YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Back in the saddle

Turner Classic Movies corrals a herd of western films in a monthlong tribute to slow-talking but quick-drawing heroes.

November 01, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Don't tell the folks at Turner Classic Movies that the western is dead. The all-movie channel has lassoed the most comprehensive collection of movie westerns ever made for its "The Every Great Western (Except 'Shane') Film Festival" that begins Saturday with an all-day tribute to John Wayne.

About that series title, TCM vice president of program production Tom Brown says the cable outlet decided to be upfront. Although there are 167 sagebrush sagas in the festival, it wasn't able to get the rights to the 1953 classic, "Shane." "Why don't we just admit it," he says.

Of course, not every film in the festival is great. There are a few prairie dogs, including the tepid Anthony Quinn Western, "The Guns for San Sebastian," and the Rat Pack comedy, "4 for Texas." But those are the exceptions. The festival includes such seminal films as John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (Saturday); John Sturges' "Bad Day at Black Rock," Anthony Mann's "The Naked Spur" and "The Man From Laramie" (all on Tuesday); Richard Brooks' "The Professionals," Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (all on Thursday); and Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars, ""For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Nov. 19).

The festival features action thrillers, musicals, dramas and comedies. "The festival demonstrates the amazing breadth of the genre," says Rick Jewell, associate dean of USC's School of Cinema-Television. "Even though typically the films only cover 40 years of American history, the different approaches to the genre are just spectacular and it's very well-reflected in this series."

Though the western genre hasn't had a major hit since Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winner "Unforgiven" a decade ago, "oaters" have consistently performed well on television and on video and DVD. "Anytime we show westerns, it is always among our best received films," Brown says.

The festival actually kicks off at 4 p.m. today with the new documentary, "John Wayne Made Me Cry: Our Western Heroes," which features Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam and Luke Perry waxing poetic about their favorite western heroes: Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood. It's Thornton who admits that the Duke made him cry in a scene in 1949's Ford epic, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, a regular commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition," anchors the documentary with humor and his insights into the Wild West.

Black says part of the reason why young generations don't have the passion for westerns that baby boomers and seniors have is that "they are so tuned to cartoons and the video image of something that to see a real person riding on a horse is sort of alien to them. Our children are much more sophisticated and the whole deal behind the old cowboy movies is that there is a good guy and a bad guy and you know the difference and there is a code that guides the hero's behavior and he always wins in the end."

Jewell says it is very difficult to make westerns today because the premiere directors of the genre such as Ford, Leone, Howard Hawks and Peckinpah have all died. "So now, if somebody wants to make a western, he or she has to practically start from scratch. In the old days, they had these companies of everybody from extras to stunt men who were used to doing these pictures and knew how to pull them off. Now that core group of people who did them are gone."

The genre first captured moviegoer's hearts in 1903 with Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery," which airs at 3 a.m. Thursday. It was the American myth, says Jewell, that fueled the genre. "It's the myth that we generated ourselves -- our own kind of democratic populist ideas. I think that, more than anything else, made it so popular for so long. Young people could look at this kind of wonderful mythology that developed around the rugged landscape, the taming of nature, the civilizing of the West and they could get into it. It had action, it had romance and it had a beautiful energy."

But by the 1960s, cynicism entered westerns. Good guys weren't that good. The Indians no longer were the bad guys. "There were certain things we assumed that we didn't buy into any more," Jewell says. "It was assumed that we did the right thing in sort of rumbling through the West and taking care of the Native Americans along the way. It was kind of assumed that it was OK to use violent means in this wild and wooly kind of country.... We are sensitive to that and all of these things kind of eroded the myth of the Western to the point where it just didn't have the same kind of meaning anymore."If anything can restore meaning, it just could be a collection of the genre's greats (aside from "Shane").


"John Wayne Made Me Cry: Our Western Heroes" can be seen at 4 p.m. today on TCM; "The Every Great Western (Except Shane) Film Festival" begins at 3 a.m. Saturday with "Haunted Gold" starring John Wayne. The series continues every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through the end of November.

Los Angeles Times Articles