Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood

Jim Kitses,
Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood.
London: BFI Publishing, 2004.
ISBN: 1 84457 050 9
US $24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI publishing)

Back in the 1960s, before Hollywood movies were considered legitimate critical fare in English-speaking countries, two superb books helped change things. One was Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films (1965), the first English-language book to make a cogent, sustained argument that Hitchcock had mastered more than suspense. The other was Jim Kitses’ Horizons West, an appreciative interpretation of the western films of three directors, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah. Wood’s book had the greater influence and was reissued in an expanded edition, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, in 1989. Perhaps the modest scope of Kitses’ book – it was about a genre but covered only three directors – contributed its comparative neglect.

This new edition has been expanded to more than twice the original size. Kitses has added a small amount of material on the three directors featured in the original edition, and he has written entirely new chapters on John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood. They are all preceded by a new chapter called “Directing the western: theory and practice.”

The value of Kitses’ original study paralleled that of Wood’s book: its illumination of cinematic and humanistic value in films that hadn’t been rated as more than entertainment. But Kitses had the harder task. Few denied Hitchcock’s status as a brilliant teller of movie stories. Boetticher, Mann, and Peckinpah were not accorded the same respect. With evident affection, Kitses elucidated the artistic integrity and psychological depth of the seemingly spare films that Boetticher made with Randolph Scott, especially the lapidary Ride Lonesome (USA, 1959). Kitses elucidated the family backstory that is found in most of Mann’s westerns, the most aesthetically complete of which is Naked Spur (USA, 1953), where Mann’s use of both unstable settings (falling rocks, raging rivers, collapsing caves) and quick, nervous camera movements correspond to the hero’s neurotic turmoil. With The Wild Bunch (USA, 1969), Peckinpah had achieved more of a following than Boetticher or Mann, but Kitses showed that there was a lot more to his westerns – especially the masterful Ride the High Country (USA, 1962) – than ornery characters and stylized violence.

These three chapters, essentially the same as in the original, retain their freshness and are the most solid sections of the new edition. Kitses’ long chapter on Ford is comprehensive, but Ford is well-worked territory. Kitses is most interesting on Ford when he attempts to defend him against modern critics. He is enlightening on Leone’s inspirations for his Westerns but does not fully succeed in explaining the mythic force of such films as Once Upon a Time in the West (Italy/USA, 1968). Kitses seems to have it in for Eastwood. He doesn’t take on Eastwood directly but deals snide, glancing blows. In the space of a single page, he refers to Eastwood’s “ambition for prestige and status,” then criticizes him for a reluctance to share the spotlight with other stars, and then attributes his casting of Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven (USA, 1992) to “an unprecedented ambition” (306).

Two weaknesses detract from the new edition. The more glaring one is an annoying, sometimes pathetic deference to the requirements of political correctness that emerged since the publication of the original edition. Not that Kitses doesn’t stick up for his filmmakers (except Eastwood) in the face of attacks from the academy. But even where he defends them, he largely adopts the mindset of their detractors. He defends She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (USA, 1949) against current trends in criticism but accepts that Ford is racist and sexist. He even asks if the order of names given to the baby boy in 3 Godfathers (USA, 1948) is racist. In The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (USA, 1962) Kitses detects a homoerotic subtext in the open crotch of leather pants and suggests that the ideal union in the film would have been between Tom Doniphon and Rance Stoddard rather than Rance and Hallie. His eagerness to be au courant leads him to interpretations that just don’t make sense. Marty, of The Searchers (USA, 1956), becomes for Kitses a feminized male because he is a peacemaker. That he is as brave as one can be, as faithful in duty as Ethan, and in love with Laurie apparently counts for nothing. A simple application of Occam’s razor to the issue surely would see Marty as not only the film’s moral center but also its “real man,” and Ethan as the aberrant, unbalanced, extreme Marty as the one likely to enjoy conjugal bliss, Ethan the one who never did and never will. And, like all the re-educated, Kitses (in the new material) dutifully employs words such as “interrogate,” “ideological,” and “valorizes,” which jar against his otherwise down-to-earth style. He interprets the gun in Unforgiven as standing for the penis and the phallus – plausible, perhaps, but tired. In a quotation from a half-century-old Robert Warshow essay, he feels compelled to insert a [sic] after Warshow’s then-conventional use of “he” to refer to either sex. And in what seems to make no sense except as a nod to the bien pensant, he meanders off into a jab at the application of the death penalty in Texas.

Kitses’ political correctness sometimes melds with the book’s second defect, errors of fact and interpretation. He cites the line “redwing orioles… from Canada” in Bend of the River (USA, 1952) as an example of “the edginess with which true males dance around and mock the feminine” (170), when in fact the last two words of that phrase were inserted only to give to the film the “Canadian content” it needed in order to receive tax considerations from the Canadian government. (That is why Stewart looks so funny – he comes close to rolling his eyes – as he speaks the line.) Kitses mentions Eastwood’s brief encounter with a Kansas housewife in The Bridges of Madison County (USA, 1995) a film set in Iowa. He is unaware that what he refers to as the “picket-wire” (123) is not a picket wire but the Picketwire, a river, whose name here is the illiterate anglicization of the French pronunciation of “Purgatoire”. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is for Kitses “a profound indictment of that fundamental American virtue [self-reliance]” (119), but it is the self-reliant Tom Doniphon, not Rance Stoddard, who wins the greater respect from the director, from Stoddard’s wife, and, ultimately, even from Stoddard himself. On the recitation of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in the film, Kitses relies on another critic’s interpretation that the Hamlet scene resonates in the two main characters, when the real echo occurs soon after, when the depraved and illiterate Old Man Clanton whips one of his boys and says, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

It’s not a major defect in a book to contain a few errors, but they are noteworthy here because they all appear in the new portions of the book. Kitses has not brought the same passionate engagement to the expansion that he did to the original. That is sad. One wonders if commercial as well as ideological pressures from the publisher might have beaten him down a bit, forcing him to make the book both comprehensive beyond his interests and safely inoffensive. (Hitchcock’s Films Revisited assumed an entirely new critical slant, similarly informed by intervening critical theory, but Wood seems to have believed in it, adopting its positions with the zeal of a convert.) It is a shame that the book couldn’t have been reissued simply as it was originally published. Yet, to leave the matter at that would be unjust. If adding the new material was the only way for the chapters on Boetticher, Mann, and Peckinah to reappear in print, it was worth it. And errors and daintiness aside, the new material does contain frequent insights. Kitses observes that in Once Upon a Time in the West, a cut from a gunshot to a train whistle reveals “the ultimate source of the violence” (270). His remark that Fort Apache (USA, 1948) is “a liberal critique of militarism that culminates in a conservative defense of tradition” (68) is revelatory and brilliant. And perhaps most useful of all are the passages in the book that address the criticisms leveled against these directors, even if the defense is not as forceful as one would like.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →