Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema. Frontier- and pioneer-mythology is not too close to British experience over the last centuries, except probably the nightmare of colonialism. In fact there is a scepticism about American myths like the civil war, the declaration of independence and the idea of ‘regeneration through violence’. But anyway: the British western does exist.
British cinema has brought forth very few constant genre traditions which established themselves in film history. Besides the monumental success of David Lean’s epics and William Wyler’s dramas, there is most notably the huge influence of Hammer horror films since the late 1950s, establishing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as leading men. In their wake actors like Oliver Reed and Dirk Bogarde appeared who made their own way during the 1960s. In their search for remarkable projects Hammer studios also experimented with the western genre and made The Singer, not the Song (1961), a psychological and moralistic western-drama about the eternal fight of good against evil. In fact it is about a well intentioned priest, caught between his own feelings and the duties to the church (John Mills) and the local bandit, Anacleto, a truly intelligent atheist at the mercy of his own (Dirk Bogarde). Horror professional Roy Ward Baker had never been fond of this project in the first place, also facing the fact that several Hollywood stars declined to playing the role of father Keogh: Richard Widmark, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, James Mason, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Anthony Perkins and John Cassavetes. In the end the actor duel between Mills and Bogarde delivers the necessary depth, so Baker later admitted that his only western is in fact a beautifully shot drama.
Anacleto, or ‘El Malo’, dominates and exploits the village through fear and violent threat. When crossed, he orders his men to kill, but always in a way as to make it look like an accident. The police forces are not powerless, but without real evidence they cannot act. The old priest has been left in a state of desperation, but the new one, Father Keogh, is ready to face the challenge. A young girl, Locha, shows love interest in the new priest, and Anacleto – against his better judgement – begins to like the priest. Father Keogh in return is increasingly obsessed by the idea of saving Anacleto’s soul. ‘Isn’t that your job, Father; To keep hoping that any soul can be saved, even mine?’, asks the bandit. Anacleto in fact is a complete atheist, who has been taught to hate the church from youth. In the end, Father Keogh is forced to choose between the benefit of the village and his goal of bringing Anacleto back on the rightful path. When Locha is kidnapped by the bandit to make the priest ‘speak to the congregation’ favourably about him. Incidentally the priest returns Lochas emotional ambitions. When Anacleto comes to the church expecting the favourable sermon, Father Keogh instead denounces him and brings in the police to arrest him. A gun battle is unleashed, during which both men are shot. The dying priest sitting without sight or hearing by the dying Anacleto implores him to an act of contrition, and to press the priest’s hand if he is doing so. The bandit does that murmuring: ‘It’s the singer, not the song.’
The Singer, Not the Song is the first typical example of a British western, and it already shows all the differences between Euro-western and US-western: The subtext is not American mythology, but general ethics and moral questions. The character constellation is mainly psychological, not archetypical in the traditional western sense: the hero is a priest while the villain is homoerotic fetishist in tight black leather gear. The film takes place in the early 20th century, so automobiles are already in use. Even the most action-packed sequence takes place in a car with a cut break-wire rolling down the hill – more of a thriller scenario than a western sequence. And finally: The film itself focuses on the fetishist use of costumes, weapon props and imagery know from US-western, but on a meta-level. Thus Baker’s drama is not naïve at all as many US-western out side the Hawks/Ford-canon may seem. Baker’s film predated the huge international success of the Italo-western by some years and remains as a genuine non-American access the western genre. Yet the financial payoff of Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s Euro-western was in fact an influence of further British western – but some years later.
The idea of the Euro-western always included the casting of at least one international star, and the British western logically made use of one of ist most important super stars: James-Bond-veteran Sean Connery. Edward Dmytryck cast him in his nearly epic widescreen adventure Shalako (1968) as a western professional, a pathfinder and tracker for a group of Europeans: arrogant and snobbish hunters, who are keen on killing deer and shooting savages. That is the tone set by the group’s leader, Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). He and his group, a German and a bunch with British accents are invading the frontier country. Carlin – or Shalako, how the Indians call him – tries his best to keep the group together. Female confusion is introduced by Brigitte Bardot as Countess Irina Lazaar and Honor Blackman as the femme fatal Lady Julia Daggett. So Shalako has a very classical melodramatic twist, ending up with Countess Irina staying with Connery. Despite very mixed reactions Shalako’s qualities are mainly on the atmospheric side and in a very honest perspective on European decadence in supposedly colonial territory. Shalako is also about British mentality.
