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Friday, 27 December 2013

20 Essential Westerns - A brief overview of the silent era

I have a large collection of western movies in my home library and have decided to select twenty titles from my shelves and over the next few weeks watch and review them here on the Archive. The films are not meant to reflect what I consider to be the best ever westerns, but rather to outline twenty differing examples of brilliance in the genre.

One thing I can assure you of is that all of the twenty movie selected will need to be seen by any serious western buff.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  

George Barnes
 It is  fitting the the world's first narrative film, that is a film with a plot rather than being a set of filmed events, was a western. The 12 minute epic (a running time Peter Jackson may want to keep in mind for the next Hobbit movie)  filmed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903 depicted a train robbery and the subsequent capture of the bandits. The film was made and released in the year that Butch Cassidy and his gang carried out their last train robbery which gave the movie  the ring of authenticity even although it was filmed in New Jersey.

During the early years of the western there was often some overlap with the actual Wild West - Wyatt Earp, the famed lawman, became a technical advisor on many movies as did one time outlaw Emmett Dalton. It was during this period that the young John Ford became friends with Earp and when Earp presented Ford with one of his old rifles the director kept it by his bedside for the rest of his life. So well known in the fledgling movie industry did Earp become that when he died in 1929 the cowboy stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart were bearers of his coffin.

One of the extras on the Great Train Robbery went onto become the first real cowboy screen hero. He was Max Aronson who played Bronco ( sometimes spelled Broncho) Billy in around 400 silent shorts,

 Embedded here is the 1912 movie, Broncho Billy and the School Mistress. Another early star of the western was Tom Mix who, with his faithful horse Tony, rose to fame in a series of western shorts. Mix moved onto full length features and even survived the transition of sound when he came out of retirement in 1932 for Destry Rides Again. Mix didn't like talkies but he remained popular until his untimely death in a car crash in 1940.

Perhaps the most famous of the early screen cowboys was William S Hart.  With his long chiselled face that actor truly looked the part in the many westerns he made, and he became world famous. One of his best movies was the 1916 Hell's Hinges, a true classic of silent western cinema, and something of an inspiration for the Clint Eastwood western, High Plains Drifter.

Hell's Hinges is embedded below

The film saw Hart playing a character named Blaze Tracy, an appropriate name given that the character ends the movie by torching the entire town. The standout scene which shows a burning church is incredibly effective and serves as a metaphor for the evil which has taken over the town.

Hart made his signature movie Tumbleweed in 1925 and not too long afterwards grew tired of the movie business and retired from the business. He died in 1946, his position in the formation of the western assured and widely recognised.

The first truly epic western was 1923's The Covered Wagon which was directed by James Cruze and grossed a stunning $5 million - an unheard of sum during the period. It was during the silent period that John Ford, perhaps the western's finest ever director, started to learn his trade. In 1924, after a string of shorts, Ford delivered his first classic western - the 133 minute long, The Iron Horse. Made for Fox the movie  the movie was set around the building of the transcontinental railroad, a shining path from sea to sea. The movie would rake in $2 million in the US alone, and Ford followed the film by another western, 3 Bad Men (1926) and although the film had its merits it was a financial failiure. Ford then quit westerns, swearing never to return to the genre but thankfully he had a change of heart and would later direct many of the best westerns ever made - My Darling Clementine and The Searchers to name but two of many.

By 1927 sound was starting to make itself heard in the cinema and this was the end of the silent western era. In the grand scale of things the silent era was brief but it was during these years that the rules of the genre were laid down.

 As a film genre the silent western is unique. Historically, it overlaps with the decline of the Wild West. Like the dime novels the silent movies were a medium for mythologising a vanishing frontier. The movies blurred the line between reality and myth, with real life  cowboys-turned-actors and outlaws-turned-directors.

The western was here and it was here to stay,

Next article in this series will start the countdown of the Archive's 20 essential westerns. Whilst these 20 movies may not be the best ever made they are certainly among the very best and represent films that any serious western buff will need to see.

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