- Still in the Saddle: The Hollywood Western, 1969–1980 by Andrew Patrick Nelson
Still in the Saddle is a welcome addition to the body of film scholarship dealing with the movie “oater.” It focuses on the production of the Western during a decade (or so) of American cinema in which the conventions of Hollywood’s “Classical Golden Age” were amplified as well as subverted. The phase of the Western under discussion was bookended on one side by The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, on the other, by Heaven’s Gate and The Long Riders. Nelson’s overall thesis is a convincing one, especially given the evidence he presents: the role of the revisionist Western has been overemphasized to such a degree that the full diversity of the Western in this period has been overlooked, especially when we consider the movie Western’s overall history. Above all, Nelson rejects the view that a genre (and especially the Western) follows some fixed pattern of evolution, self-critique, and then decline. He points quite rightly to the fact that the movie Western has almost always followed a cyclical course of regeneration in which the genre [End Page 115] tends to reinforce as well as reinvigorate its defining conventions.
The view that the period in question is chiefly defined by its collective tendency toward revisionism is an overgeneralization resulting from an overemphasis (by some film scholars) on certain critically acclaimed Westerns that are revisionist in large part: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, to name but three. Some of this oversimplification can be blamed on the auteurist tendency to focus on a very small group of respected filmmakers at the forefront of the “New Hollywood” renaissance. As Nelson indicates, this period witnessed added instances of genre revivalism, including more than several movies featuring that iconic star of the classical Western, John Wayne. Furthermore, by examining the highest-earning Westerns, Nelson demonstrates that while certain anticonventional Westerns (including quasi-Westerns) did indeed top box office charts during this time—Blazing Saddles, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, and Little Big Man being the top four moneymakers, in that order—audiences were drawn as well to the more traditional Westerns starring Wayne. True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, Big Jake, and The Cowboys also appeared among the dozen highest earners.
Nelson points out as well that Wayne’s later Westerns are not always as purely traditional as some might think. While viewing the revisionist Western as typically involved in either “allegorizing contemporary politics” (the Vietnam-Watergate era) or “deconstructing the myth of the frontier hero,” Nelson sees many of Wayne’s final Westerns as testaments to the need to transmit the values of the frontier hero to a new generation (145). In sum, the kind of “updating” and “reworking” of the genre’s conventions that help define the revisionist Western are also present to some degree in these less-subversivefilms. And furthermore, the “cyclical play of repetition and variation” exemplified in the many Westerns of this period is “less the product of individual filmmakers than a key characteristic of the genre” (137).
One minor qualm concerns the book’s structure. What distinguishes the chapter on Wayne from several others is how it is unified around a particular artist and follows a chronology of filmmaking. I wish Nelson had included a few more of these artist-unifying chapters, [End Page 116] which might have expanded on the treatment of certain films, especially the 1970s Westerns directed by Altman, Penn, and Eastwood. He addresses both of Altman’s Westerns in an overly cursory section. In the case of Eastwood, for example, The Outlaw Josey Wales shows us, especially in connection with his earlier High Plains Drifter, how he helped recharge and reinvigorate the Western after having been influenced by two very different directors of the genre: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. These films point forward in their distinct ways to...