‘Godless’ and the Western Movie Genre

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I grew up back in the 1950s watching old westerns on TV. Even though I took up reading science fiction in the 1960s and have always identified myself as science fiction fan, my favorite movie genre is westerns. I’m rather finicky about my westerns too. Although the 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of television cowboy shows, I prefer the cinema westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to Ride the High Country (1962) era. Starting with films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) movie makers began to alter the genre. I liked these films, but they weren’t the same as the westerns I loved most and how I define the genre.

Too often today when they do make westerns, the level of violence is off the scale. We still get a quality western every few years. Open Range (2003), Appaloosa (2008), and True Grit (2010) are wonderful examples, even though their style has migrated away from how I define the classic western. But I find westerns like Quentin Tarantino’s two recent films grotesque insults to the genre. All too often, I just can’t watch the films called westerns today.

Godless - Alice Fletcher

Thus, I was both excited and a little worried when I first heard about Godless. I must say I enjoyed the series and raced through all seven episodes in days. However, I’m not sure what to make of it artistically, morally, and philosophically.

No work or critic can define a genre, but there are movies called westerns that completely distort what I consider to be the heart of the genre. Even during the 1950s, there were so-called westerns where characters rode horses and carried guns but their story’s soul belong to some other historical psyche.

Goddless Frank Griffin

As a kid, I grew up believing watching westerns taught me about American history. That made my black and white television screen a window to the past. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that every decade has a different view of the American West. How do you reconcile They Died With Their Boots On (1941) with Little Big Man (1970)? Godless (2017) gives us another view of 1888, but should we consider it insight into 1888 history, or just a thrill ride fantasy like West World (2016)?

Godless is full of horrendous violence with a hard-to-believe ending. I feel any good western should be true to the 19th-century even if it doesn’t chronicle historical events. I judge westerns by these criteria:

  • Do characters talk and act like their 1800s period counterpoints?
  • Do the costumes and sets look like the era they depict?
  • Could the plot have happened in the true west era?
  • Are the guns right for the period?
  • Is the level of violence appropriate for the times?
  • Is the story connected with history?
  • If the characters are based on real people how well are they portrayed?
  • Are there anachronisms in the sets, costumes, dialog, mannerisms, or plots?

Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) is an extreme character in Godless, especially since he thunders around the country with over thirty killers on horseback. But was Griffin more violent or crazy than William Quantrill or John Brown? Was the bizarre massacre of Creede, Colorado unrealistic when you think about Lawrence, Kansas of 1863? Also, Frank’s strange adoption by Mormons is based on the real Mountain Meadows massacre. (Although Frank looks too old to have fit the real timeline of history.)

My measuring rod for western violence is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral which took place in 1881. It was probably the most famous gunfight in the old west with nine combatants and three deaths. The most famous killing of the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s involved seven deaths, and it was an execution and not a shootout. So when movies have their characters racking up huge body counts it moves away from being historical towards gun porn to thrill our prurient bloodlust.

Godless feels both realistic and unrealistic. I found it hard to believe Frank and his band of murderers traveled without pack horses and supplies. They looked kind of silly galloping across the land like a large anti-posse with one-armed Frank in the lead. It reminded me of Forty Guns when Barbara Stanwyck would lead 40 gunfighters on 40 horses faithfully riding behind her wherever she went. In both movies, the mass of riders looked silly, even overly melodramatic. Modern movies are always trying to out-do past movies. I’m surprised Frank did have 80 outriders. Maybe the makers of Godless hadn’t seen Forty Guns. The show would have been more realistic with just a dozen in Frank’s army. It certainly could have made the ending more realistic.

Overall I admired and enjoyed Godless. But the show kept bugging me with small distracting issues. Michelle Dockery had too many outfits for a poor woman living on an 1888 ranch, some of them much too fashionable. And she changed them too often. And even though I liked the idea of a town full of women fighting an army of outlaws, it seemed cartoonish. Their last stand reminded me of The Magnificent Seven, which is a western I love, but one that’s somewhat over-the-top. Godless goes way overboard. There were other small details that bothered me too, but mentioning them might give spoilers.

I wasn’t sure about the costumes. They seemed realistic at times, especially for the men. Westerns are always changing how the old west looked. Just compare True Grit (1969) to True Grit (2010). One reason I didn’t like 1960s TV westerns was everyone’s costumes seem too clean and store bought. I’ve always wondered if the wild west fashions of cowboy films of the 1920s and 1930s were more realistic because they were closer in time to the actual historical west. I keep looking for period photos for clues, but they are hard to come by.

1888 woman of the west

[Here is Mattie Lucas 1888 from Custer County, Nebraska.]

