Antonio Barrenechea on Bandy, Mary Lea, and Kevin Stoehr. Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western.
Bandy, Mary Lea, and Kevin Stoehr. Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 330 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-520-25866-2.
In Ride, Boldly Ride, Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr offer a sweeping summation of the Western from the one-reel “oaters” of the silent era to the genre-blending films of the digital age. The book is a labor of love, as is evident in the authors’ privileging of filmic wisdom over critical models. This film-first treatment contrasts sharply with scholarship from the past thirty years, which has tended to reduce the genre to ideology. True to the book’s subtitle, the authors’ concern is with the evolutionary scale. To illustrate the expanse, Ride, Boldly Ride has interspersed within it fifty-six black and white stills drawn from the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, a reader-friendly complement to the elegant and fluid prose of its authors. The volume will be useful to scholars in cinema, cultural, and American studies, and is well-suited for an undergraduate survey course on the Western.
The book features eleven chapters and begins with a token preface from none other than Clint Eastwood. The introduction then outlines Western genre staples, but does so while romanticizing the self-realization of the hero. Bandy and Stoehr barely make references to Native Americans or to Mexicans (who are erroneously referred to as “Spanish” in a few places in the book). Whether one considers the historical West, or simply the genre’s reimagining (and erasing) of these precursors to U.S. settlements, the inter-American playing field adds some unintended irony to the otherwise correct assertion that “the Western film helps to tell a story, usually more than a merely superficial one, about what it means to be—and what it took to become—an American” (6). Ride, Boldly Ride sometimes glosses over the complex dynamics of the West (and the racism of the Western as treated—and mistreated—by ideological critiques), but the book’s strength is in privileging films as individual works of art full of insight and contradiction. Discussions of imperialism and race occur principally within chapters that focus on films that are themselves critical of U.S. expansionism.
The first chapter traces the Western to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s 19th century Wild West shows, the public demand for which would find satisfaction through the new motion pictures. The authors locate some of the first examples of the genre in the films of D.W. Griffith, who established archetypes through his representation of the conflict between civilization (associated with white settlers) and savagery (a metaphor for Amerindians). Yet, Bandy and Stoehr also demonstrate how the Western left behind the blood-soaked conquest in favor of “morality tales that focus almost solely on the internal tensions between members of frontier society” (20). Their discussion of hardships within fledgling settler communities disrupts genre clichés about “cowboys and Indians,” and refocuses attention on the struggles of white pioneering communities. The chapter also interprets two silent films by John Ford, the genre’s foremost director. His artistic concerns resonate throughout Ride, Boldly Ride, as in the discussion of Indian-fighting, nation-building, and homesteading in chapter five, which considers Westerns made after the Great Depression. These big-budget films “took the form of trail-blazing and community-building frontier epics, reminding their audiences that a great nation had arisen eventually and successfully from a savage wilderness and a constant struggle against adversity” (102).
Chapters two and three cast light on largely unexplored issues, and films, within studies of the Western. The discussion in the first centers on Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), and is the best reading of any single film in the book. The Wind (which is currently unavailable on DVD), is a poetic and psychologically haunting film about the trials and tribulations of frontier life. Its strong female protagonist (Lillian Gish) disrupts the traditions of a genre preoccupied with male honor, as she fends off both lascivious men and the dark forces of nature. As the authors rightly contend, “[n]one of the Westerns produced before 1928 prepare us for The Wind’s fierceness, its passion, and its unrelenting, swirling maelstrom of wind and sand” (58). On a lighter note is Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), the focus of the subsequent chapter. A brilliant comic Western about early settler social classes, the film parodies social pretentions among the American nouveau riche. Ultimately, however, the movie reflects the optimism of U.S. democratic ideals in line with classical Hollywood, for “Ruggles contains messages about fundamental American concepts of democracy and equality and about the supposedly little man who can make a difference in people’s lives” (71).
Chapter four approaches landscape and setting through close analysis of The Big Trail (1930) and Stagecoach (1939), two classic Ford Westerns starring John Wayne. The authors draw upon art historical sources to bring attention to the painterly compositions of Western cinematography. Their discussion of the ways in which history is reimagined, and landscapes get mythologized, makes this into one of the most sophisticated chapters in the book. Bandy and Stoehr also retain a sense of the sublime, and of man’s transience on the earth, something that the Western highlights through photographic scale. For instance, in Ford’s use of Monument Valley, the authors find “a seemingly eternal canvas against which the variables and vagaries of human existence can be etched” (95). Ford’s oeuvre gets an additional treatment in chapter eight, which centers upon The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance (1962), “true masterpieces within Ford’s later project of disclosing the dark underbelly of the American West’s progress from wilderness to civilization” (187). While the treatment of the first film works a bit too hard to sanitize a work often labeled (not without good reason) as racist, the analysis of the second includes a fascinating take on how modernity’s eclipsing of the West almost compels Ford’s stage-bound mise-en-scène.
Chapter six likewise targets a single director, but in conjunction with John Wayne as a lynchpin of the Western. Here, Bandy and Stoehr dissect Howard Hawks’s masterpieces Red River (1948) and El Dorado (1966). This results in an insightful and subtle discussion of quintessential Western themes: the paradox of American empire-building in the first, and the frailty of Western “heroes” in the second. Chapter ten also takes up a seminal figure, Clint Eastwood, star and director of stylish, and ultraviolent, post-classical Westerns. The discussion of infernal themes in High Plains Drifter (1973) is especially illuminating, as is the complex reflection on the ending of Unforgiven (1992), which provides a somewhat ambiguous coda to Eastwood’s career-long portrayal of a mysterious stranger with no name. As the authors note regarding the bloodbath, “[i]n these bullet-ridden final scenes, we are thrown into the central message of the movie, a lesson about the terrifying repercussions of violence, even when such acts seem absolutely necessary—whether in self-defense, in the building of civilization, or for the sake of justified retribution” (260).
Chapters seven and nine center on how, post-World War II, “the Western became a popular narrative vehicle for the exploration of human instincts, emotions, and desires” (166). In the case of psychological Westerns by Ford, King Vidor, and Delmer Daves, the authors draw attention to the blending of the genre with film noir to create “noir Westerns.” These films about greed, lust, and murderous passion care less about majestic landscapes and more about Freudian mindscapes. As in film noir, the setting itself becomes a twisted psychological projection. More metaphysical is the existential Western of the 1960s, in which genre codes of behavior are no longer a given. Here, the authors provide a brilliant analysis of the underrated director Budd Boetticher, whose films “deal with an increasing need for self-knowledge rather than with goals of conquering the wilderness or fighting Indians or establishing a system of law and order” (220). According to the authors, the moody and morally ambiguous works of Boetticher are not reducible to nihilism, for they also create possibilities for self-motivated action. However, Bandy and Stoehr’s reading of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) fails to elaborate significantly on what is widely-considered one of the greatest and most influential Westerns ever made. One missed opportunity, for instance, pertains to the omnipresence of laughter in the film, a defiant response to the absurd.
A coda brings Ride, Boldly Ride up to the present, but also leaves the reader clamoring for a fuller chapter, perhaps one premised upon the eclecticism that the authors identify as the only dominant trend post-1980. Yet, this craving for more attests to the powers of Bandy and Stoehr’s otherwise cogent and magnificent vision. No doubt, it is also proof that this homegrown genre, which has been pronounced dead several times before, remains in the throes of its evolution.
University of Mary Washington