George Seeßlen points out that Shalako-producer Euan Lloyd stayed with the genre for some time and initiated two other outstanding action-western: Catlow (1971) by Sam Wanamaker and The Man Called Noon (1973) by Peter Collinson, both films shot on location in Spain – as many Italian western and later British western as well. In Seeßlen’s opinion there is no true identity to British western because they mainly use American cast and crew to appear like genuine American procutions. Anyway the shooting location in Europe is certain a link to Italo-western and marks British western as a hybrid between American and Euro-western.
While Shalako was the British version of a serious star-ridden western-adventure, there was also a genre parody called A Talent for Loving (1969) shot at the same time starring western-veteran Richard Widmark.
The key element of British western nevertheless was not humour but violence. American TV-professional Don Medford was hired by British investors to shoot a quintessential hard-edged anti-American Euro-western featuring all elements banned from classical western: rape, savagery, torture, and nihilism. The Hunting Party (1970) is in fact the most nihilistic chapter in general western history – very surprisingly facing the fact that it is cast with Hollywood-stars like Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen as well as British genre and character star Oliver Reed. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) planted the seed that The Hunting Party brings to full bloom. The American land owner and ranger appears even more depraved and corrupt than in Leone’s and Tinto Brass’ already very anti-capitalist Italo-western.
Oliver Reed play Frank Calder, a tough leader of an outlaw gang who wants to learn to read. Assuming she is a school-teacher, he kidnaps the young and attractive Melissa (Candice Bergman), wife of the very wealthy cattle baron Brant Ruger (Gene Hackman). Ruger in fact is a cruel sadist, what we learn in the first sequence, when the branding of a cow is intercut with Ruger abusing Melissa. Later his abuses and mistreats a prostitute with his cigar. When Melissa is abducted Ruger talks his wealthy colleagues into hunting down the outlaw gang and picking them off one by one with new generation long distance rifles. He actually proposes it more as a game of revenge or sport than out of love or fear for his wife’s safety.
Calder and Ruger are both brutal men, but Calder values human life and relationships while Ruger only cares for satisfying his passions at any cost. Though his friends start to sicken of the game and beg him to stop, the fanatic won’t be deterred from the game. As the movie develops, Calders emotional and sexual involvement with Melissa deepens, while Gene Hackman’s ultra-violent character brings a disturbing single-minded intensity to the screen. Candice Bergman as a young actress just survived the Soldier Blue-adventure (1969, directed by Ralph Nelson), where he plays a white woman raised by Indians and later rejected by her own people. In The Hunting Party her character is caught, both literally and figuratively in a war of emotions. Bergen’s looks made her a hippie role model, so she appears as the female victim and the self-conscious modern woman at the same time. It has a macabre logic that her raving husband in the end shoots her by aiming between her legs. His misogynist impulse is carried to a final solution, even facing his own death.
The Hunting Party is the ultimate nihilist western, stripped bare of any romantic ideas about the American myth, reduced to cynicism and pure violence, beyond any moral relations. There is no justice in this world, only the power of the wealthy. Medford’s film in this aspect is much closer to Leone, Corbucci and Brass (Yankee, 1966), yet it at least visually appears as a Peckinpah-spin-off done within the critical New Hollywood of the early 1970s.
Michael Winner is a true British director, making his name with typical black humour comedies and a very eccentric Henry James adaptation called The Nightcomers (1970), where Marlon Brando is seen as a gardener corrupting two innocent children in a fin de siècle villa. Winner made his way into mainstream with a couple of films starring Charles Bronson, who became famous in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1964). Inspired by Ralph Nelson’s Vietnam parable Soldier Blue about the historical Sand Creek massacre he directed his own vision of revenge for the genocide of American Indians. His western thriller Chato’s Land (1971) is a true classic: Long seen as a western predecessor of director Michael Winner’s later urban Charles Bronson-thriller Death Wish (1974) it shows Bronson as a quiet and dangerous Indian, whose wife is raped and tormented by a group of vigilantes after he has killed a man in self-defence. Chato’s Land signals its politics by a very clear title: it’s the Indian country which is raped and invaded by white men. While Robert Aldrich’s Indian western Ulzana’s Raid (1970) still has the view point of the American soldiers hunting Apache Indians – although creating a kind of understanding of the Indian acts of cruelty – Winner’s film is on Chato’s side. He marks the American Indian as the true American, knowing his homeland inside out. Always a step ahead of his hunters. What might have been seen as another Vietnam war parable at its time may be considered a truly un-American western today.
