Top Ten: Western Treasures Part 2
One of the more fascinating aspects of this genre is that the historic "wild west" of America had just officially ended when these motion pictures were first being churned out. (For a further introduction to this series, see Top Ten: Western Treasures Part 1.)
Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903 while "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" (a show William F. Cody started in 1883) still had another decade to go before closing. These shows (including famous western figures like Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane) along with their cinematic counterparts (even Cody himself in 1913 made the lost film The Indian War), were presenting a mostly romanticised, falsely heroic, re-imagining of historical events that their audiences voraciously consumed. Literary figures Bret Harte and Zane Grey made a significant contribution to this popular 'revised' representation as well.
Cinematic portrayals of famous heroes and anti-heroes in countless westerns, including those featuring Wild Bill Hickok, General Custer, Billy the Kid, Frank and Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, continued to perpetuate this mythological perspective from one turn of the century to another.
During this one hundred plus years of the western's cinematic evolution, filmmakers preoccupied with promoting either the ‘legends’ or the ‘facts’ may have limited their capacity to explore greater forms of human truths and conflicts. In contrast, some visionary filmmakers would embrace this simple setting for a different reason: to create, and focus on, deeper issues such as trust, friendship and sacrifice. When no longer obligated to explain the why and wherefore, these themes could freely play out against their opposing forces of betrayal, antagonism and greed.
The western's familiar environment permitted its audience to witness these stories in a more personal, unencumbered fashion. In turn, an enlightened breed of storyteller advanced their narratives beyond boundaries of inflated heroism or historical accuracy and helped steer the genre's evolution in a more meaningful direction.
Aside from the paltry 10 western motion pictures covered here (from the thousands upon thousands made), many more will be listed in a follow-up series entitled "Plundering the Genre."
Generally speaking, the criteria for selecting the Top Ten from this category concern the fictional description's authenticity in relation to its plot and characters. That, and the depth of the relationships depicted are decisive factors in determining the best from the rest.
Continuing the Top Ten Western Treasures:
#5. Man of the West (1958, U.S.A.)
Director: Anthony Mann
Following a thwarted train robbery, reformed outlaw Link Jones is left stranded along with fellow passengers Sam Beasley (a card shark) and Billie Ellis (a saloon singer). They make their way to an isolated farmhouse only to discover its inhabitants are the unsuccessful bandits. Making the situation more precarious, the bandits' leader is Link's uncle Dock Tobin, who raised him and whom Link abandoned long ago upon realising the sickness and futility of his killing and robbing ways. Link was on the train trying to get to Fort Worth. He was entrusted with a year's advance salary to provide a schoolteacher for Good Hope, a community which, knowing about Link's evil past, gradually allowed him to "live it down", regain his self respect and earn their trust. Even though the bandits didn't get anything from the railroad (a sharpshooting guard managed to get the train to move on safely before the gang could successfully complete their task), one of them, already on the train when it left the station, took Link's bag containing the money that was entrusted to him. Now, Link must convincingly feign interest in re-joining Dock's band of killers while stopping them from endangering the lives of his two fellow travellers.
Link is superbly played by Gary Cooper, the part and performance being somewhat reminiscent of his Will Kane in High Noon especially when he has to shoot it out with 3 adversaries in a deserted town toward the story's end. What gives his character here an added complexity is the fact that Link used to be just like these bad guys. Now he secretly has to outsmart and fight against them while pretending to still be one of them. This is something he reminds Billie (Julie London) of when they're alone saying: "There's a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch."
Stumbling on to the remnants of his past life, the series of events set into motion will provide the "link" to a history he's constantly reminded of and tortured by. These same events will progressively motivate him to break free from that link by ironically calling upon those same primal "kill or be killed" instincts he'd rather have forgotten about. As good as Cooper is at portraying this inner turmoil, Lee J. Cobb's performance as his nemesis Uncle Dock is even better. Cobb is riveting when he bitterly rails against his nephew for running off and leaving him. He makes us feel his rage at the new inferior gang he's saddled with when admonishing the group for not taking a train with "one stinking guard" and fully captivates us with his dream of robbing a fat bank in a small town. More than once Dock will separate Link from his companions so that he, or his fellow gang members, can degrade and humiliate the others which culminates in the sexual assault of Billie.
Formidable threats consistently arise for all three. With the exception of Dock who wants Link to help him with the bank robbery, every other gang member (including two of Link's cousins) want all three immediately killed and have no compunction about saying so. The most vile and repulsive of the bunch is Link's cousin Coaley (an all-stops-out Jack Lord) who at one point makes Billie strip while holding a knife to Link's throat.
As intense as this scene is, a later showdown between Link and Coaley is even more terrifyingly suspenseful. After a brutal fistfight, Link is finally able to get the upper-hand over an exhausted Coaley. He literally strips him down in revenge for Coaley's earlier mistreatment of Billie, all the while taunting him verbally. These moments portraying Link's vengeful regression give credence to a past life of having been "as bad as the others." They also reveal the strange enjoyment of Dock witnessing a weaker relative being sadistically tormented by another. Furthermore, the scene has Sam Beasley (endearingly played by Arthur O'Connell) committing an act of heroism and finalising the moment with some characteristically poignant words to Link: "It was a shrewd move. You see, I figured without you around here, they'd have killed me for sure. I'd have laid 3...4 to 1 on that."
Anthony Mann had previously directed James Stewart in a series of fine westerns including Top Ten #7 on this list with Stewart campaigning for the main character part here. A previous falling out with the director, however, gave us Cooper instead. Mann's extreme confidence and experience is most evident in the ensemble performances, incredible shot compositions and imaginative staging of the events. Leigh Harline supplied the expansive "great outdoors" kind of memorable theme used most appropriately throughout, not to mention his vigorous underscoring of the violent outbursts. From the locomotive winding through lush green countryside to the dirty, dilapidated town of Lassoo, to the monumental rock formations at the film's climax, the scenery in Man of the West is so formidable it almost manages to chew up the actors. All of which is beautifully photographed by Ernest Haller in its CinemaScope glory.
For its final showdown between Link and Dock the action takes place at the previously mentioned rock formations reaching skyward, shaped almost like an ampitheatre. A half-mad Dock yelling from on top of the mountain like some mythical creature overseeing his great domain, questions Link about whether he killed all of his remaining gang members and family. Link returns the call with: "Listen to me Dock! Claude and Ponch and Trout are lying in the streets at Lassoo. Lassoo's a ghost town, and that's what you are, Dock! You've outlived your kind and outlived your time, and I'm comin' to get you!" The perfect dialogue and setting for a climactic finish to this impressively dark and moving Western.
Next Time: The Final Top Ten Western Treasures in Part 3.