Guide to Westerns
by Paul Simpson
(London: Rough Guides/Penguin, 2006)
312 pages. Illustrated.
Rough Guides Reference Series.
Review by Dr. Kirk
March 3, 2020
Good, the Bad and the Ugly could have been completely different. Luckily,
James Coburn and Charles Bronson rejected the $15,000 Italian director
Sergio Leone could pay a lead for his first Western, so he chose Rawhide
hunk Clint Eastwood, who, dubious but ambitious, accepted. The two
embarked on a stylish, innovative adventure, Eastwood contributing
and paring down his own spare dialogue, Ennio Morricone composing
the florid, anthemic music and Leone patenting a genre known as the
spaghetti Western." So contends Paul Simpson in this superb reference
book. Filled with perceptive insights and laden with absorbing film
facts, The Rough Guide to Westerns belongs in the library of every
serious Western fan.
Sections in this generously illustrated volume include "The Trail:
The History of the Western," "The Canon: 50 Classic Westerns," "The
Stock Company: Western Archetypes," "Western Country: Iconic Locations,"
and "Way out West: Westerns Around the World." Readers may take issue
with Simpson's Western Canon, in which he discusses his most important
oaters. "With over 8000 Westerns to choose from," he asserts, "selecting
50 that are essential to the genre is an arduous task, doomed to provoke
incredulity and debate about inclusions and omissions." The following
movies comprise Simpson's Top Ten list: "Shane," "One Upon a Time
in the West," "The Searchers," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "Johnny
Guitar," "Warlock," "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Red River," "Bad Day
at Black Rock," and "The Tall T."
Consider four passages from Simpson's opinionated, observant, and
On Randolph Scott: "Tall, light and handsome, with piercing blue eyes,
Scott always seemed most at home in Westerns. By the 1950s, though
physically still in prime condition, his face had acquired a weary
weatherbeaten quality which brought gravitas to the laconic, fatalistic,
self-reliant persona which was central to the seven movies he made
with [director] Budd Boetticher…Only an actor with Scott's sure sense
of his range and skills could have so convincingly portrayed Boetticher's
slightly archaic hero in these bittersweet Westerns…Scott, who read
the Wall Street Journal between takes, was a multi-millionaire and,
after the brilliant farewell of Ride the High Country (1962), hung
up his spurs. Yet his image lives on."
On The Magnificent Seven (1960): "In the face of stiff competition
from a TV schedule bursting with rootin'-tootin' Westerns, The Magnificent
Seven represents Hollywood playing its trump card, offering-count'em-seven
gunfighters in one film!...[Director John] Sturges had a flair for
choreographing action sequences, composing scenes and handling actors.
The armed truce on set between Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner never
quite erupted into open conflict-Brynner's threat to remove McQueen's
hat if he kept trying to steal scenes settled the issue-but the tension
works well on screen…The movie benefits from the genius of Elmer Bernstein,
whose iconic hummable theme tune, later used to advertise Marlboro
cigarettes, was the highlight of a memorable Oscar-nominated score."
On Robert Ryan: "He had obvious physical assets as a villain. His
lanky physique could seem surprisingly threatening, his distinctive
rasping voice gave his dialogue a bitter authority and he could be
more menacing with a look than other actors with a gun. Yet he infused
his best bad guys with a sense of secret hurt and intense bitter emotion
that made him all the more watchable…his career revived in the late
1960s, with three Westerns: Richard Brooks' The Professionals (1966),
Hour of the Gun (1967) and the glorious farewell that was his turn
as Thornton in The Wild Bunch (1969). He was ill by then but his tall,
gaunt, grey presence perfectly captured his character's spiritual
On Little Big Man (1970): "[Director] Arthur Penn's picaresque revisionist
Western-drawing stunningly obvious parallels between the US Army's
massacre of Native Americans and the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians
at My Lai-is one of the biggest-grossing Westerns of all time…The
movie is based on Thomas Berger's novel of the same name. Dustin Hoffman
is Jack Crabb, aka Little Big Man, an allegedly 121-year-old white
man who was raised by Cheyenne. In flashback, he selectively recalls
his life, drawing on memories of Western 'heroes' (such as Custer
and Wild Bill Hickok), massacres and last stands…Penn's film is epic,
funny, intelligent, neatly constructed…and ambitious…Little Big Man
is an audacious Western, worth watching for a tone and scenes unlike
almost any other film in the genre and for what it says about the
time it was made."
Entertaining and informative, The Rough Guide to Westerns, with its
eye-catching cover of Jimmy Stewart, will undoubtedly appeal to cinema
enthusiasts, particularly those with a fondness for oaters.