Westerns, by Philip French

Cowboy culture's comeback
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The Independent Culture

On April 28 1980, Sam Shepard wrote the following in Santa Rosa, California: "I keep praying/ for a double bill/ of/ BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK/ and/ VERA CRUZ." Philip French quotes it with an approving chuckle. I repeat it because it describes his book.

Westerns is an old-fashioned double-bill, the main feature a reprint of his seminal 1973 study of the genre, the support its sequel, Westerns Revisited. The whole is dedicated by its author to his late father, "who took me to my first Western", and to his sons, "who saw their first Westerns with me". This alone is enough to make me love it.

I too saw my first Western with my father, and still recall the unbearable suspense as High Noon reached its climax. A year later he took me to see Shane, from which I learned that being dead involves much more than falling down. In my turn (again like French) I introduced my son to Clint, Kevin, and Johns Ford and Wayne. He must have liked what he saw because he wrote a dissertation on "The Psychology of the Western".

Not everybody is so successfully wooed, especially nowadays when (as French wryly notes) it's OK to dress like a cowboy but taboo to consider seriously what it means to be one. To the fashionable they are all Bushes that burn. This is to miss a great deal.

Taken as a whole the gigantic body of work which goes under the collective noun "Westerns" is both America's Torah (its bundle of foundation myths) and its Talmud (a continuing commentary upon them). Movies and TV shows told and retold how the West was won. These retellings (as French demonstrates) were never innocent; some were triumphalist, some racist, others detailed the cost of victory, some maintained that victory was a grave injustice.

Writing the first Westerns at the end of the Vietnam tragedy, French argued that all such films could be divided into four categories, each named after a politician: John F Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson and William Buckley (best described as Gore Vidal's dark side). Kennedy Westerns are cool, Goldwater Westerns hot. A Johnson results when cool content is mixed with a hot style; vice versa for a Buckley. High Noon is a Kennedy, Wayne's The Alamo a pure-bred Goldwater. Arrowhead, with Charlton Heston as a justified racist, is a Buckley; Ford's more apologetic Cheyenne Autumn a Johnson.

French's book is as much about contemporary America as the Wild West and its many representations. He explains that writing it was a way of exploring his feelings about that perplexing but exhilarating country. Our trailblazer considers landscape, violence, gambling, heroes, villains, women and the dispossessed.

Part Two continues to the present, even including an assessment - favourable - of HBO's Deadwood. Many of these later Westerns display a revisionist tone, especially those featuring equivocal heroes like Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Among these sceptical adventures are some bona fide masterpieces: Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven, and Kevin Costner's Open Range.

Using his own criteria I'd say that Westerns is clearly a Kennedy: elegant, ironic and laced with wit. There's hardly a movie that French hasn't seen, nor are there many books on the subject he hasn't read. Even so, he gets one thing wrong. Discussing Tombstone (a 1993 version of the Wyatt Earp legend, with Kurt Russell as the heroic lawman), he disputes the movie's contention that Earp met his great love there.

Believe it or not, Josephine Marcus (the last Mrs Earp) turned up in Tombstone pursued by Apaches as part of a troupe performing HMS Pinafore. I didn't get this from the horse's mouth exactly, but the next best thing: the charismatic historian Glenn G Boyer, who edited her memoirs and let me handle the pistol Earp used at OK Corral. If French sticks to his guns, I'll be waiting for him with mine on Main Street at noon.

Clive Sinclair's latest novel is 'Meet the Wife' (Picador)

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