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How the West Was Lost: Comprehensive, Entertaining, and Highly Informative
Shown rather amusingly on BBC Four at the end of the very same week in which I had been given a comprehensive education in the history of the western, How the West Was Lost seemed the perfect thing to cement what I'd learned about the genre, the wryly laconic Rich Hall surely icing on such a cake.
Sitting outside an old west saloon, a dark figure is affronted when a movie-reviewing kid simultaneously online and on a call dismisses the western film genre. Taking him out to the desert and dumping him there, the cowboy begins to explain to us the real splendour of this often forgotten American genre.
The opening scene, a silly little introduction utilising certain genre conventions, had me thinking for a moment that the entire documentary might be communicated through a sort of faux-narrative. Luckily this is not the case, the scene more of an opportunity for Hall to introduce his fondness for the classic genre. A key thing we notice early is that this film is very much a subjective one, the prejudices and opinionsboth political and cinematicof the narrator/presenter not at all reserved. Hall looks the part for the presentation, his dark cowboy hat and coarse goatee recalling the many western heroes he makes mention of. The film is quite well shot, the iconic landscapes which pervade the genre fully exploited herein. It is immediately evident that the subject matter is quite close to Hall's heart, his praise of it as the great American genre and a staple of the country's cinema spoken with a great degree of pride and affection. He explores the genre in a generally chronological fashion, taking us from the early days of fledgling Hollywood through to the golden era of Ford, Hawks, and their contemporaries, onto the revisionism of New Hollywood and finally to the gradual dying off of the genre as a mainstream one in and around the release of Heaven's Gate. Interviewees include film historians and gunsmiths who attempt to explain the fixation of the American public with the genre from its earliest days. Hall presents us with a wide range of clips from westerns throughout the ages: Stagecoach; My Darling Clementine; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; The Searchers; The Magnificent Seven; Blazing Saddles; Little Big Man; Cheyenne Autumn; and McCabe and Mrs Miller to name but a few. The insight Hall gives into the evolution of the genre through these is interesting, exploring themes of East versus West as well as individual versus community and many more beside. A less appealing factor, and one which raises more than a few eyebrows, is his apparent distaste for the Spaghetti Westerns, particularly those of Leone. More than any other film mentioned, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is labeled as a shame to its genre, the extent of Hall's hatred of it rather alarming andfor such a classic filmquite unusual. Aside from this minor detour into express agendas (several scathing political criticisms also crop up, but they're both funny and agreed with), the film is a comprehensive, entertaining, and highly informative look at a genre it makes you sad to see on the decline.
Pretty much exactly as informative as appropriate for its televisual documentary medium, How the West Was Lost is an interesting approach to western history that will prove worthwhile for those with a particular interest in film. Hall's brand of presentation, as well as his distinctive voice, are welcome additions to a well written and shot tribute to a great American genre.
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