THE WESTERN LANDS
More cod-philosophical meanderings on Inauthentic Westerns as a metaphor for Mortality, prompted, in part, by the fact that I’m as old as The Grand Canyon, but also by this:
“The Bells of San Angelo” (1947) is possibly one of my favourite films, though it’s difficult to justify that in the cold light of print. Used to have a copy of it on VHS, taped from the telly (along w/ some other films featuring Roy “King of the Cowboys” Rogers and Trigger (“The Smartest Horse in Movies”)) but they sadly got binned during a post house-move clear-out. Pleased to find this as part of a five-for-£6.99 package of (yee-ha!) Forties and Fifties Westerns down the Garage.
Colour films from the Forties are supersaturated into a lurid state of Hyper-reality at the best of times (a firm favourite is the 1943 Universal version of “Phantom of the Opera” starring Claude Rains, where the Technicolour contrast appears to have been ramped up to 11), but no effort has been made to restore this film: the colours on this poverty-row, scanned-from-video DVD look bleached-out and ghostly, so that the Texas landscape resembles early, unenhanced NASA photographs of the surface of Mars: pale and otherworldly, phantom transmissions from Mythic-Space…
Lost film-frames and drop-outs mean that the dialogue is sometimes truncated or accidentally cut-up like a narrowband broadcast from another world; the characters flicker in and out of focus or teleport around the screen which seems to highlight their tenuous existence here in Western Myth-Space. Wooden acting, camp characters and corny dialogue add to the film’s heightened sense of unreality; the actors’ timing is off and there’s an odd hesitancy to most of the performances…the characters seem to be watching each other intently, almost as if they’re expecting something else to be said…they look like they’re anticipating a secret message or some arcane leakage of meaning from somewhere Outside…even the location footage seems wrong and unconvincing, like an enormous fake sound-stage, leeched of colour and meaning by ancient, degraded film-stock. This…this place that is inhabited by the characters seems alien and strange to me; it feels like this film exists somewhere outside of History.
There’s a beautifully surreal moment 20+ minutes into the film where the characters ride into town on horseback to meet someone (we assume on the stagecoach), only for a Greyhound bus to pull up outside the hardware store. Up to that point, we had assumed that the film takes place in some unnamed year in, say, the 1880s, perhaps. It feels like the bus has entered the film from elsewhere (another film? The ‘real’ 1947?); it exists as a hyper-transitional mechanism able to move between different archetype spaces like the Ford Galaxie used by Lemmy Caution in Goddard’s “Tarzan Vs IBM”…er, sorry, “Alphaville” to escape Paris, 1965, and slide sideways across to the Big A. Later on in the film, we occasionally notice a telephone, a car and other evil new-fangled gadgets, but they only seem to appear when they are needed. It’s almost as if they are summoned-up, genie-like, from outside of the film and cease to exist as objects outside of temporary necessity.
The Western Swing-flavoured songs by Roy Rogers and The Sons of The Pioneers, particularly the rousing “Hot Lead” (punctuated by firing Colt 45s into the air), are utterly fabulous.
Rotund character actor Andy Devine plays the Falstaffian Sheriff ‘Cookie’ Bullfincher whose office is bizarrely overrun with stray dogs, while Roy is some sort of vaguely-described “Border Investigator”. There’s some sort of plot too, involving an old silver mine and plenty of “Boo! Hiss” baddies who are murderin’ local Hispanics and smugglin’ silver across the border. But who cares, really: Avoidance of Mortality is the whole point of this Mythic Wasteland modelled on the Old West…here, Time itself is either bypassed or rendered meaningless (remember the Greyhound bus…)…no one really dies here, so the characters have all Eternity to kill; the film's plot is just something that they use to pass the time. What’s really important is that Trigger does some great tricks (“What’s that, boy? You want us to follow you? C’mon, fellas, quick - there’s trouble at the silver mine…”), Roy jumps on him and rides him bare-back, and folk here ain’t afraid to burst into song at the drop of a (ten gallon) hat.
