Western Writer, Director and Historian Dan Gagliasso weighs in on classic, enduring Westerns.
In Russell Martin’s massive1983 tome Cowboy, The Enduring Myth of the Wild West, he wrote, “In John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart is ransom Stoddard, a Westerner who becomes a United States Senator after he is hailed with killing a hated outlaw in a street duel. Years later, when the aging Stoddard reveals to a group of newspaper reporters that he did not actually kill Liberty Valance, one reporter stands and tells him, ‘This is the West, Senator. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’”
I sat down with Western writer and historian, Dan Gagliasso, who would agree with that reporter, as the West has always been a place that loves and nurtures legends. A great story is a great story. If it happens to be true, well that’s an added benefit. Gagliasso has researched and written articles and stories for almost every Western journal in the country and worked on countless scripts and films, winning numerous awards including the prestigious President’s Award from the Western Writers of America. I asked Gagliasso about the historic depiction of the West and when he felt was the film genre’s Golden Age.
“Starting from the late 1930s – basically 1939,” says Gagliasso. “There were some big Westerns before Stagecoach (1939) but Stagecoach’s influence through the mid-’60s was important – especially for the period’s larger than life, legendary heroes. In the early ’60s was the release of Magnificent Seven and John Wayne was making some top-of-the-line Westerns. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was made in 1962, but the end was in sight as, by 1964 through 1965, we were starting to see the white-hat slide because of the introduction of the anti-hero. This includes many of Clint Eastwood’s Italian films and the Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch. Great films, but totally different viewpoints.”
Of that period – for the twenty years after 1939, I asked Gagliasso what he felt were the top five.
“I would say Stagecoach, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River and Magnificent Seven,” Gagliasso says. “But it’s hard; I’ve got a top 20, I don’t really have a top five, but I knew you would ask. That said, I would still be really hard pressed to give you the top 20. There are so many I like.”
The Second World War must have had an impact – as it did on everything – and I asked how he felt the war affected the making of or writing Westerns of that era.
“I think, as it did in all film genres of the time, it made the film makers more introspective,” Gagliasso says. “So, when John Ford made Fort Apache (1948), that’s really a military film set in the West. Interestingly, it’s the beginning of that genre-based perception about ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ It was at this time you start to see those Jimmy Stewart Westerns that were more psychological, like Winchester ’73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952). Stewart was a hard character in those films, same in Broken Arrow (1950). He is not the Jimmy Stewart we think of from the comedies.”
I asked Dan if he felt that Shane (1953) was a demarcation point after the war towards the more complex Western hero.
“Well, I don’t know if it was a demarcation point. It seems it could have been, but look at 1948’s Red River, that’s a very different kind of film with very different kinds of portrayals,” says Gagliasso. “There’s the drama going on between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift and you don’t just have it from Wayne’s perspective. Look at the scene in Shane where Jack Palance kills Elisha Cook Jr., the Southern settler – its murder. Director George Stevens had been very affected by the war and didn’t even make a film for two years after he came out of the war. He wanted to show that violence and that kind of gun play was not fun and games, and it was serious. To prove his point in Shane, the special effects people hooked up a harness to Elisha Cook Jr. to jerk him backwards to show the impact of the bullet. It didn’t seem to have the type of influence he wanted from that scene and never did until Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
“After that film, everybody wanted to show bloody violence in Westerns in slow motion,” Gagliasso continues. “Shane was actually sort of an optimistic film, whereas The Searchers (1956) ends with Wayne all alone and for his character, Ethan Edwards, it really was over. Ford shot those opening and ending doorway view scenes at the beginning of the film and Wayne’s demeanor added to the tension. But as for the film genre itself, as we move through the ’60s and ’70s, frankly, I blame Blazing Saddles (1974) for the demise of Westerns during that time. Its style of humor really didn’t help.”
I remind Gagliasso the 70s provided a number of moments for lovers of Westerns.
“You know there was a little period in the ’70s where you had some pretty darn good Westerns coming out,” Gagliasso says. “Junior Bonner (1972) certainly has old Western ethics written all over it and was the best Western film Sam Peckinpah ever made. The Shootist (1976) was another great one. John Wayne dies and doesn’t want to, while he wants to die in the The Searchers. We had that long period after the mid-’70s until Lonesome Dove, which became a bible to live by in Texas.”
I asked if he felt Westerns could be successfully remade.
“Yes and no, it all hangs on the source material and how it translates to a new time, but the remade things we’ve seen seem to fail most of the time,” Gagliasso says. “Sometimes, it works better than the original, but rarely. How many times did Three Godfathers (1916, 1936, 1948) get made? Ford made it as a silent, and he remade it again in the early ’30s, and a wonderful, frankly, the best version, in the late ’40s with Wayne. I think it takes a special story, but in general, Hollywood tries to remake things that shouldn’t be remade. I mean do you really want a remake of The Searchers or Magnificent Seven? The originals are so damn good…It’s real.
“Joe De Yong, who was Charlie Russell’s only protégé, worked on both Red River and Shane and brought a lot of Russell’s romantic look to those films sets and costumes,” Gagliasso continues. “Dave Powell, another artist and lover of Russell’s authenticity, worked on Lonesome Dove with the men’s wardrobe and brought lots of Russell’s looks to that mini-series. If you watch the opening shots of Tommy Lee Jones trying to break the “hell bitch” that is a Charlie Russell painting. That’s Russell’s world – it’s Texas and Montana with Joe De Yong up with the quirt in the air and the bronc, sun fishing in the mid-day dust and everything – it’s Russell, the real deal, right there in front of you.”
Gagliasso is optimistic about the West moving forward.
“We are at at a time when the audience is incredibly fragmented,” Gagliasso says. “You don’t have to have 70 million people watching the last episode of Seinfeld or Friends to have a success. 15 million watched Yellowstone for its last episode and its opening episode of the fourth season. That’s a huge success now. Today, Paramount and Taylor Sheridan have reopened the gates for the genre and it all really started with Lonesome Dove. Lonesome Dove had 44 million viewers every night for four nights – that was unheard of back then, but it was so incredibly well done. It had the magic formula we discussed earlier: a great script, great camera work, incredible stunts and characters you really liked. Then, Dances with Wolves (1990) made over $450 million worldwide. $250 million of that was made in the U.S. Then, Tombstone (1993), which was not quite as successful, although the DVD sold incredibly well. The film cost $25 million to make and did $100 million. The big surprise to me was The Revenant (2015), which was a classic mountain man movie. It cost $120 million to make, but it did $560 million worldwide. The genre works in today’s world, and not just here in the U.S. In other words, the Western still resonates everywhere. Reassuring, isn’t it, after all these years?”
I happily agree and again pressure Gagliasso for his top five Westerns everyone needs to watch again. He obliges, though reserves the right to change his mind.
“The Searchers, Lonesome Dove and Dances with Wolves, because it’s probably the era’s best representation of the American Indian,” Gagliasso says. “Now, there may be things I disagree with, but it’s a beautiful looking movie, Lawrence of Arabia. And, of course, Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are must-sees, for sure.”
I don’t think he’ll change his mind.