“Red River” (photo 1), “The Tall T” (photo 2), and “Duel In The Sun” (photo 3) are screening as part of the Harvard Film Archive’s tribute to the Western genre.

Courtesy of the Harvard Film Archive

Arts & Culture

Big skies, dusty trails

6 min read

Film series pays tribute to the Western and its 1950s golden age

There are many reasons to sink into a theater seat and sample “Fortunes of the Western,” a nontraditional series of movies from the fallen genre, now playing at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA).

For one, consider that Harvard was the alma mater of the man credited with inventing the basic machinery of the American Western. Owen Wister, A.B. 1882, LL.B.-A.M. 1888, was born into a comfortable Philadelphia family and was the unlikely author of “The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains,” the 1902 novel that lit the fuse on every Western that followed.

Everything was there: the noble hero, the schoolteacher he falls in love with (or avoids), cattle thieves, proud Indians, a wise old man running the chuck wagon (like Walter Brennan in “Red River”), mobs of whiskered men on horseback, and plenty of gunplay. (It was the Virginian who first said, “When you call me that, smile!”)

Graduating from Harvard with Wister was Theodore Roosevelt, who also had a considerable role in mythologizing the West (and who as president saved millions of acres of it from the ax and the plow). Despite asthma, poor eyesight, and early heart disease, Roosevelt was a cattle rancher in the Dakotas for several years and led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. He was a lifelong friend of Wister.

Each of the 17 films in the series — all from the heyday of 1947-1959 — offers panoramic landscapes with big skies, rugged deserts, dusty canyons, and seas of grass, all of it invitingly hot during a long winter.

In the opening credits of “The Gunfighter” (1950), Gregory Peck gallops his horse over endless dunes on the way to a town called Cayenne. Is that hot enough for you?

HFA programmer David Pendleton, who last Friday introduced the series that runs through March 22, said, “The Western was one of those genres that just collapsed in the ’60s … and was never really revived.” But the decade or so after World War II represented “the flowering of the Western.” The genre had discovered maturity, complexity, and good writing — combined with that loving cinematography of open land and big skies.

“The Western and its great masters thought a great deal about space,” wrote cinephile Tom Conley in an essay on the HFA site introducing the series. They created lasting images that survive, he added, “embedded in childhood memories.” Co-master of Kirkland House, Conley is the Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Visual and Environmental Studies. This semester he is teaching a course on the film Western.

Conley, Pendleton, and others set a few ground rules for the series. Except for Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, perhaps, “Fortunes of the Western” would showcase “less-iconic filmmakers” of the period, including Delmer Daves, whose first job in cinema was as a prop boy for the 1923 silent “The Covered Wagon.”

The inaugural film was “Red River,” a sort of Western “Moby Dick” released in 1948 and directed by Hawks (another former prop boy). John Wayne played the inflexible Ahab character, in this case a self-made cattle baron, limping at the end. Rival to the lumbering, grizzled Wayne was his stepson, a whippet-like Montgomery Clift, who was in the first year of his Hollywood career. All through the film, he leapt onto his horse like a sprite of spring steel.

Next was “The Hanging Tree,” a 1959 Gary Cooper vehicle directed by Daves. It may actually be a noir Western — townspeople see Cooper as a cowboy Satan — but the landscape is gorgeous and lush. Technicolor is a shocking contrast to the black-and-white of “Red River.” The cinema experience of these later Westerns — with their abundant space, light, and color — make us, Conley wrote, “fortuitously present to ourselves.”

After that, on Saturday came “Run of the Arrow” (Fuller, 1957) and “Jubal” (Daves, 1956). Both feature a young Rod Steiger, in the first as a displaced ex-Confederate soldier who fled west and joined the Sioux, in the second as the aptly named Pinky, a Southerner who plays the devil to Glenn Ford’s angel. It’s Ford’s character who sums up what every Western hero is after: “The truth; that’s all.”

A lively Western vernacular is in full play during “Jubal,” mostly through Ernest Borgnine’s character, a hapless and sweet ranch owner who is unaware at first that he is being cuckolded by his young wife and Pinky. “You smell as good as fresh-cut hay,” he tells her. He also declares, “I like my coffee strong enough to float a pistol.” (Coffee, poured from a campfire pot, is as common as horses in the film Western.)

The double feature Sunday went right to the heart of the genre: What is it to be a man? In “The Gunfighter” (Henry King, 1950), the answer is black and white: Say what you mean, be faithful in love, and don’t invite violence. Ringo (Gregory Peck) tells a would-be gunfighter goading him to draw, “Get killed somewhere else.”

“The Big Country” (William Wyler, 1958) has Peck in the lead again, as a gentlemanly, retired sea captain who moves to the West. The film takes masculinity head-on. Peck’s James McKay can ride, fight, shoot, and find his way around a big country. He’s just not going to show it off. The film leaves that to a pair of rugged young lugs who look every inch the cowboy: Charlton Heston and Chuck Connors. Who wins the girl? The Wister-like McKay, a derby-hatted dude who could have graduated from Harvard.

There are 11 films left in the series, starting Friday with “Ride Lonesome” (Budd Boetticher, 1959). It stars Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, a pre-“Bonanza” Pernell Roberts, perennial Western heavy Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn in his movie debut.

The best Westerns are complex vehicles, with grand themes.  “The Western is hardly about cowboys and Indians,” Conley wrote in his essay. Instead, he quoted French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who saw the Western as “an immense genre that addresses everything.”

For a complete listing of films and showtimes, visit the Harvard Film Archive website.