Review of Philip French's Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre
Times Literary Supplement, Friday 10 March 2006
Khrushchev recalled that for film shows at the Kremlin, Stalin would select the titles himself; he liked cowboy movies especially. He used to curse them and give them the proper ideological evaluation, but then immediately order new ones. Phillip French remarks that Stalin sounds like 'the universal Western fan and critic', and this delightful admission of guilty pleasure goes to the heart of Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre.
Such an unashamedly personal work has inherent limitations. For example, French considers, for the most part, only the films he particularly favours, largely American, post-war Westerns. Yet the qualities of the fan are also endearing: enthusiasm; encyclopedic knowledge effortlessly deployed; and an illumining patience with critically unpopular specimens (Heaven's Gate and others).
The author makes no bones about his impatience with Theory. Writing in 1973, he organises his observations loosely under such intriguing thematic headings as 'Landscape, Violence, Poker'. Yet in a new section, even this concession is withdrawn and he is content with a piecemeal review of recent examples. His particular judgements are invariably robust, but flexible and sensitive.
French's recurrent and often compelling concern is with these films as allegories of American political life. He even proposes a taxonomy of the genre according to the styles of various American politicians; yet in the absence of sustained analysis or explanation this seems a little like the premise for a parlour game.
Nevertheless, a broad and subtle, if patchy, vision of the genre's formal and ideological conventions emerges. There is perhaps a tension in the analysis between a view of the Western as 'a great grab bag... a voracious bastard of a genre', and a less comfortable admission of its 'natural tendencies' towards racism, misogyny, hawkishness and authoritarianism. French gives much fascinating attention to liberal and revisionist examples, but ultimately he is man enough to stand up for his inner fan, conceding wryly that the greatest Westerns are often those truest to form.