Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 78-79
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature Therefore, Saunders forgoes rehashing many "classic" Westerns that have been covered extensively in other scholarship (John Ford's Stagecoach and Howard Hawks's RedRiver are conspicuous absences). His reading of Shane subtly undercuts the notion that the film is a pure form of the Western, asserting that the Starrett family's central importance marginalizes Shane's character in a way that robs both his and the film's effectiveness of theiriconic power. Saunders breaks Shane into sixteen sequences, giving detailed attentionto eachin a careful examination ofWestern conventions that unveils the mythic, social, and aesthetic implications of the motion picture's narrative. If Saunders maintained this focus throughout The Western Genre, it would be a truly exciting addition to scholarly film collections . Instead, he substitutes excessive plot summary for analysis in many of the book's later chapters, apparently presuming that interested readers either have not seen or will refuse to watch the titles he discusses. As part ofWallflower's Short Cuts Series, the book seems intended more for the interested Western aficionado rather than film scholars, although Saunders has a good grounding in available scholarship about the Western, which he copiously cites. Still, the long stretches of plot synopsis detract from more profitable areas of exploration, especially Saunders's fascination with class and racial issues. When he actually deals with these themes, his writing can be powerfully evocative. The book's strongest chapter bears a simple title: "The Indians" chronicles the changing, complex, yet Eurocentric depiction of Native Americans in the Western film by providing sometimes incisive readings oíLittle Big Man, Ulzana 's Raid, and Dances with Wolves. More than any other section, "The Indians" nicely balances its analysis among character, plot, and the camera's narrative choices, attending to the historical, philosophical , and artistic difficulties of each film's visual style. While Saunders never forgets the camera's narrative presence in other chapters, he occasionally defers it in favor of textual analysis of dialogue and charactermotivation. Not so with "The Indians," which represents truly mature film criticism that is all the more admirable considering the short twenty pages used to considerthree quite different movies. Saunders's examination of Ulzana 's Raidis the most energetic, precise, and articulate writing ofthe entirebook, bespeaking an obvious enthusiasm for the film's moral resonance while also recognizing the basic stereotypes ofits central characters. For readers trying to groundthemselves in eitherrudimentary film analysis or, more specifically, theWestern genre, "The Indians" satisfies both desires, then exceeds themby penetrating the oftenpoliticized discussion ofNative American cinematic representation with honesty and intelligence. Unfortunately, Saunders's editors did not insist that he strive for suchcareful writing at aUpoints. The introductionincludes some hazy concepts and difficult syntax, although its second sentence is so clumsy thatIhadto read itthree times to identify all the conceptual and grammaticalproblems: "The introductionis concernedwith distinctions and definitions and with the origins of a form which preceded the cinema by more than a century, though the new medium quickly seized on the visual and dramatic possibilities ofthis long tradition oftales and between the early years ofthe twentieth century and the mid-1970s literally thousands of western movies were made." This type ofrun-on sentence is worthy ofJudith Butler at her most annoyingly verbose. While not indicative of Saunders's overallwriting, similar styUstic excesses appearjustoften enough to detract from the book's argument. That said, The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey is an intriguing, if flawed, consideration of one of the most important genres in Hollywood history. While serious scholars shouldnot substitute Saunders's introductory text forlonger studies such as Wright's Sixguns and Society or Jane Tompkins's West of Everything: The InnerLife ofWesterns, The Western Genre helps the reader develop a basic cinematic, thematic, and conceptual vocabulary for watching some truly great films. And, as John Wayne says in Rio Bravo, "that'll do just fine." Jason Vest Washington University in St. Louis firstname.lastname@example.org Robert Brent Toplin. Reel History: In Defense ofHollywood. University Press of Kansas, 2002. 232 pages; $35.00 cloth. Ballpark Implications As a entertainment entity, the Hollywood motion picture industry—certainly one of the nation's strongest employers— cannot escape the daily criticism hurled...