on 9 February 2015
The Western is a fascinating genre laying out a mythic landscape which can be interpreted in any number of ways. For me, two enduring pre-occupations dominate; first, the celebration of the very creation of the USA as a nation in the past and second, a running commentary on the state of the nation in the present. Anthony Mann's marvelous 1958 Man of the West superbly demonstrates both and demands to be much better known than it is. Over-shadowed by Mann's five wonderful Jimmy Stewart Westerns (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie and The Far Country), which in turn were also over-shadowed by prestigious `classic' Westerns from the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens, the film amounts to Mann's bleakest and most brilliant statement in the genre.
It is a moot point as to exactly when revisionism began in the Western. The usual view has the Vietnam War era and the westerns of Robert Aldrich (Ulzana's Raid) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) as the point that Westerns started to reflect the souring of the American Dream. However, I'd say the revision process started much earlier, evolving gradually from the ashes of World War Two and picking up a real head of steam through the 50s as America fell under the grip of anti-Communist paranoia, McCarthyist witch-hunting, the fear of nuclear apocalypse, and the emerging social disruption of the civil rights movement. For three decades the sound era had presented the Western as a celebration of creation mythology documenting the European colonizers pushing westwards in pursuit of their "Manifest Destiny" to make the USA. The emergence of fascism in Europe resulting in World War Two created a need to present the image of a strong, wonderful `land of the free' which Americans would gladly kill and die for if necessary. The country was (and remains today) as much an ideological construct as a geographical certainty. It is in this light that `classic' Westerns were made, no director doing more to map out the territory than John Ford. He looked at every element of the creation myth starting with the American War of Independence (Guns Along the Mohawk) going down the wagon train (Wagon Master) or the railroad (The Iron Horse) to the wars against the Amerindians (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and then to frontier Westerns celebrating the founding of civilization in the Wild West where the enemy wasn't so much the Indians, but the unscrupulous members of settler communities and outlaws both in towns and on the range (My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, 3 Godfathers). Howard Hawks did more than any other to create the cattle drive Western (in Red River) while George Stevens' Shane is probably the clearest iconic statement on the establishment of civilization on the great western frontier.
Perhaps the Western most obviously started to turn sour with Fred Zinnemann's High Noon. Made in 1952 it was a riposte to the McCarthy witch-hunts and a possible allegory on the recent Korean War. The film depicts an America where the people run scared and desert their man (and in effect their country) in his (America's) hour of need. Hawks answered the film's house un-American activities with Rio Bravo in 1959 which has virtually the same story, but with the towns' folk (the American people) uniting behind their sheriff. Without anyone really noticing at the time, in the early 50s Anthony Mann quietly initiated a new stress on psychology into the Western (borrowed from superior film noirs he had directed such as T-Men and Side Street) as he prodded at the various aspects of the genre gently questioning its glorification of America's history with Jimmy Stewart playing lead characters who are all morally ambiguous, outwardly honorable but driven by inner demons. With the character of Link Jones in Reginald Rose's adaptation of Will C. Brown's novel Man of the West, Mann had the luck not only to be incommunicado with Stewart (for whom the film was originally written), but also to cast Gary Cooper (Marshall Kane himself), in what turned out to be a black revisionist parody of not only Cooper's morally upright image, but also the whole classic frontier Western itself.
In many ways Man of the West's key reference point is Shane and this review will be a comparative one in which I'm afraid spoilers are inevitable. In Shane an ex-outlaw gunfighter-turned good rides out of the mountains into civilization to find a homesteader family in trouble. Man of the West opens with another ex-outlaw gunfighter-turned good riding out of the wilderness into civilization. This time he is on a mission to find a school teacher (to bring civilization to) a new settlement named Good Hope. In Shane the title character rides into town to buy supplies for his `new settlement', the Starrett ranch. Shane rides back to the ranch to continue his good work. Link gets on a train bound for Fort Worth to continue his. Notice Shane is never out of his element whether sitting on a horse, driving a carriage or chopping wood. Link is immediately thrown out of his depth by having to go on a train, the very first he's ever seen and which feeds his unease and paranoia (the latter Mann staple brought in from film noir). Remember this is Gary Cooper we are watching here, and his heroic image is undercut from the very moment he gets on the train, money and gun in his bag as opposed to being on his person as it would be if he were riding a horse. The train is eventually held up by a gang of outlaws who steal his bag and with it, his respectability in the eyes of his home community (the money has been collected from everyone to hire a teacher). Left behind with two fellow passenger-signifiers of dubious `civilization', a dodgy card cheat Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and a singer/whore Billie Ellis (Julie London), Link has to guide them to the nearest shelter he can find before nightfall. Mysteriously, he knows a place and before long dark secrets from his past catch up with him with a vengeance.
