Film Music: The Western

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The Western is a genre closely associated with film from that medium's earliest days, and in particular during the 1950s and 1960s some of the most innovative Westerns were made newly complex by their use of music. This lecture will concentrate in particular on Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (music by Dmitri Tiomkin) and John Ford's The Searchers (music by Max Steiner).

Part of the series Film Music, by Roger Parker, Gresham Professor of Music.
Other lectures in this series include:
   An Introduction to Film Music
   Hitchcock's Psycho
   A Musical Interlude
   A Certain Train Station

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Professor Roger Parker



My topic this lunchtime, with its ambiguous title, reminds me of an incident I heard of many years ago at a famous American University. A distinguished visiting scholar from the UK had been invited to give a distinguished lecture; he was an expert in Gregorian chant, and had (not without pomposity) entitled his lecture "The Origins of Western Music". As usual on such exalted occasions, a local firm was tasked with designing a suitably grand poster for the event. When copies of this poster arrived, the hosts unwrapped the package to find that, rather than some studious monk bending over a sacred musical text, the firm's "design concept" involved a flame-engulfed title, over which hovered none other than the great Roy Rogers, silver-tooled pistols drawn and smokin'. Whether these posters actually made it to the department's notice boards is not recorded; but one rather hopes that they did, and that both speaker and audience were enlivened by the resulting confusion.

I offer this cautionary tale in case there's any confusion: my topic today is Western Music, but no monks are involved. I deal with the topic strictly in the polished-boot, string-tie, chewing-tobacco and tethered-horse sense. Anyone who has come here hoping to find enlightenment about the other, infinitely broader topic, can quietly leave now.

However, and when all that is said and done, my restricted topic is quite broad enough for an hour's lecture, and will have to be very selective in the aspects it considers. As many of you here will know, the Western was one of the most popular of early film genres, both in the "silent" era and in the first days of sound. Mostly these early Westerns were not high up the food chain of film genres. They tended to be "B" movies: horse-opera fillers that would bulk out a programme whose main attraction would be the premiere of some other, more prestigious genre. John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, which starred John Wayne, is often seen as an important turning point: a moment when the film Western "came of age" and began to be taken more seriously. Wayne had been a familiar presence in earlier, "B" movie Westerns, but in this collaboration with Ford he and the other main characters inhabited a plot that, although it outwardly subscribed to the now familiar clichés of the Western, painted a more complex picture of how they might interact, and accompanied this new drama with some stunning and innovative cinematography.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the Western built on this new reputation: in the process it even became something of a barometer so far as film culture was concerned, marking various larger changes in the popular industry. And so we encounter complex stories of conflicted loyalties and a strained honour code in the McCarthyite 1950s, and a celebration of the unconventional rebel hero in the 1960s (here the so-called "spaghetti" Westerns are of course central). Nearer our own time, and in spite of the fact that some of the Western's prime themes were taken over by the rise of "blockbuster" science fiction and more recent "fantasy" movies, this trend has continued. In the 1990s, for example, a new kind of attitude to the environment and a new sensitivity to racial issues was manifested in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves; while Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven of 1992 displayed a new cynicism and even nihilism concerning some of the Western's basic codes. And of course the opening decade of our new century saw in Brokeback Mountain a first exploration in mainstream culture (it had been around for many years in "specialist" forms) of what may be the ultimate taboo so far as the Western is concerned.

Amid all these changes in emphasis, one can nevertheless find two fixed themes in the Western, and it may be worth a few moments to think about what they mean in a broad sense. The first and perhaps most obvious is that the Western was and is a reaction to the urbanization and industrialisation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And the reaction to the overcrowding and increasing regimentation of life was to create a fantasy of pastoral freedom. Cowboys do not (or so the story goes) work fixed hours and are essentially nomadic, roaming around the great outdoors, close to nature and often subject to its whims. Towns of course exist in their world, with churches, general stores, saloons and so on; but they are merely stopping-off points: place where the cowboy collects provisions in order to essay once more the ever-beckoning frontier. Small wonder in this sense that one of the most common themes in the Western is a tense attitude to encroaching technology: to the telegraph and the railway, which will bring their pastoral idyll into dangerous proximity with the urban.