Finally, there’s the philosophical interpretation. Westerns are inherently about violence. Guns and gunfights are the solutions to western plot conflicts. I assume Frank and his gang represent evil and the citizens of La Belle represent goodness. But I’m curious how our politically divided country will see things. To liberals, Frank and his gang may remind them of gun nuts and mass shooters. Frank could be a stand-in for Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. To conservatives, Frank is a crazy Islamic fundamentalist with a gang of terrorists. They see La Belle as proof that people need to arm themselves. The film shows women with no gun training effectively using firearms to save themselves.

The love triangle between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), and Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) was unsatisfying to me. But the one between Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) and Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) felt logical. So did the one between Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula).

Godless - ranch

Law and the government are shown to be ineffective at protecting citizens in this story, as is in most westerns. Plus, the press is corrupt. A. T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb) is the editor and reporter for the Santa Fe Daily Review and a publisher of fake news. Grigg reminds me of W. W. Beauchamp, the writer in Unforgiven (1992). I believe this is realistic though because newspapers back then printed pretty much what they felt like, and dime novelists invented the Wild West with tall tales.

Sean T. Collins over at AV Club has an episode-by-episode review of Godless, where he did a fair amount of nitpicking. I could see the faults he saw, but for the most part, they didn’t bother me. Collins gave most of the episodes a B or B-. I think I’d give the show a B+ overall. Godless isn’t Lonesome Dove, but it’s not far behind it as a western mini-series. I’d guess most fans would consider Lonesome Dove (1989) the gold standard of television westerns. I’d agree and also give Deadwood (2004-2006) an A+ too.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite westerns.

Recommended Reading

JWH

Collecting Great Westerns

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Yellow_SkyMy primary goal here is to identify and remember all my favorite westerns. Because I focus on collecting, this page will be updated periodically. I also want it to be of use to others, so I’m adding links. Clicking on the year will take you to a description of the film (to Wikipedia until I can write my own reviews). Titles will link to Amazon. The letter grades represents my reaction to the film, and not a critical judgment. Many films won’t have a grade until I see them again. I’m going to also list the format of the discs I own, but that’s only useful to me. Most of these films I’ve seen once, for many, twice, and some, many times. I will eventually add television westerns.

Finally, I want to analyze why I love westerns and what makes a good western. That will happen in the future. Today, I’m just starting with a list. I’ll eventually add content after the listing. I’ll also write reviews to films and link to them when I get time.

Westerns represent a philosophy, reflected in the genre. I’m a liberal, so explaining why I love a genre that’s so conservative will take some effort. Westerns portray details about history, while revealing changing attitudes towards history. Eventually I want to rate both historical value and how well each film fits the genre. For now, I’m going to use a very simply list format to make it easy to expand and edit. In the future, I’ll convert the list to a table, add film cover images, and other annotations.

I should point out I only collect films I enjoy rewatching. There will be many omissions. That means I either don’t like the film, don’t think its fits the genre, or is set outside of the 19th century.

My Favorite Westerns:

