Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: The Rough Guide to Westerns by Paul Simpson

The Rough Guide to Westerns
Paul Simpson
Rough Guides (Penguin), 2006

You have to say this about Paul Simpson: he's brave. Or, as they used to say, "he ain't no yellow-bellied coward." In The Rough Guide to Westerns, Simpson has compiled a short, pretty much "rough" manual and history of the Western movie. This one is a little different, though, from ones that have come before.

To back-track a little, the Rough Guides is a Penguin imprint that is well known for its travel books. They have sinced branched out with books on music, popular culture, and reference guides. They have a whole line of Rough Guides to movies, including horror, gangster, sci-fi, chick flicks, american independent film (as opposed to French? Italian?) and comedy. So that's where the Rough Guide to the Westerns rides in. It's an odd-shape, square and smaller than your typical hardback or even softcover. So it's easy to carry and pack in your saddle bag if you so wish.

Simpson warns us in the Introduction: "This book exists for one simple reason: to increase your enjoyment of the Western." Meaning that this book is not meant to give you a comprehensive, basic, or even rudimentary course in the Western film. This book is for those who are itching to look at the Western through a different set of eyes.

Simpson starts with the basic chapters that begin most Western film guides: "Once Upon a Time in the West: The Origins." For this topic, he lists the following movies with a short descriptive critique: The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), Wagon Master 1950), Arrowhead (1953), Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Apache (1954).

I have to admit that I was so taken aback by these choices picked to conclude a section on "The Origin of the Western" that I had to go back and read the Introduction not once, but twice, to figure out Simpson's methodology in picking these movies. And I couldn't find an explanation.

The same goes for the second chapter, "The Trail: The History of the Western," in which he discusses each decade, ending the section with a handful of movies to watch that he thinks are good represenations for that decade. For the 1950s, in his narrative, he mentions Broken Arrow, The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane, the seven Mann/Stewart Westerns, Man Without a Star and The Searchers. Then he lists the following movies as ones to watch to obtain a more "nuanced" view of the 1950s: Calamity Jane, Hondo, The Man From Laramie, Run of the Arrow, The Big Country, Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, Terror in a Texas Town, Ride Lonesome, and The Wonderful Country.

For the 1960s, which we all know was the decade in which the Western blinked, he lists: The Misfits (which I will not watch again due to the horrifying filmage at the end of capturing Mustangs), One-Eyed Jacks, Major Dundee, Rio Conchos, Hombre, The Professionals, 100 Rifles, and The Stranger's Gundown.

So you can see the land mines that Simpson has laid for himself with this book. Or rather, has laid for us. If you can appreciate his sense of humor and his irreverent tone, you may enjoy this book and even learn something. Or you can throw the book against the wall. It's up to you.

Simpson does justice to odd-balls subjects with sidebars. One is "The Worst Westerns" (now, remember, y'all, this is his book). I was suprised to see only 5 listed. None of which I have seen, I'm thankful to say, except I'm intrigued by the title "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" and may have to find that one on Netflix. He also discusses "Joe McCarthy's Westerns", "Acid Westerns," and Blaxploitation.

Simpson then lists his 50 classic Westerns. I will not be baited into telling you which ones they are, because I don't want a bloodbath to ensue in my Comments section. We all know how these lists come down. I will tell you that I thought his picks were suprisingly unsurprising, considering the rest of the book.

Some interesting chapters in the back are "The Stock Company: Western Archetypes," and "Iconic Locations," and "Westerns Around the World." He deals with many subjects that aren't standard cinema-book fare, and with the respect they deserve, such as the Sand Creek Massacre. For someone like me, who was eternally traumatized by that anti-government 1970 bloodbath called Soldier Blue, I appreciated the coverage. It doesn't come along in every book about Western movies.

So it's not boring. It's fun, sometimes aggravating as hell, and certainly is a conversation starter. Next time you're looking for a good Saturday night barroom brawl, tuck this book in your back pocket.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Laurie,
Enjoying your reviews, they're well-written, insightful, and useful without giving away the farm (too many reviewers, though mostly of fiction, just rehash the plot). You should be paid for reviewing books. It's nice work if you can get it and the books are free!


Laurie Powers said...

Wow, thanks Matt! Actually, I enjoy doing these because Lord knows I love spouting off my opinion...
I've been thinking of doing reviews for $ but I don't know where to begin.


My copy of this book skips from page 40-161 - meant to take it back to the shop but never got around to it.