Tag Archives: Simon Wincer

Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Lonesome Dove

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove—Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, D.B. Sweeney, Glenne Headley, Frederick Forrest, Steve Buscemi (miniseries made for television, 1989; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Finally, in 2008, a DVD with a worthy version of this modern classic novel was released.  Although Lonesome Dove was made for television in the late 1980s, it was apparently filmed with a large budget in a widescreen format, as now shown on the 2008 DVD.  And the new transfer was of a significantly better, clearer quality than earlier releases.  One result is that this version gives a greater sense of the visual sweep and power of the American west than its more limited predecessors.

The spine of Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from Texas border country on the Rio Grande north to Montana, but it includes so much more:  Indians and renegades, scurrilous buffalo hunters and rough cowhands, romances current and past, outlaws and old friends gone wrong, Texas rangers and Mexican rustlers, battles against evildoers, miscreants, Indians and the elements.  Based on one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it takes the time to do justice to its rich source material.

How can the greatest western be something made for television?  It was the coming together of so many elements, including the rich and sprawling story, terrific cinematography, excellent music (by Basil Pouledoris), masterful direction, superb casting, and, perhaps most of all, the time to tell the story fully at its own pace and develop the characters.

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Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones).

And the cast!  The casting is magnificent.  Some of the excellent cast members (Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane) are known best for their work in non-western films.  Others (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper) are icons well known from other westerns on this list.  Duvall is so good as romantic former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae that it is now impossible to think of anybody else in the role, although a younger McCrae has been played by others since.  Originally, James Garner was to have played Gus, but had to drop out for health reasons; he played Woodrow Call very creditably in the sequel Streets of Laredo miniseries.  Tommy Lee Jones, who is actually younger than Duvall, nevertheless matches him well as the unyielding, steel-spined Captain Woodrow Call.  Anjelica Huston as McCrae’s lifelong love Clara has one of the most memorable roles of her career, as does Diane Lane as the prostitute Lorena.  Danny Glover as the scout Deets is terrific.  It’s still strange to think of Frederick Forrest as the enigmatic but thoroughly evil Comanche Blue Duck, but even that bit of casting works.  Chris Cooper, in one of his first major roles, is oddly and quietly impressive as July Johnson, drawn out of a quiet life in Arkansas and thrust into the epic struggles around McCrae and Call.

There are vivid scenes that come to mind, and everyone has his favorites:  the death of a drover in a river filled with snakes, McCrae’s relentless pursuit of the elusive Blue Duck (who appears mysteriously and memorably in a flash of lightning), the hanging of an old friend gone wrong, Call decisively taking on the U.S. cavalry without hesitation (“I can’t abide rude behavior in a man”), McCrae and Clara trying to work out an old love, July Johnson coping with death and with the continuation of life, and Call’s inability to claim an important relationship, are only some.  Some things get resolved, and some seem not to; that’s life, and sometimes death.  It has an air of authenticity.  It stays with you.

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McCrae looks for a lost love with Clara (Anjelica Huston).

The McCrae-Call partnership around which this story revolves was loosely based on the Oliver Loving-Charlie Goodnight relationship from the 1860s; they’re the Texas pair who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This version of the story was so powerful that it generated three more long novels (one sequel and two prequels) with the same characters from author Larry McMurtry.  None of those matches the novel on which this was based.  The others tend to get more sidetracked in the dark, the quirky and the wildly idiosyncratic, losing their grip on the themes and story that give the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove its powerful narrative thrust.  Some of them have been made into watchable miniseries themselves (Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon), but none of them works as well as this original on the page or on screen.  The story of Lonesome Dove seems complete in itself, despite McMurtry’s insistence on giving more of it less compellingly in other novels.  As for made-for-television sequels not based on McMurtry novels, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, watch them at your own peril.

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This was the first large-scale directing effort by Australian Simon Wincer, who has gone on to make both theatrical releases (Quigley Down Under) and excellent made-for-television westerns (Last Stand at Sabre River, Monte Walsh), including the Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon.  He got it right the first time.

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Blue Duck (Frederick Forrest), the worst of the bad guys, although there are a number to choose from.

Lonesome Dove and one other are often cited as the best miniseries ever, and their proponents tend to divide along gender lines.  The other is the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version), and you can guess who likes which.  They’re both great, but only one of them is a western.

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Quigley Down Under

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 8, 2013

Quigley Down Under—Tom Selleck, Alan Rickman, Laura San Giacomo (1990; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley

As the title suggests, this is not an American western, since it takes place in Australia.  However, the Quigley of the title is an American cowboy from Wyoming, and the action takes place on the frontiers of western Australia.  The director, Simon Wincer, is also Australian, but he has directed several westerns, including Lonesome Dove.

Matthew Quigley is played by Tom Selleck, who, as usual, seems very at home in a western—even an Australian western.  Quigley has been brought to Australia from Wyoming because he responded to an advertisement for a marksman; his expertise is with a specially fitted-out Sharps long-range rifle with custom ammunition.  His new employer is Elliot Marston (superbly played by Alan Rickman), the owner of a large ranch in the Australian outback.  When the task for which he has been hired is finally revealed, Quigley refuses to go along with it and his expression of that refusal triggers a war between himself and Marston.  The advantages seem to all be on Marston’s side, including the regional British constabulary, such as it is.

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A demonstration of shooting prowess for Marston’s benefit.

Initially beaten by superior numbers, Quigley is left in the desert for dead, along with a mentally unstable prostitute, Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo).  With the help of aborigines, they make their way through desert and outback to a town on the coast.  Quigley fights off Marston’s minions there, and he then takes the battle back to Marston for its ultimate resolution.

Selleck and Rickman are excellent in their roles, and their performances balance each other nicely.  The sole casting misstep is Laura San Giacomo as Crazy Cora.  She has too urban and modern a sensibility to seem at home in this kind of movie, but it survives nevertheless.

The movie has great scenery, a sense of vast spaces, wilderness, deserts, gunfights, aborigines and much more, along with an excellent soundtrack by Basil Pouledoris.  Australian director Simon Wincer has an affinity for westerns, having made his reputation with Lonesome Dove and several other made-for-television efforts with Selleck (and with very good production values).

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Quigley’s modified 1874 Sharps.  In the film, Quigley says of his gun:

It’s a lever-action breech loader.  Usual barrel length’s thirty inches.  This one has an extra four.  It’s converted to use a special forty-five caliber, hundred and ten grain metal cartridge, with a five-hundred and forty grain paper-patched bullet.  It’s fitted with double-set triggers, and a Vernier sight.  It’s marked up to twelve-hundred yards. This one shoots a mite further.

Three fully functional .45-110 rifles matching the above description were built for the film in 1989 by the Shiloh Rifle Co. of Big Timber, Montana.  They also had a 15 14 inch length of pull to fit Selleck’s tall frame, a full octagon heavy barrel with a blue finish, and weighed 13 12 pounds.  Due to the weight, one of the rifles was sent back to Shiloh to be refitted with an aluminum barrel so it could be swung faster (as a club) in fight scenes.

If you’d like other “westerns” with an Australian setting, try The Man from Snowy River and its sequel, the much bleaker The Proposition, or even Australia, with its cattle drive and World War II.

 

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