  1. The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne, A+, [Blu-ray]
  2. Cimarron (1931), Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, B+, [DVD]
  3. The Plainsman (1936), Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, A
  4. The Texas Rangers (1936), Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, B+, [DVD]
  5. Destry Rides Again (1939), James Stewart, A+, [DVD]
  6. Dodge City (1939), Errol Flynn, A+
  7. Jesse James (1939), Tyrone Power
  8. Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne, A+
  9. Union Pacific (1939), Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, A+, [DVD]
  10. Santa Fe Trail (1940), Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn
  11. The Westerner (1940), Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  12. They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Errol Flynn, B+, [DVD]
  13. Western Union (1941), Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, A-, [DVD]
  14. The Outlaw (1943), Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell, B-
  15. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, A+
  16. Tall in the Saddle (1944), John Wayne
  17. Along Came Jones (1945), B, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young [DVD]
  18. Duel in the Sun (1946), Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones
  19. My Darling Clementine (1946), Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  20. Angel and the Badman (1947), John Wayne, Gail Russell, A+
  21. Ramrod (1947), Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
  22. 3 Godfathers (1948), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  23. Blood on the Moon (1948), Robert Mitchum
  24. Fort Apache (1948), John Wayne, Henry Fonda, B+, [DVD]
  25. Four Faces West (1948), Joel McCrea
  26. Red River (1948), John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, Walter Brennan, A+
  27. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Humphrey Bogart, A
  28. Whispering Smith (1948), Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, A-, [DVD]
  29. Yellow Sky (1948), Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, A+, [DVD]
  30. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  31. Broken Arrow (1950), James Stewart, B+, [DVD]
  32. The Gunfighter (1950), Gregory Peck, A, [DVD]
  33. Rio Grande (1950), John Wayne
  34. Winchester ‘73 (1950), James Stewart, Shelley Winters, A+, [DVD]
  35. Rawhide (1951), B+, Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward [DVD]
  36. Westward the Women (1951), B+, Robert Taylor
  37. Bend of the River (1952), James Stewart, B, [DVD]
  38. The Big Sky (1952), Kirk Douglas, B+
  39. High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, A-
  40. Rancho Notorious (1952), Marlene Dietrich, B
  41. Man in the Saddle (1952), Randolph Scott, B
  42. Hondo (1953), John Wayne, [Blu-ray]
  43. The Naked Spur (1953), James Stewart, A-, [DVD]
  44. Shane (1953), Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, A+, [DVD]
  45. The Far Country (1954), James Stewart, Walter Brennan, B+, [DVD]
  46. Garden of Evil (1954), A-, Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, [DVD]
  47. Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford, B
  48. River of No Return (1954), Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, B+, [Bluray]
  49. Vera Cruz (1954), Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, B+
  50. A Lawless Street (1955), Randolph Scott
  51. The Far Horizons (1955), Fred MacMurray, Carlton Heston, Donna Reed, B
  52. The Man from Laramie (1955), James Stewart, B
  53. Ten Wanted Men (1955), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone
  54. The Searchers (1956), John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, A+, [DVD]
  55. Seven Men from Now (1956), Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, A-, [DVD]
  56. 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, A
  57. Decision at Sundown (1957), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  58. Forty Guns (1957), Barbara Stanwyck, C+
  59. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas,  B+
  60. Night Passage (1957), James Stewart, Audie Murphy, A, [DVD]
  61. The Tall T (1957), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, B+, [DVD]
  62. The Tin Star (1957), Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, B+
  63. The Big Country (1958),  Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston
  64. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  65. Cowboy (1958), Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, B+
  66. The Law and Jake Wade (1958), Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, A, [DVD]
  67. Man of the West (1958), Gary Cooper, [DVD]
  68. Saddle the Wind (1958), Robert Taylor, Julie London, B+
  69. Day of the Outlaw (1959), Robert Ryan
  70. The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Wayne
  71. No Name on the Bullet (1959), Audie Murphy, [DVD]
  72. Ride Lonesome (1959), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  73. Rio Bravo (1959), John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, B+, [Blu-Ray]
  74. Comanche Station (1960), Randolph Scott
  75. The Magnificent Seven (1960), Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, A
  76. The Unforgiven (1960), Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, A
  77. The Comancheros (1961), John Wayne
  78. One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Marlon Brando, Karl Malden
  79. Two Rode Together (1961), James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, B+
  80. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, B+
  81. Ride the High Country (1962), Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, A-, [DVD]
  82. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Clint Eastwood
  83. For a Few Dollars More (1965), Clint Eastwood
  84. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  85. El Dorado (1966), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  86. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Clint Eastwood
  87. Nevada Smith (1966), Steve McQueen, A
  88. The Professionals (1966), Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin
  89. The Rare Breed (1966), James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, B
  90. Hombre (1967), Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone
  91. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Henry Ford, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards
  92. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Paul Newman, Robert Redford
  93. The Wild Bunch (1969), William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, [Blu-ray]
  94. Chisum (1970), John Wayne
  95. A Man Called Horse (1970), Richard Harris
  96. Little Big Man (1970), Dustin Hoffman, A+, [Bluray]
  97. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, A-
  98. Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Robert Redford, Will Geer, A+, [DVD]
  99. Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Burt Lancaster
  100. High Plains Drifter (1973), Clint Eastwood
  101. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, B+
  102. The Missouri Breaks (1976), Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson
  103. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Clint Eastwood
  104. The Shootist (1976), John Wayne, Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, A-
  105. Heaven’s Gate (1980), Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges
  106. The Long Riders (1980), David Carradine, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid
  107. Pale Rider (1985), Clint Eastwood
  108. Silverado (1985), Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner
  109. Lonesome Dove (1989), Robert Duval, Danny Glover, Tommy Lee Jones, A+, [Blu-ray]
  110. Dances With Wolves (1990), Kevin Costner, A, [Bluray]
  111. Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman,  A+
  112. Tombstone (1993), Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Dana Delany, A
  113. Wyatt Earp (1994), Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid,  A, [Blu-ray]
  114. Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, A-
  115. Open Range (2003), Robert Duval, Kevin Costner, A
  116. 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, A
  117. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Brad Pitt, [Blu-ray]
  118. Appaloosa (2008), Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, A+
  119. True Grit (2010), Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, A
  120. The Revenant (2015), Leonardo DiCaprio A+

Westerns I want to see:

  1. The Covered Wagon (1923)
  2. The Iron Horse (1924)
  3. Tumbleweeds (1925)
  4. Pursued (1947)
  5. Wagon Master (1950)
  6. The Shooting (1966)
  7. The Great Silence (1968)
  8. The Hired Hand (1971)
  9. The Claim (2000)
  10. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)


 

JWH