musically there are three distinct stages through the film. In the first third of the film we hear ‘Sounds of Silence’ again and again. It becomes the theme for Benjamin’s uncertainty as he ponders his future while in the suburbs. In the second third of the film the music changes and the song ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’ becomes very prominent. It is the theme for Benjamin’s pining after Elaine after she discovers about him and Mrs Robinson. For the final third of the film we get the much more upbeat ‘Mrs Robinson,’ it’s faster tempo marking Benjamin’s newfound determination as he pursues Elaine and seeks to rescue her from her upcoming marriage. And the payoff for this aligning of different tunes with different states of Benjamin’s psyche comes in the film’s final scene.
The conclusion of Nichols film is masterful, and gives us a number of things to consider. As we watch Benjamin and Elaine ride away together, it is tempting to assume that we have just witnessed a standard Hollywood, happily-ever-after conclusion, but in fact nothing is that straight forward. For starters, Benjamin doesn’t actually succeed in stopping the wedding. He arrives to see Elaine kissing her husband. The vows have already been exchanged. As Mrs Robinson points out, “It’s too late.” So what does this mean for Benjamin and Elaine running away together, knowing that legally she is married? The way Nichols concludes the film leaves us with great uncertainty about the future of these characters, and that uncertainty is communicated through two subtle directorial decisions. Firstly, we watch them run onto the bus and sit down together giddy with excitement, but the camera stays with them long enough to watch the adrenaline die down and their faces go blank. Secondly, the music that accompanies the bus driving away is ‘Sounds of Silence,’ the song which we have been encouraged to associate with Benjamin’s insecurity and uncertainty about his future. Had Nichols cut that shot while they were still smiling and shown the bus driving away to the up-tempo rhythm of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ you would have had a perfect feel-good ending. Instead, through two subtle choices the director allows for ambiguity and uncertainty, leaving his audience with something to ponder.
In 1998, the American Film Institute marked the centenary of American cinema by releasing a list of the 100 greatest American films, with The Graduate coming in at #17. Despite coming from a period that delivered a number of truly remarkable pieces of American cinema, The Graduate still stands out as a fine achievement. Hilariously funny but still undeniably authentic, it is undoubtedly one of the finest youth movies ever made.
By Duncan McLean