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Monday, 17 January 2011

Top Ten Western Actors No 4 - Henry Fonda

It just had to be - Henry Fonda would make the top five of any one's list of western greats.Technically he was superb and if you look at acting as a craft then arguably Fonda was a greater master than anyone else on this list, but this list isn't about degrees of acting ability, this list is about lasting contributions to the western genre. And lists by their very nature are subjective and there are many western greats I have left off the list, but the challenge was a top ten and so I have narrowed it down to the ten actors I feel best defined the western during its various stages of development.

Fonda was indeed a rare actor - it is difficult to think of any other mainstream actor who could have played his part in Once Upon a Time in the West (generally considered Sergio Leone's best western, though in my humble opinion it comes second to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). That character is just dripping with evil and even kills a child.

Fonda had a quiet authority that allowed him to play Presidents, simpletons and killers with equal conviction. His first western was 1939's Jesse James in which he played Jesse's brother, Frank. A role he later reprised in Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James, but it wasn't until 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident that he made his first truly exceptional western - there were many more to follow.

Fonda was  teamed  with John Ford (probably the best western director there ever was) for My Darling Clementine and Drums along the Mohawk. Fonda once again, directed by Ford, starred alongside John Wayne in Fort Apache but his role, although sizable, was not as well realised. It was another John Ford movie, My Darling Clementine that gave Fonda another exceptional role as that of Wyatt Earp. Whilst this movie maybe the most unfaithful to what  historically happened during the Earp/Clanton fued, it is without  any doubt one of the best ever made on the subject.

After this Fonda took a break from westerns and didn't return until the 1950's and appeared in a string of genre classics - he was excellent in the exceptional, Warlock and just as good in The Tin Star. He also gave good value in two comedy westerns - The Rounders and Big Hand For The Little Lady. He then played the bad guy up against James Stewart in Firecreek and then went onto create his best bad guy role of all in Once Upon a Time in the West. And there were more westerns to come but none could match the quality of his earlier work. And maybe only My Name is Nobody shines out amongst the post Once Upon a Time in the West genre work.

Fonda was never typecast in the way other western icons like John Wayne were and as such he could more convincingly portray differing characters from the good to the downright sadistic and everything else in between.

Henry Fonda - another legend.


Tom Roberts said...

Fonda's laconic role is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is far more disturbing than other villains, perhaps because you never know what to expect from Frank. The insightful special features on the DVD discuss Fonda's blue eyes and good guy image being used to turn the tables and beguile viewers for his role as Frank in ONCE UPON A TIME.

Perhaps oddly, I never feel any like, sympathy or attachment for Fonda's character in FORT APACHE the way I do for his parts in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT or GRAPES OF WRATH. Too stoic? I cannot actually determine why.

3 spots to go? Do I see a showdown coming between the Man from Virginia and the Duke on the horizon? With George Bailey coming in at 3rd?

Thank for the write-ups, Gary. Very enjoyable.

Tom Roberts
Black Dog Books

Cullen Gallagher said...

Great piece, Gary. I just watched "The Return of Frank James" this morning.