There’s a great accidental piece of self-referential auto-critique where Roy and the gang become irritated by the impending visit of a hack Western writer whose recent novel (“Murder on the Border”) has irked them. Our Fake Mythic Cowboys feel that the book misrepresents them; they grumble that The West he describes is nothing like the one they live in…which begs the question: does The West of this curious, almost PDK-ian book w/in a film therefore resemble the ‘real’ West of our world?
In a neat twist, the Western ‘fiction’ writer turns out to be a woman (played by Roy’s ‘real-life’ wife Dale Evans - they got hitched in '47), who is not only an author but also an amateur detective. After some initial friction between the two parties, the female outsider (for ‘cityslicker’, read: someone who has an existence outside of the parameters described by the movie) is finally accepted by Roy and the other Western Myth-Space denizens when she dons the Bogus Western Duds favoured by them (wh/ are presumably styled on lurid Grand Ol’ Opry C&W singer stage-costumes) and joins them in a hearty singalong. By embracing their Myth-Space values and proving herself as one of them, she is now allowed to join the gang and help w/ their sleuthing activities up at the Old Silver Mine.
(A quick diversion on the topic of clothes: the rhinestone-studded jump-suits worn by Elvis Presley are presumably just a logical Space-Age progression on from stylised Country and Western stage-gear, wh/ itself becomes increasingly glam, OTT and impractical as you track it thru the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s…is this another reason why Elvis was able to penetrate sooo far into Mythic Space (I dare not use the word ‘Iconic’ for fear of retribution from Ian Penman…), because Roy and the other singing cowboys like Gene Autry, etc had already pre-colonised it prior to him in their garishly coloured vests, jackets, and hats with stitched-on musical notes…? If so, then they were true Pioneers of Mythic Space...)
As an aside, all the folk in Western Myth-Space are curiously sexless, but why shouldn’t they be…after all, there’s no need to reproduce here in this arid, timeless Other West, and, after an Eternity’s worth of endless repetition, surely the sex act itself would become poisoned, obsessional and ultimately obsolete...
No bruised sunsets on display here, but there is an unquantifiably strange melancholy to this film and others like it…watching it, I feel oddly reassured in some way, comforted by some vague alien presence or absence (I’m not sure which)…I’m wondering if it’s because I sense that it might somehow provide evidence for the existence of Life After Death, that films like this have somehow become crackling archival habitats for dead souls…that somehow, after death, we persist in memory, or, rather, the idea of us persists in Mythic Space and is available for random retrieval: fading celluloid ghost-forms summoned up to caper and play, though each summoning results in further erosion and decay…Life’s faint signal stubbornly resisting fatal erasure, transferring itself from analogue to digital media: evolving, adapting, forcing itself to be remembered…
The Republic logo with its fearsome eagle emblem is proudly displayed at the film’s start, and still fills me with a thrill only equalled by the RKO Radio Pictures and the original 30s Universal logo. The reason is simple: I grew up in the Sixties when serials and cheapo z-movies from the 40s were still shown at Saturday morning cinema, so I grew up with Republic serials like “Flash Gordon”, “Legend of the Lone Ranger”, “King of the Rocketmen”, etc along with Old Mother Riley and Three Stooges Films…so films like “Bells of San Angelo” undoubtedly, for me, invoke the comforting feel of childhood and temporarily repel the shadow of slowly advancing Death: existential relief is tinged w/ remorse and distress at being unable to actually physically reverse time away from our Ultimate End…Singing Cowboy Films and their ilk are addictive; they present themselves as an alluring terrain into which we can temporarily escape our own inevitable physical disintegration, and they also offer the vain hope that both ourselves and our loved ones might somehow continue in some way…we long to step inside the film, but we are denied physical entry. It is only after Death, that we are finally, convincingly reborn in faded snapshots and shaky video-footage.
Dodgy Old Westerns as a Mortality Avoidance Strategy: if sunset is a metaphor for the clang of The Reaper’s rusty scythe, then why not embrace your own eventual Mythic Transformation and ride off into the sunset itself…ride on into Myth and the dusty canyons of perpetual memory…then keep on riding and never stop.