Movie Mondays: A Country Called the West

Click here to view The Far Country in the SpL catalog           Click here to view The Big Country in the SPL catalog           Click here to view Ride the High Country in the SPL catalog

~posted by Mike

My brother hates Westerns. At least he says he does. As far as I know he’s only seen two of them, one of which was Quentin Tarantino’s weakest feature. But such a blanket statement like hating all Westerns ignores how truly diverse the genre can be. The similarities between films like Tombstone and Dead Man are minor and superficial while their differences are legion (beyond the mere fact that the first is terrible and the latter is the best film of the 1990s). Three films released within a decade of one another – with very similar titles – show the West in drastically different lights. The predominant element unifying these three films? They’re all totally amazing.

Director Anthony Mann made many great Westerns with star Jimmy Stewart, including Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. In 1954, the duo teamed up for The Far Country, a film about corruption, cowardice, and civic responsibility. Stewart plays against type as a ruthless cowboy who repeatedly refuses to help anyone out until a sadistic sheriff forces his hand.

Four years later, director William Wyler released his masterpiece, The Big Country. The film uses a family feud of the Hatfield-McCoy variety to examine Cold War tensions. Gregory Peck is stuck in the middle as a man who tries to broker a peace between the two bullheaded patriarchs. Wyler’s compositional framing is impeccable and his wide shots are so expansive I swear they capture the curvature of the earth.

While Mann and Wyler tried to hash out the struggles of society, director Sam Peckinpah was there to remind us that we’re all just a bunch of murderous apes. Later in his career, Peckinpah made a name for himself with his unflinching depictions of depravity and ultra-violence in films like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs but his pessimistic preoccupations were already on display in his second feature, Ride the High Country from 1962. The film stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as two world-weary cowboys who ride into a lawless mining camp where nothing good awaits. Fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid should take note of Ride the High Country’s ending, which might be less poetic than its beloved successor but is certainly more honest.

Don’t be my brother. Watch a Western and see the world laid out in all its conflicted, complicated glory.

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