A second major theme of the Western is also about boundaries and frontiers, but this time more personal ones. It is surely no accident that the Western decisively emerged as a genre (first in novels, and then in films) at just about the time in the late nineteenth century when the position of women in the public sphere began to change quite radically. As women demanded, and were granted, a more prominent role in the work place and in politics, and gained greater financial independence, so the position of men, or what one might better call the role of masculinity, became newly fraught. As Lee Clark Mitchell, one of the Western's sharpest analysts, has noted, this new anxiety led to the moment when, "the Western was invented, transformed from actual cowboys [to characters] who wandered onto the historical stage at the moment their presence seemed required". Mitchell develops this by quoting another scholar of the Western, Martin Pumphrey, who has a vital insight into the complexity of some of the classic "moments" of the genre:

When examined, those moments-the refusal to draw first, the gentlemanly kindness, the glass of milk or soda in the saloon-reveal an ideal of masculinity founded on fundamental contradictions. Heroes must be both dominant and deferential, gentle and violent, self-contained yet sensitive, practical yet idealistic, individual but conformist, rational but intuitive, peace-loving yet ready to fight without "quitting" when honour demands. They must bridge, that is, not simply the division between savagery and civilization but the anxiously guarded - frontier between the two worlds usually coded as masculine and feminine.

Put like this, the Western, a genre that seems on the surface to be almost laughably one-dimensional, becomes an important proving ground for working out some of the basic conundrums of modern life: not least the eternal question, ever-fascinating to at least half the population, of "what makes a man a man".

Those, then, are two of the Western's main themes, and they will certainly emerge from time to time in what follows. Unfortunately, though, we can do no more today than examine a pair of the most talked-about film Westerns, both of them from the 1950s, and both with a musical contribution that purposefully contributes to the overall effect. My first example is High Noon, directed by Fred Zimmerman, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, which was released in 1952. High Noon was controversial when it first appeared, mostly because it brought into new and-for some-unsettling focus precisely those themes we have discussed already. On the surface, the plot resembles many other, simpler Western films. Cooper plays Will Kane, the retiring Marshal of a small town in New Mexico, who has just married a Quaker called Amy Fowler (played by Grace Kelly). Immediately after the wedding ceremony, it is announced that Frank Miller, a bandit whom Kane had had imprisoned some years earlier, is going to arrive on the noon train, meet up with three members of his gang, and take revenge on Kane. At first Kane is persuaded to leave town with his bride, but he soon turns back, knowing that he must face his adversaries. From then on the film moves in more-or-less real time, mostly charting the hour before the noon train arrives, and involving a series of scenes in which the townsfolk, for varying reasons, refuse to join Kane in fighting the Miller gang. The final ten minutes of the film are virtually the only ones that involve action: the noon train arrives, Kane goes out alone to meet the Miller gang; he vanquishes them, but then leaves town in disgust, dropping his star in the dust in a final gesture of contempt for the town's values.

This is, if you will, the conventional outer shell of High Noon, and it is bolstered by many melodramatic gestures, in particular sudden cuts to various clocks, marking the gradual racking-up of tension as noon approaches. But what makes the film unusual is its highly complex attitude to those two great themes we discussed earlier. The mythical "great outdoors" of the conventional Western seems to be a thing of the past: a marginal place, hardly explored. Almost the entire film takes place indoors, and even within that constraint it is often filmed in a particularly claustrophobic manner. And then there is a highly conflicted idea of the western hero. The townspeople, far from rising nobly to the challenge to their values, slink away or become embroiled in petty squabbles; and Cooper, although in the end he performs the necessary heroic gestures, is throughout a tortured, sweating, visibly aging character: as unlike the nonchalant Western hero as it is possible to be and plainly at the end of his career. There were also persistent rumours that the film had been intended as an allegory of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts of the period, in which prominent Hollywood characters aped the townspeople by betraying their friends when pressure was put on them. Small wonder, perhaps, that John Wayne (a prominent supporter of McCarthy's crusade) pronounced High Noon "the most un-American film I've ever seen in my whole life".

