In the past week or so I’ve been on an old Western movie kick. I’m sure we could have a rousing debate about who the best actors of Westerns are (sorry, but I dig Clint more than I do the Duke), but that’s not the scope of this article. Feel free, however, to comment on which Western actor is your favorite.
For starters, you’d be hard pressed to find a “good” western that is less than 2 hours long. Many of them approach a 3 hour run-time. In today’s film-making, a 3 hour run-time is usually seen as a potential detriment to all but the best directors and producers. My guess is that they think that the audience will get bored if there’s not enough going on within that 3 hours, so most film-makers would rather just trim the fat and include only what is directly pertinent to the main plot.
Not so with Westerns. In the original True Grit, the audience has to wait over 30 minutes before the hunt for the murderer of Maddie’s father begins. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the first hour and a half of the movie barely even references the fact that the whole damn thing is about finding some hidden cache of gold. The majority of the time is spent developing the relationship between Clint Eastwood and the bandito guy (the Ugly). And once the players finally converge on the same plot line, there’s a million detours along the way.
The same can be said for The Outlaw Josey Whales. The first 15 minutes completely tells the story of why he’s an outlaw in the first place, and then the remaining 2.5-3 hours is spent covering 3 distinct acts.
What fills all of this run-time? Well, there is a lot of down-time. There’s a lot of scenes where there is little dialogue, and they seem to be just walking around. On more than one occasion, you get the feeling that there are tons of scenes that run for 10 minutes that could have been condensed down into about 2 minutes of screen time. I have to admit that sometimes when I’m watching Westerns, especially if it’s on my computer, it’s challenging for me to pay 100% attention to them, especially when it’s a scene where there seems to be little going on.
This leads me to my main point: the movie industry is trying to make all of us develop cinematic ADD. I had to stop and actually think about these seemingly vacuous scenes. When you realize that their purpose is realistic characterization of archetypes that would otherwise be wholly unrealistic, and when you get the fact that the setting is a character in of itself, then you start to appreciate the Western a lot more.
At the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the three principle characters engage in a sort of Mexican stand-off to determine who gets to keep the gold. The interesting thing is that they spend over 2 minutes just looking at each other. The only camera angles in that part of the scene are extreme close-ups of their faces, and occasionally on their hands twitching as they contemplate reaching for their guns.
Would a scene like that work in movies today? Probably not. Most people would get bored and quickly disinterested. My guess is that movie-goers at the time, or at least people who watched westerns, were more patient then. The West was, at one point, vast and epic, and only vast and epic movies would do it justice. Whereas it would seem that the genre standard is vast and epic in the classic American Western film, epic is a theme that is reserved mostly for fantasy flicks.
Take The Lord of the Rings trilogy for example. Each film nears 3 hours in length, and each film goes over 3 hours when all the extra crap is put in. Although the run-times are similar, there’s considerably more action (violence) going on.
Take into consideration how westerns are made today. They’re shorter, not so dialogue-heavy, and there aren’t many extended scenes that that solely consist of silent, subtle action. The setting isn’t as important, and the story seems more like it just wants to get to the point as fast as possible. It would be like reading the Odyssey with only 1/4th of Odysseus’ encounters. He leaves
Troy, blinds a Cyclops, and bam, he’s back in . Ithaca
It’s the epic journey, the heightened realism that made these westerns so awesome. Gone are the days of idealizing the Homeric epic journey. Gone is the classic American epic.