The five westerns that Budd Boetticher made at Columbia Pictures at the height of his career all open the same way: actor Randolph Scott rides through a western landscape. In some films, he enters a town that emerges from the rough terrain; in others, he rides through a rocky passage or along dusty trails; in all of them, high mountains loom on the horizon behind him. Since the silent films of William S. Hart, the approach of a lone rider has signaled the beginning of a western, whether in B-film programmers like Boetticher’s films or high-budget classics such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and George Stevens’s Shane (1953). The image establishes basic elements of the genre: A man alone, placed firmly on his horse in a landscape. The widescreen frame breathes with openness. The rider is headed somewhere, has a destination, a purpose. As a character in Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959) explains, “A man needs a reason to ride this country.”
The term western primarily refers to a geographical area; secondarily, it denotes a historical era, that of the expanding western frontier. But western space and time were not fixed. Geographically, the American frontier continuously moved ever westward, following the flow of settlers and explorers who displaced and nearly destroyed the native population and transformed the environment. The frontier era likewise stretched and compressed. Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) portrays Native American raids in upstate New York at the end of eighteenth century, while Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) takes place in 1913 and dips deep into Mexico. As the periods and contours of the western frontier changed, so did the genre transform from a celebration of the imperial thrust of the nation and its domination of the wilderness to a critical reexamination of this phase of American history and hegemony. As with most genres, there are core examples of the western that practically everyone agrees on, and peripheral ones that can trigger endless discussions.
Most everyone agrees that Boetticher’s films starring Scott belong to the core of the genre. While the “A” westerns of Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, and Delmer Daves may be better known (and usually made more money), Boetticher’s B films strike us as essential, stripped down to the most necessary elements: a man placed in an unfriendly environment, encountering a variety of hostile opponents (outlaws, Native Americans, deserts, and mountains), testing both himself and others against an unspoken, but always active, code of masculinity and morality.
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