The music of High Noon was written by the Ukrainian émigré Dimitri Tiomkin, who during these years made something of a speciality of Westerns of all types, and who would later be famous for more "conventional" scores: large symphonic extravaganzas such as those forThe Alamo, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In these later films, Tiomkin's classical training is fully in evidence (he had had lessons with Glazunov in Russia and Busoni in Berlin before emigrating to the US in 1925), which puts him squarely in the tradition of the great "symphonic" film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. (When receiving an Academy Award in 1955, Tiomkin started his speech by offering profuse thanks to the many people who had helped him get where he was, the list he then read out went as follows: Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner.) But in High Noon he immediately realized that he could do something different. Encouraged by the fact that this was not a large studio production, and by the daring subject matter and emphasis, he decided to write a very "unWestern" score, one for a much-reduced orchestral group (no upper strings, and even the lower strings mostly overwhelmed by woodwind and brass) and-most important of all-one whose single-minded concentration on a small group of melodic ideas fits perfectly with the narrow, interior feel of the film as a whole.

As usual, we can get a good idea of the musical style of the film by attending to the credits. They are in the visual sense rather unlike the rest of the film: set in the great outdoors of the conventional Western, with long vistas and lots of cowboy clichés, and the inimitable Lee Van Cleef, whose rodent-like countenance would later make him such a precious contributor to the spaghetti western tradition. But this intro is immediately odd in that there is no ambient noise to accompany these images, but instead an insistent signature theme ("Do not forsake me, oh my darlin", a tune which, as sung here by Tex Ritter, became a hit independent of the film), which introduces not only the main dramatic threads of the movie by way of its lyrics, but also, by way of its music, sketches out the film's obsession with time passing: in the relentless tread of the drums, but also in the curious rhythmic "bump" of an injected bar of ¾ into the regular 4/4 tread. Time, the music seems to be telling us, will be inexorable, but also (as Hamlet says) out of joint. I'll run the example through into the first scene, and you'll immediately notice the way in which the music merges very skilfully into the "real" world of the film. The drum sound eventually gives way to ambient noise of horse hooves, moving ever nearer to the show-down, but we also hear the insistent chiming of the town's church bells: the first of many such markings of time which will characterise the film, and here a sound that stitches together the credits to the opening shot of the town and the start of the drama proper.

PLAY HIGH NOON Start of Chapter 1 (0:00) to 3:00

As I said, this opening teeters curiously between the conventional and the radical, and one might well say that it is primarily the music, or rather the curious interaction of music with film and film's ambient sound, that makes us aware that this will be no ordinary Western. And so it turns out. Although Tiomkin occasionally indulges in shards of the old "symphonic" style, for the most part he rigorously restricts the musical material, placing it in the service of the dominant themes of the drama. As an example of his method, let's dive into the film a little later, and into a succession of brief scenes as the tension gradually ramps up, each of them treated differently musically. Kane has returned to town, but this decision to do so has caused a serious rift with his new wife Amy, who announces that she will leave, and leave without him, on that noon train. The excerpt starts as she takes refuge in the town hotel while waiting for the train. There she has a brief, sinister, Hitchcock-like conversation with the desk clerk, an exchange that is underpinned (one might almost say undermined) by a rather understated "symphonic" background, in which fragments of the Tex Ritter song are combined contrapuntally. Note how the clerk asks "You're leaving on the noon train, but your husband ain't?" and immediately after "your husband ain't" there is a plaintive statement of the "do not forsake me" theme, played on solo trumpet. No wonder Tiomkin thanked Richard Wagner in that Academy Award speech. This mini-scene comes to a deliberate close precisely as Amy sits down and the scene ends. The sense of music/visual confluence, the almost balletic close, seems rather unusual, but its purpose is surely deliberate, as it makes the appearance of the next scene seem jarring and somehow false. The town's church choir are seen, singing loudly, with an almost desperate energy, and singing words that have considerable irony in the circumstances, particularly that line about the "truth is marching on". But the church soon gives way in a further sudden change of scene. We switch to a picture of the clock in Kane's office, relentlessly progressing towards noon in exactly the rhythm of the previous hymn, the musical link making us realise that the church singing has also been marking the inexorable passing of time. Kane's discussion with a deputy (who is keen at this point, but will desert when he realises that he will be alone) and his decision to go out and search for others to help him is then accompanied by a kind of musical barrage of ticking sounds, something less musical than visceral: what was once gentle ticking is turning into a relentless hammering, an aural picture of time as the destroyer. (Incidentally, some of you will doubtless realise that there is "poetic licence" in all this passing between musical rhythm and the ticking of the clock: the relentless musical rhythm is proceeding quite a bit faster than sixty beats per minute).