Shane's dark past is hinted at from time to time, but it is presented as a necessity the homesteaders need to make use of with no law-enforcement around to protect themselves from the evil Ryker gang. It is also contrasted with the obvious psychosis of Jack Palance's villain and we are never in doubt that Shane is one of the good guys. Contrast this with Link. His face recognized at the station by a wise old lawman, it turns out that the `shelter' he finds is his old home, the place where he was raised by his surrogate father and infamous outlaw, `uncle' Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). Dock still lives there with his four adopted `children' and he welcomes his prodigal son back to the fold. Through Dock's mad banter we learn that Link not only used to be one of his gang of outlaws, but was the meanest, the most violent and the most trusted of them all - Dock's `right arm' no less. Now, the ranch is a very potent symbol for `civilized America' in the frontier western and Shane is greeted warmly by the Starretts, gets to sit down and enjoy their hospitality, Marian obviously attracted to him, Joe grateful to him for helping out with the Rykers and the boy Joey delighting in finding a surrogate father who will show him how to shoot. This is a classic statement of the American dream pure and unadulterated. Contrast this with the Tobin ranch where Link is greeted coldly, witnesses a murder, has to bury the corpse, is forced at knife point to watch his lady companion Billie strip for the on-looking drooling men (the intimation is gang rape), and is forced to tell his surrogate father who taught him how to shoot that he has come back to the paternal fold for good. This scene is extremely long, psychologically complex, distressing, and totally without precedent (as far as I know) in any Western prior to this. Note the Starrett ranch is set on the Wyoming plain in deserted dirt country which emphasizes the warmth inside the building generated by the good honest family. Conversely, the Tobin ranch is set in verdant greenery which highlights the darkness and disease festering inside the lowering house. One `American dream' is pure and unsullied, the other is filthy and polluted, a parodic statement on times a' changing in 50s America perhaps?
In Shane Joe Starrett takes on the role of community leader and is responsible (with a little help from Shane) for stopping any doubters from leaving, intent as he is on founding a settlement. Dock is the exact inverse of Joe. An outlaw intent on disrupting civilization, his mantra for survival revolves around stealing and murder. Turns out his gang held up the train and furthermore are planning to rob a bank in a place called Lassoo. Link and his two companions are forced to accompany the gang across country, a journey from verdant greenery to arid rocky desert. The way character motivation and dramatic development is mirrored and commented upon by the surrounding landscape is a Mann trademark as also shown in the Stewart Westerns. Ernest Haller's cinematography is truly magnificent here, the Technicolor splendor emphasizing the film's inner psychological journey from `Heaven' to `Hell'.
Both Shane and Man of the West feature fist-fights and the way they are handled further develops the parody of the latter film. Shane tunes up a Ryker henchman Calloway (Ben Johnson) in a bar and there follows a melee in which Shane fights the gang and is eventually joined by Joe. They win the brawl and the implication is clear - Shane shows Joe how to fight the Rykers to strengthen the hold on their settlement. To bang the point home further Calloway eventually turns on Ryker, riding to warn Shane of the trap set for Joe, and they even get to shake hands - the impulse towards civilization being unstoppable. In Man of the West, the fist-fight is totally different. Link's inherent savagery is emphasized by Mann depicting him enjoying the friendly fighting between old Dock and one of his `sons'. Link then delightedly proceeds to goad his cousin Coaley (Jack Lord) into a fist fight which he not only wins, but tops off with embarrassing his opponent by stripping him in revenge for Coaley earlier forcing Billie to strip. It is an animalistic, extremely violent homo-erotic scene (Mann showing his touch with close ups of finger nails raking across faces, the fighters banging against whinnying horses and the emphasis on animal bodies writhing in the dust) which shows emphatically that Link has a nasty almost psychotic side which hasn't been fully exorcised by his assumption of civilized airs (his wife and kids waiting for him back home in Good Hope). The implication of the fight is that unlike in Shane, the fighting in this creation myth is a direct expression of animal-like un-civilization, and by Link fighting his `family', he actually becomes the same as them thus making the establishment of civilization impossible.
This last point is firmly made when Lassoo turns out to be a ghost-town, the bank an elusive El Dorado long since closed. Shane is the story of the establishment of civilization on the western frontier and at the end, with the Rykers removed and evil Jack Wilson dead the implication is that a happy united family-oriented America is created out of the struggle with a little help from the mysterious reformed gunslinger Shane. Man of the West is the story of the establishment of a kind of un-civilization with its final showdown of `family members' killing each other in a ghost-town - a symbol for the very America that has been created out of the Tobins' house un-American activities with a little help from the mysterious `reformed' gunslinger/prodigal son Link. It is revealing that even to the last Link's regret at having to sacrifice his `family' is clearly stated. Just as he watches his cousin Claude (John Dehner) die he says ruefully, "It could have been different." Even after Dock has raped Billie, Link wants to `take him in' (to arrest him) rather than kill him. He only kills because Dock forces him to.
