Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff is one of the most consistently worthwhile podcasts, full stop. They cover a broad, characterizing set of topics bent in the direction of tabletop gaming, but from time to time they depart from that subject to cover food, books, history, or cinema, and always seem to make at least a few insightful points when they do.
They’ve done two episodes so far about important films in the Western genre, and I realized that I hadn’t seen quite a few of them. Here, I’ve transcribed their lists, along with the more quotable parts of their encapsulations.
The ✓ character indicates whether I’ve seen it or not. I wouldn’t have painstakingly typed this up if I didn’t intend to watch them all.
From Episode 191 (Starting at 00:46:40)
Robin: If you’re going to start with a western, you’re going to start with John Ford, and you’re going to have two films… two epochal westerns, one featuring John Wayne as a young man, one featuring him as an old man. One classical, the other revisionist.
Ken: I would argue that The Searchers is not revisionist, that in fact it is ‘visionist’. It is the fundamental agon of the western — and has been since the silent days — that every man who picks up the gun becomes a barbarian unfit for civilization, but the only way to stop barbarism is to pick up the gun. It is this great conflict that is at the heart of westerns as far back as Hell’s Hinges* (1916)… and it is again part of the searchers as you see that John Wayne’s character, because he is capable of hunting down the Comanche, is also incapable of civilized existence, and that is the] same decision that he makes in Stagecoach.
Ken: The Searchers, in addition to being the second greatest film ever made, is one of the four gospels of the western, along with another John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is the film which very clearly lays out the agon of the western.
Ken: Frank Miller is coming to town, and the town cannot be roused to prevent it. Gary Cooper begins to realize that he is the only barbarian left in the town, and he has a choice to make.
Ken: It plays out the morality of the western in an absolutely clear, but never tiresome fashion.
Robin: Hawkes saw [High Noon] and said, ‘I don’t like that Gary Cooper’s going around asking all the townsfolk for help’.
Ken: Westerns are always about that moment that the frontier is about to go away, and the western will stop being relevant… which provides ever more mythic depth to the thing, because they’re simultaneously super historically-located, and super mythological. It’s a great illustration of what Eliade calls the illud tempus, the mythical time. Shane is about that moment in mythical time when one guy has to face down Jack Palance.
It’s not new, it’s once more about a former bad guy, a sort of Jack Palance character, who has decided to go straight, and can’t do it, because he’s freakin’ Jack Palance, only in this case he’s Clint Eastwood.
Ken: Unforgiven is the spot at which you move from the original western toward the revisionist western (people call it revisionist, but it’s not, because it still makes the same decisions about civilization and barbarism). If you want a real revisionist western by Clint Eastwood, look at The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is a great movie, and is 100% on the side of barbarians, on the side of outlaws.
Robin: It’s pulsating with repressed ’50s lust, and like all of these movies, gives you a much different Jimmy Stewart than you think you know if you just know It’s a Wonderful Life, and his doddering appearances in later films. As in Vertigo, there’s something deep, and dark, and strange in the James Stewart that we see in all these Anthony Mann westerns.
Ken: …About a band of outlaws, and the end of the west closing down on them and crushing them.
Robin: Unlike other stars of his caliber, Fonda had not played a villain.
Ken: The epistle from the virtuous pagan samurai.
Ken: A movie in which everything works, and it works much better than you would imagine it possibly could have if someone had told you, ‘hey, John Sturges remade The Seven Samurai, only with cowboys.'”
Ken: All great testaments need to close down with an apocalypse.
From Episode 199 (00:17:40)
Ken: It made a huge impression on me, because it’s about a guy who is — as far as my eight year-old self could tell — fundamentally unkillable, and he goes around, and he sort of monstrously kills a bunch of people, and more and more people try to kill him, and it can’t be done.
Robin: There are other westerns that overlay a completely different perspective on top of the standard western chassis. For example, you’ve got your psychosexual western…
Ken and Robin: A den of scum and villainy … in bright technicolor.
Ken: It directly inverts the love triangle, in which there are these two weak men who are duelling for the love of a strong woman.
Robin: Less about the theme of the western, and just about the texture of life in a western town, where the snow is deep and life is hard.
Ken: Looking at it as the ancestor — both chronologically and cinematically of the cavalry western — is a great way to watch it.
Robin: This is a movie about what happens when a man has to pick up the harpoon.
Ken: Interesting, because the bad guy, the gunman, is in this case, hired by the evil developer, who’s trying to build out the valley into more civilization, and it’s the farmer who’s holding off the developer. That is a very common bit of the revisionist western mythology — that there is a sort of ‘set point’ for civilization, which is the small farmer, and that when ‘real’ civilization comes along, that’s bad news.
Robin: It’s the individual vs. capitalism.
Ken: ‘Individual vs. capitalism’ as opposed to ‘individual vs. the west’, or ‘individual vs. owlhoots’, and that’s one of the strong bits of the revisionist canon.
Ken: Hillcoat has the sound guy have the gun sound happen before you see the gun fire. So, you’re always terrified by the gunplay, because you didn’t actually see the gun go off, but you still heard the gunshot.
Robin: If Antonioni had made a western and then cut 20 minutes out of it, you’d have The Shooting.
Ken: John Wayne becomes the voice of reason and tolerance in a John Ford western, which all by itself is reason to watch it.
Robin: Basically, Western 215 is ‘watch all the John Ford movies that we haven’t mentioned.’