‘I come not to bury America’s greatest genre – as so many have over its long history – but to praise it … No other popular film form rivals it in the peak achievements and unsurpassed productivity of its artistic tradition.’ So begins Jim Kitses’ extraordinarily poised, lucid and all-encompassing study of the Western. The first edition of Horizons West came out in the sixties, when this most American of genres was undergoing something of a dip in creativity and a fall from favour. The unironic works of the era were being usurped by the pop-culture assaults of the spaghettis, led, of course, by Sergio Leone. The new breed of Hollywood directors often showed their admiration of the genre indirectly – thus, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976) relocated a Searchers-style narrative to contemporary New York City, and George Lucas took the battle between good and evil among citizens trying to create a new society – a Western archetype – into outer space in Star Wars (1977). Thus, Kitses’ book was a rare example of Western analysis, a book to cherish alongside the likes of Will Wright’s Six Guns and Society (1975) and Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns (updated edition, 1998).
For this new edition, Kitses sharpens the focus of Horizons West to look at the Western through the oeuvres of six of its most important directors: John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The Ford piece dominates the book, occupying roughly a third of it; Ford, in Kitses’ eyes, is the ‘founding father’ of the Western, and his study will be of interest to all Ford enthusiasts and detractors.
Something else which makes this a book to treasure is its terrific look at the works of Anthony Mann, a favoured auteur of the Cahiers crowd in the fifties and early sixties but a director largely skimmed over by English-language theorists and historians. Kitses examines Mann’s use of the hero, the villain, the community, landscape, dramatic structure and style, and his career in its last years. Kitses’ argument that the Western occupies centre stage in Mann’s output is no surprise; what makes his writing so valued is the way in which he makes so readable his study of Mann’s aestheteic and thematic concerns. It is a piece to put alongside Douglas Pye’s essay ‘The Collapse of Fantasy: Masculinity in the Westerns of Anthony Mann’ in The Movie Book of the Western (1996), edited by Pye and Ian Cameron.
The pieces on Boetticher and Peckinpah will get the reader thinking about how so few of these directors’ works are currently available (though Warner Home Video are rumoured to be preparing Pat Garret and Billy the Kid for a DVD release in 2005). The book very sensitively and delicately strikes a balance between offering a director-centred perspective and relating it to the genre on a wider level. Kitses clearly loves the Western but he doesn’t stint on criticising even its greatest movies; this is no work of hagiography. And, by considering the ‘cowboy attitudes’ of American foreign policy, he brings his book vibrantly up to date.
He also rightly takes Clint Eastwood to task for the ambiguities running through his work, the mixture of progressive star politics and aesthetic conservatism. Unforgiven is given its due as a classic modern Western, but let us not forget its ambivalent attitudes to violence, its delivery of crowd-pleasing catharsis for the viewer alongside its criticism of such desires. Then again, Kitses offers a thoroughly persuasive account of High Plains Drifter’s fully integrated combination of conventionally iconic and supernatural Western elements.
Horizons West comes highly recommended, then – and BFI Publishing has produced it very handsomely. Far from being the last word in Westerns, it sends us back to the films themselves, to re-engage with this enormous and terrific genre and to see it afresh.