The last of the red hot Golden Age Hollywood genre buckaroos, Budd Boetticher represented a long-vanished prototype: the man’s man studio director who, before turning gruffly to making pictures, had spent years being a boxer or a stevedore or a soldier or what have you. Today, filmmakers pay their dues by earning six figures shooting shampoo commercials; then, a man who made westerns or war movies or gangster films was a man who had lived in the world and returned with a heartful of brutal and hopeful business you can’t learn by watching other movies. In a sense, Boetticher outdid the competition by becoming a professional Mexican matador right out of college — a scenario difficult to beat for hard-won iron-man chops in Tinseltown. Of course his biography influences how his best films — the westerns he made between 1956 and 1960 — have been perceived and why they’ve been canonized, as they have been now in the new, lovely tombstone of a DVD box set from Sony. Such are the pratfalls of auteurism.
That’s not to drain air out of the films’ reputation: “Seven Men from Now” (1956), “The Tall T” (1957), “Decision at Sundown” (1957), “Buchanan Rides Alone” (1958), “Westbound” (1959), “Ride Lonesome” (1959) and “Comanche Station” (1960) are all still shockingly unique, realistic, weathered, fatalistic and never less than adult. (The DVD cache elides “Seven Men From Now” and “Westbound,” which both had different producers.) Looking at them anew, they remain quietly revolutionary, but, insofar as it matters, the achievement seems to be not only Boetticher’s, but a fortunate meeting of minds between the director, his aging star Randolph Scott, their producer Harry Joe Brown and screenwriters Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang. The films are not notable for directorial flourishes, but for a subtle, cohesive vision of humanity and community. It’s clear that this team was set, within the framework of B-movie westerns, on cleaning out the genre’s penchant for childish, mythic baloney and remaking the western the way it should be, as convincing, minor-key battles between real grown-ups in a more or less lawless landscape.
The films, of which “The Tall T” and “Ride Lonesome” are the best and the most fully inhabited, stick to skeletal plotlines in which honor and justice are mutable, fragile things; they are as well full of convincing frontier detail (such as the recurring use of the lonely, vulnerable “swing station” outposts for stagecoach lines). The dialogue can be prototypically hokey in some of its details but utterly tough and believable in its textures, density and unmelodramatic understanding. Outlaws (like “The Tall T”‘s Richard Boone and “Ride Lonesome”‘s Pernell Roberts) are rueful bastards who would like a second chance to live normally, while Scott’s ramrod hero is both beaten by a long life and sometimes sadly holding onto his dignity as the last thing on Earth that’s his. Of course, by winnowing away the western’s accumulation of playground ethics and movie-movie reflexes Boetticher and Co. happened to reinvent the western myth in a modern mode, as an existential conflict, where even trivial actions question the point of trying to live a good life, and where time is everyone’s hardest enemy. In the lineage of the western’s profound revitalization in the postwar years, these films raised the bet of the slightly earlier Anthony Mann-James Stewart films, and paved the way for Peckinpah, Hellman and the very idea of an “anti-western,” which is when the genre ceased being just an all-American daydream and became as much a global expression of humanist despair as film noir.
It’s when movies pass from being a litany of mere particulars to being totemic and universal that we swoon for them the most, and few filmmakers made such a point of pride out of the transformation of the specific into metaphor as Ousmane Sembene, who’s most expansive film, “Camp de Thiaroye” (1987), appears finally on video for the first time. A perpetual motion machine of ethical ambiguity and confrontational tension, Sembene’s was one of the first African films to explore contemporary native history, and was the first Pan-African feature produced completely without European technical aid or co-financing — it took nearly 30 years, but with this Algerian-Tunisian-Senegalese co-production, West Africa could truly be said to have its own film industry.