With similar nihilism and savagery Winner directed Burt Lancaster, Aldrich’s favourite star, as the upright Lawman (1971) and then turned to contemporary police films and thrillers. As British/American co-productions Winner shot his films in two versions, with Chato’s Land featuring a much more explicit rape-scene in the British Cut, but omitting several provoked horse-falls which are forbidden under the British law against animal cruelty.
Again the main focus of British based western is excessive violence with a political edge.
It is obvious that Sam Peckinpah’s pessimistic late western films inspired several British attempts to feed the genre. Some of his cast and crew appear in British films of the time, while Peckinpah himself came to Great Britian to shoot his first non-western Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall. Burt Kennedy, US-genre professional, was engaged to shoot the rape-revenge-drama Hannie Caulder (1971) with Raquel Welch in Europe ‘Italian style’, casting Peckinpah-veterans Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin. Hammer-star Christopher Lee is seen here as the weapon master providing Welch with her superior gun. Hannie Caulder is a rough and bloody rape-western at the same time as it is a macabre parody of the genre – caught between American genre basics and Italian eccentricity. Hannie Caulder is therefore typical of its time, with an A-cast and B-action, a hybrid between national cinematographies and their respective genre variations.
On the other hand Captain Apache (1971) by Alexander Singer is more of western-crime-drama. It features Lee van Cleef as Captain Apache, an Indian Confederate scout, who solves the murder of an Indian agent. As several British western before it this film features an Indian hero opposing the white decadence and corruption. While this film has the usual American stars like Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman, Lee van Cleef is imported from Sergio Leone’s Dollar-trilogy. He is the odd outcast between the lines and cultures – and probably because of this splintered identity the only upright and just westerner left in a dying world.
Italian western are sometimes regarded as political subversive, especially when done by Damiano Damiani, Tinto Brass or other left-wing-directors. The British western does not follow suit, but the closest one of them comes to the political revolution-based western is Robert Parrish’s A Town Called Hell (1971) a.k.a. A Town Called Bastard. This films unfolds on the background of the Mexican revolution, where Robert Shaw plays a legendary revolutionary leader later to become priest. Greed and violence explode as a dual man-hunt reaches its terrorizing climax at the town called Bastard and everyone in there is held hostage. Starring such American genre and TV-regulars Telly Savallas, Martin Landau, Fernando Rey, and Al Lettieri, the film introduces Stella Stevens (from Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970) as a vengeful widow who is called ‘the witch’ and sometimes appears in nightmarish context. While the film superficially tries to deliver a meta-mythological commentary on revolution – following Joe Hembus’ review – it is in fact not much more than a reverb of the mentioned Italian predecessors.
Long before the mid-seventies the British western phenomenon died along with it other European counterparts like the German Karl-May-films and the Italian ‘spaghetti-western’. It was quiet for some years within the British motion picture industry, which even rushed into a severe crisis. With the huge success of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1980) the renaissance of British cinema finally happened. Known as the New British cinema it focussed mainly on British social context and logically developed a new breed of British Ganger films and thrillers. The only director experimenting with western elements was ex-punk-filmmaker Alex Cox, who directed the semi-spaghetti-western-parody Straight to Hell (1987) and the Latin American revolutionary drama Walker (1989), strong inspired by the political aspects Italian revolution western. In the bloody show down he again paid homage to his idol Sam Peckinpah and the iconic monument The Wild Bunch. But western seemed to be a mere relic from a distant past not at all connected to British all day problems.
This changed again with the huge financial success of Kevin Costner’s Indian western Dances With Wolves (1991), a film that was partly inspired by the growing spiritual interest in Indian culture and religion, but also by genre classics like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man (1970) and Chato’s Land. He established the western genre again as one of many possible means of expression for mainstream cinema. In its wake masters of classical and New British cinema made huge star-ridden productions like The Hi-Lo County (1998, Stephen Frears), Grey Owl (1999, Richard Attenborough) or The Claim (2000, Michael Winterbottom). Now it was mainstream and art house cinema using genre pattern to create their visions, and although western films a not a constant phenomenon in British cinema they nonetheless may be considered a recurring phenomenon with very more or less impact. Finally it always depends on who is handling the material – or how Dirk Bogarde says it: ‘It’s always the singer, not the song.’
Joe Hembus: Western Lexikon, München 1976 / 1982
Christian Kessler: Willkommen in der Hölle. Der Italo Western im Überblick, o.O. 2001
Georg Seeßlen: Western. Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms, Marburg 1995
Studienkreis Film: Um sie weht der Hauch des Todes. Der Italowestern – die Geschichte eines Genres, Bochum 1998
 Seeßlen 1995, p. 148