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Once Upon a Time in a Western

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"


Seated expectantly in the dark, my eager young eyes transfixed on the big screen with its larger-than-life figures towering overhead, I would be transported to another time and place, a Hollywood-hued world that was more often than not the wonderment of the Wild West. It was a landscape where surly, lawless hombres flexed their muscles, snarled and growled, brandished their guns menacingly and threatened ordinary decent folks.

In contrast, there were the goodies, square jawed and resolute. They too flexed their muscles and un-holstered their shooters, but only as a last resort and always in the name of good, justice and fair play. It was a black and white world where you knew good from evil, where you recognised right from wrong, and you knew that decency would triumph over decadence and deceit, the upright heroes winning the day and riding off into the sunset, signifying that all would be well in the world. Then, with the advent of the Sixties, it all started to change… 

When asked to name my favourite movie, without hesitation I always nominate The Magnificent Seven. It’s not the greatest film ever made (the original it’s based on, the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, has a more deserving claim to that accolade) but it was an instant hit with me in 1960. I first saw it with a group of school friends, and we were all mightily impressed. I revisited it many times throughout the decade. Each viewing revealed something new and it became the western by which I judged, and still do, all other westerns.

The heroes were morally ambiguous but they were undeniably appealing. They may have been flawed and fractured, their code of honour and ethics questionable, yet they were without doubt the goodies in an imperfect strata of society. You might say that they were the best of a bad bunch.

Who could not see Yul Brynner all dressed in black, usually the bad guy’s signature attire, and walking THAT walk and not be attracted to the allure of the gunman seeking some kind of redemption for his past misdeeds? And who could not be impressed by the oh-so-cool Steve McQueen, clearly a future megastar in the making? Like their companions, with the exception of the young, naïve Chico played by Horst Bucholtz, they know in their hearts that their nomadic ‘outside the law” days are fast coming to an end: civilization, with all its trappings, was relentlessly taming the rugged terrain and imposing a new shape to the country. It’s time to move on … or die!

To a movie-mad teenager, The Magnificent Seven was simply seventh heaven. It excited the imagination and ignited my interest in the revisionist view of the western. Looking back to the cusp of the decade that was to change much of the world forever, the film seems now to be acknowledging that things would indeed never be the same again…

A host of outstanding westerns that followed throughout the Sixties tackled revisionist themes, many of them not afraid to show in ever-more graphic detail the savage and cynical and often downright nasty side of how the West was won. The heroes were not easy to define; they often had dark traits, were invariably troubled and tortured but, for all their faults, they were, in the end, human and usually did the decent thing in the end. The Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns were prime examples of this reassessment; highly-stylised and manipulative but clearly intent on stripping away the mythology of the majority of pre-Sixties films and showing beneath their bravado a more ‘realistic take on frontier lawlessness and the driving forces of impending progress.

So, not surprisingly, by the end of the decade the genre had totally changed, culminating in Sam Peckinpah’s bloody but beautifully-executed The Wild Bunch. At the time it was ultra-controversial because of the bloodbath opening and closing scenes, panned for showing brutal death in balletic slow-motion detail, but it struck a chord with many cinemagoers. It was, after all, at a time when the Vietnam War was still raging, and the grim reality of armed conflict could not be ignored, nor denied.

I recall seeing the film for the first time and being left speechless by the ending. Sure, it WAS graphic but the impact was both dramatic and thought provoking.

In the 10 years since The Magnificent Seven, the western had continued to mature and tackle issues that were rarely acknowledged previously. I rate it highly on my all-time favourite films list. Other hard-hitting westerns of the period included Rio Conchos, with the under-rated Richard Boone; Sam Peckinpah’s superb but butchered Major Dundee; Duel At Diablo, with out-of-character performances by James Garner and Sidney Poitier; and Hombre, one of many of Paul Newman’s iconic portrayals of the misunderstood and maligned outsider.

Yet, for all the classic seriousness of these movies, I still enjoy watching those quickly-turned-out Forties and Fifties westerns shown regularly on TV. Part of the joy, is that I can usually recall at which cinema I saw them, who I saw them with, and what I thought about them at the time. I recall rushing to the cinema, an irrational fear welling up inside that I’d get there only for the queue to be so long that by the time I reached the kiosk I’d be told ‘Sorry, no more seats’. Thankfully, it never happened; I always got in, but I never really settled down until the lights dimmed and the magical big screen sprung into life with the likes of the majestic roar of the MGM lion, or the stirring music announcing a 20th Century Fox feature, or the welcoming beacon of the Universal lady with a torch. Just thinking about such things brings back very fond memories of growing up as a baby boomer.

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.




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