Sunday, 17 March 2013

MODERN WESTERNS: MARIELLA, ACE & ME ON OPEN BOOK

I was on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book today, with host Mariella Frostrup and the writer Ace Atkins, to talk about westerns. The hook was two radio adaptations of western novels which will air on R4: Elmore Leonard's Hombre (you can see my take on the book, which I read recently, here), at 2:30 next Saturday 23rd, and Jack Schaefer's Shane the following Saturday. You can find programme on IPlayer here, for at least the next week, and it will be repeated on Thursday 21/3 at 3:30pm --it's a good listen, with Kate Atkinson preceeding us, and an interesting discussion of betting on the Womens Prize for Fiction. Which, had I heard it, might have prompted me to note that westerns serve, for America, much the same function as costume drama does for Britain; it's way of reassuring the present by showing its roots in the past.

This was a discussion that was immense fun when we recorded it in the studio, and it's also one that could have go off in any number of directions--I could easily have traced the western through Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer through Melville's Confidence Man to Nick Carter--the dime novel western hero who becomes Nick Carter the detective later on--but Ace drew the comparison, of 'gunslingers moved to town', which made it unnecessary.

We might also have delved a little further into the connection between movies and novels, in reverse perhaps, because as Ace made clear, movies influence writers' own concepts of the west as much as books used to fertilise Hollywood's west. I probably ought to have made clear another distinction: westerns were a major part of the pulpy and slick magazine fictions just as film was coming into being--The Great Train Robbery, after all, was the first narrative film--but the movies' immense appetite for westerns was expressed primarily in B features, serials, and the like--John Wayne made many forgettable westerns in between Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail and John Ford's Stagecoach. Then television did the same thing in its early days--wringing the genre dry to the point that from the middle Sixties onward, we get western films that are in many ways commentaries on the genre and its conventions.


One thing that was cut was the question of what our favourite western novel actually is: Ace chose True Grit (our discussion of which also fell by the wayside) and I was torn between True Grit, Warlock by Oakley Hall and Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. Have a listen to the programme as it stands; you'll like it.


4 comments :

rogueactuary said...

The best western movie for me is between El Dorado as shown many times on TV and Dodge City (with Errol Flynn which I've only seen once). I exclude spaghetti westerns from this! Also there are several TV series which I vaguely remember which might be as good or better.
I am sad to say much of my moral compass seems to have derived from Westerns (film and TV) and other older American TV series. As a consequence the concept of Friendly Fire where you don't fire until bad guy draws first came as a shock.

rogueactuary said...

OOPS - ...ast sentence should read...which contradicts where you don't fire unitl the bad guy fires firstcame as a shock!

Michael Carlson said...

Dodge City is a good example of those Warner gangster tropes in the western, esp Bogart. Flynn I liked more in They Died With Their Boots On, which is a very weird take on Custer, or Charge of the Light Brigade, which turns the poem into cowboys and indians. You might like to check out some 50s B westerns like Ride Lonesome, Tall T, 7 Men From Now, Naked Spur, Winchester 73, or Day of The Outlaw...

rogueactuary said...

thanks! and for tolerating my poor typing!