by Brian Hannan
WESTERN MOVIES' GREATEST YEAR
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019)
Reviewed by Dr.
May 3, 2020
year 1969 saw the release of four landmark westerns: George Roy Hill's
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH,
Henry Hathaway's TRUE GRIT, and Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN
THE WEST. Other oaters appearing in 1969 included THE STALKING MOON,
100 RIFLES, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF, SAM WHISKEY, MACKENNA'S GOLD,
PAINT YOUR WAGON, THE UNDEFEATED, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, HEAVEN
WITH A GUN, and CHARRO. Cinema scholar Brian Hannan, author of THE
MAKING OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE PIVOTAL
WESTERN, asserts that 1969 "was the year when westerns should have
bitten the dust after EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY revolutionized
Hollywood. Instead, it was arguably the western's finest year."
In this engaging and well-researched text, Hannan shows that westerns
became much more violent. Visualize, for instance, the graphic, gory
conclusion of THE WILD BUNCH, in which William Holden and company
decimate a host of Mexican troops before being shot to death themselves.
Critic William Woolf called the picture "disgustingly bloody." Furthermore,
the westerns of 1969 offered "the first 'buddy movie' (BUTCH CASSIDY
AND THE SUNDANCE KID), the first African American action star (Jim
Brown) and the first credible western heroine since Barbara Stanwyck
and Joan Crawford hung up their spurs (Raquel Welch)." Oaters in 1969
also addressed such pressing issues as racism, the Vietnam War, and
the role of women. More than that, comedy westerns were reborn (SUPPORT
YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF) and western "scores--influenced by pop and opera--took
on a different complexion." For example, who can forget that classic
scene from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID where Paul Newman and
Katharine Ross frolic on a bicycle while Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops
Keep Falling on My Head" plays in the background?
Hannan fills his book with fascinating details. Examining TRUE GRIT,
for instance, he observes that both Mia Farrow and Sally Field were
considered for the role of Mattie Ross, which finally went to Kim
Darby. Elvis was in the running for the role of Ranger La Boeuf until
his manager, Colonel Parker, mandated that Presley receive top billing.
The part was eventually played by popular singer Glen Campbell, who
also performed the movie's theme song. The King, of course, starred
in another western picture that year, CHARRO, which paled in comparison
to the iconic TRUE GRIT. "It was rather late in the day," Hannan maintains,
"for Presley to be trying to redeem his movie career, given that his
fans had become accustomed to routine comedy-musicals laden with pretty
girls." The cast of Hannan's study includes such stars as Gregory
Peck, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, James Garner, Robert Blake, Claudia
Cardinale, Rock Hudson, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Glenn Ford, Burt
Reynolds, and Angie Dickinson.
In addition to analyzing more than forty westerns, Hannan discusses
their box office earnings and critical reception. Cinema enthusiasts,
especially those who enjoy oaters, should read this terrific volume.