Though its demise has been sounded for years, the Western is very much alive and well, thank you. A genre favorite from film’s earliest days through the 1950s, yet only three Westerns have won a Best Picture Oscar: Cimarron (1933), Dances with Wolves (’90) and Unforgiven (’92). No Western cracked the top of American Film Institute’s recent 100 Best American Films of All Time, though John Ford’s The Searchers did get a nod at No. 12. Curiously, the British Film Institute rated the same film as No. 7 in a similar poll ranking international films.
Currently, Hostiles, starring Christian Bale, is being well-received in theaters, while Godless and Hell on Wheels have scored on Netflix, and HBO has season 2 of Westworld waiting in the wings.
So Western fans like me have good reasons to be psyched. New HD releases have returned some of the great oldies to their former glory. I call your attention especially to the releases of Valdez Is Coming and Lawman (both 1971), the first two films of a Western trilogy starring Burt Lancaster. It culminated in one of the star’s finest performances, in Ulzana’s Raid (’72). The last film has yet to get an HD restoration, but it’s impossible not to watch it after seeing the first two.
Though the plots are unconnected, Lancaster made the films with two themes uppermost in his mind, according to his biographer Kate Buford: “law and order and the Vietnam War.” It was the early 1970s and Lancaster had always been a forceful voice for the liberal left.
Valdez Is Coming features the veteran actor as a weary Mexican sheriff, Bob Valdez, duty-bound to kill a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman’s husband. When Valdez seeks compensation for the dead man’s Indian wife from the ruthless white landowner who incited the shooting, he’s ridiculed and then tortured, tied to a cross he’s forced to drag through the desert.
Recovered from the ordeal, the ex-Army scout dons his old uniform, straps on hardware (including a Sharps rifle), and goes back for blood. Totally outnumbered, Valdez is relentless in his quest for justice and dignity. Kidnapping the rancher’s mistress as a bargaining chip, he makes his pursuers pay dearly, up to the inevitable showdown, as surprising as it is thematically honest.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel and directed by newcomer Edwin Sherin, whose career continued mostly in television, Valdez Is Coming used the new graphic violence of post-Peckinpah Hollywood to address racial issues and, at the same time, deliver an exciting story with unexpected twists. Lancaster’s great in a decidedly non-glamorous role.
Brash young English filmmaker Michael Winner, who made a name for himself with several Charles Bronson movies (including the first three Death Wish flicks), made his American debut directing Lancaster in Lawman. This time, the principled actor, who’d turned down Dirty Harry because of its perceived fascist overtones, plays uncompromising, hell-bent for law regardless of justice U.S. Marshal Jared Maddox.
When an old man is accidentally killed by drunken ranch hands (Robert Duvall among them), Jared goes after the whole bunch. Robert Ryan is terrific as Marshal Cotton Ryan, a cynical worn-down sheriff; Lee J. Cobb brings his usual gravitas to the role of wealthy landowner Vince Bronson.
The lines between right and wrong, hero and villain are deliberately blurred in this character study of violence and ruthlessness, with an unsettling showdown again revealing the unexpected. Playing a radically different person than sympathetic Bob Valdez, Lancaster is again picture-perfect.
Awaiting its HD conversion, Ulzana’s Raid is considered the best of the three, mostly due to director Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). As hard-headed and opinionated as Lancaster, the two clashed frequently off-camera, but retained a mutual respect. Aldrich had directed Lancaster in Apache and Vera Cruz (’54), and Lancaster was producing the new film.
Graphic and violent, the movie is about a ruthless Apache leader who flees the reservation with a small group of men, intent on destroying as many whites as possible. Lancaster plays McIntosh, a seasoned scout, who guides the cavalry unit in pursuit, led by Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison), a fresh-faced idealist just out of West Point.
Unsentimental and unapologetic, the film highlights the clash between two radically different cultures, with echoes of Vietnam sounding in the minds of audiences at that time. Truly a grim gem.