With the ghost-town Mann creates an effect not unlike that achieved by John Sturges in The Law and Jack Wade the same year and by Sam Peckinpah in The Deadly Companions (1961). All three films finish in ghost towns which suggest the impermanent transience of American civilization in the late 50s/early 60s. This is beautifully shown by the poisonous members of the `new civilization' (the Tobins / the American people) sweeping into town, exterminating the only inhabitants they find (a Mexican woman perhaps symbolizing the Amerindians of the past and the Koreans / communists of the present), exterminating each other before moving on leaving behind the forlorn survivors (the woman's husband, or is it a decimated Indian civilization, a Korea split in two, victims of McCarthyism?) to lick their wounds. The Korean War had finished in 1953, the first American military personnel had been dispatched to Vietnam in 1955, the Eisenhower Doctrine had been signed in 1957, Russian nuclear tests were on-going, the space race had started, and the Cuban crisis, the Vietnam War and bloody civil rights protests were all just around the corner. Shane rides off at the end with civilization saved with all the `good' settlers making a new community full of promise and hope, but there is no hope or promise in the later film. Link rides off having failed to accomplish what he had set out to do. He was supposed to bring civilization to his town of New Hope in the shape of a teacher. Instead, the film shows him reverting back to old ways, even enjoying them and having to kill again. He is forced to go back to his roots and cut the tie with his `father' for good to recover his money before he has any hope of returning to his family with respect intact. His `teacher' turns out to be a whore (Billie is introduced to Link on the train as a `teacher' and then says she is a `singer', but her red dress and talk of "all the other men" leave us in no doubt who she really is) and he returns to New Hope hopeless, as tarnished as the image of America was in the late 50s in eyes of many.
Man of the West is rich in other themes which feed into the black parody very effectively. Religion is always part of the great civilizing process. In Shane Joe and Marian got married on Independence Day making for an obvious example. Man of the West parodies religion by offering a variation on the return of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 29-30). In the Bible a son returns to the paternal fold having lived years of debauchery. In the film Link returns to debauchery having lived years of law-abiding peace! Furthermore, when a member of the settler community dies in Shane, a church service is arranged and hymns are sung. When a member of the Tobin gang dies, the body is dumped in a hole with no words said at all. It's worth examining the names used in the film. The name `Link' suggests both the link between civilization and un-civilization as well as the umbilical chord connecting the character to his roots. It also refers to the name of the famous American president who did more than any other to create the USA, Abraham LINColn. Link undergoes a journey of (Good) Hope to find (Fort) Worth for his new civilization, but is waylaid after he gets a train (another `link' binding America together) at a place called `Cross Cut' which suggest immediately the link between `hope' and `worth' is going to be cut.
Like all great Westerns, the characters are offered up as archetypes and their meaning extends backwards, in this case through Charles Dickens (Dock as the Fagin of the Wild West taking in orphans and leading them to crime), William Shakespeare (Dock as King Lear going mad while his `sons' - including one back from long exile - squabble over his kingdom) and finally to Greek tragedy, to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to be precise. On a dramatic level the film could be read as a classic case of hubris - Link as a Western version of Oedipus forced to confront the crimes of his past. Of course mention of Oedipus invokes Siegmund Freud and this western is as Freudian as they come. The film shows he has to face his trauma in a kind of psychotherapy, forced to re-live the past. He had `killed' Dock by leaving him in the past having married into a debauched life of crime (his mother). As in classic psychoanalysis Link exorcises his past by confronting it so as to be free of his psychosis. His major psychosis is of course castration anxiety. Knives play a big part in the drama. Things start going wrong when he gets on the train at `Cross Cut'. His father is named `Dock', the word for castrating animals. His father is a castrator and the son fears being castrated - a point graphically made when he is forced to watch Billie strip, a knife cutting into his throat. He later winds up Coaley with the words, "He's pretty good with a knife..." He all know our dime store Freud and recognize the phallic symbols here - both knives and guns are phallic symbols for the penis just as the color red symbolizes sexual passion as shown throughout the film by the red dress Billie wears. She is presented not as a woman in her own right, but as a sexual fantasy - a visualization of how men (Link included, though he suppresses his desire) WANT to see her. Once we recognize the obvious symbols - the homo-erotic fistfight culminating in Coaley being stripped is stopped by two orgasmic blasts of a gun - we are urged by the film to analyze everything from the meaning of the Tobin ranch to the landscape through which they pass from `fertile' pastures to an `impotent' ghost-town with the final confrontation (on a barren, seedless, rocky mountain slope) particularly suggestive of sexual desiccation.
Make no mistake, Man of the West is an outstanding Western of some psychological depth. The complexities are rendered all the more profound by the story being made so simple. The performances are terrific (especially Cooper and Cobb - you would never guess Cobb was 10 years younger than Cooper for whom this was his last film) and the direction unfussy, to the point (to continue the knife theme!) and deeply effective. I have spent most of this review comparing it to Shane, and I have to admit to liking it a lot more, even if Shane's iconic status cannot be ignored. I find it amazing that the film languishes in some neglect and strongly urge those who haven't seen it to buy this DVD. You don't know what you've been missing!
This Studio Canal release is excellent quality, the picture (aspect ratio 16:9) beautiful and bright and the sound clear. No extras to speak of, but highly recommendable all the same.