PLAY HIGH NOON from 25:23 to 28:00

The final passage I want to play you from High Noon is the film's most famous and is, in a sense, a heightened repetition of that last scene's trajectory. By 11:55 Kane has accepted that he must face the bandits alone, and proceeds to write his will. The scene begins in silence, again with just the ticking of the clock, but then flowers into a magnificent montage in which we see in turn all the major characters, and also the various segments of the town: the pious but shamed church goers; the villains waiting for the train bringing their leader; the nasty gents in the saloon who are looking forward to a great deal more nastiness when Kane is out of the way. Note again that the accompanying music, which basically again converts a gentle ticking into a funereal hammering, seems to be driving the montage: each visual change is precisely timed with the musical rhythm, and the gradual accumulation of references to the Tex Ritter ballad motive contributes to the sense of gathering storm. And then-a master stroke-after all this careful musical build up, the climax comes with a moment of pure noise: in case you don't know or have forgotten it, I'll leave the clip to deliver that last effect.

PLAY HIGH NOON from 1:07:35  to 1:10:35

Very soon after this, the shooting begins, and-for a few brief minutes-High Noon reverts to Western type. But this gun-battle ending cannot obscure the fact that, in so many ways, the film goes deliberately against type, and that-as so often-the way the music behaves is an integral part of the film's new take on what was by now an old genre.

My second film comes from the same period, but on the surface is as different as can be imagined. John Ford's The Searchers, released in 1956, is set against the backdrop of Ford's beloved Monument Valley, a huge, dramatic, multi-tinted outdoors on the border between Utah and Arizona; and it stars John Wayne. So the film would seem to keep in place, even celebrate, those two central Western themes we discussed earlier: the sense of a pastoral landscape, a celebration of the non-urban; and the sense of cowboy masculinity--not the tortured sensitivity of Gary Cooper, but the rugged common-sense of John Wayne. (Although in fact Wayne was 48 at the time: only two years younger than Cooper and obliged now to wear a toupee: when he first met another John Ford old-timer, also now toupeed, on the Searchers set, he apparently offered the melancholy greeting "Welcome to the club".) What is more, by entrusting the musical score to Max Steiner (as we saw in the first lecture, practically the creator of the "symphonic" Hollywood score), Ford would seem merely to strengthen this sense of a conservative, Westerns-like-they-used-to-be stance.

The plot also seems to confirm this sense of business-as-usual. It begins in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, at the homestead of the Edwards family, Aaron and his wife Martha together with their two daughters and son. As the story begins Aaron's brother Ethan (played by Wayne) finally returns home, still not reconciled to the end of the war. Very soon he and members of neighbouring families are lured away in search of rustlers; but this is a diversion, and while they are gone the Edwards home is attacked by Indians; Aaron, Martha and their son are killed, and the two daughters are abducted. The remainder of the film is a years-long revenge quest, in which Ethan and two younger men search relentlessly for the girls. One is soon found, murdered; but only after five years, and after much brutality and many hardships, does Ethan find the other girl, now an adult and fully integrated into the Indian way of life. By this time Ethan, still scarred by the rape and murder of Martha, has become obsessive about revenge and the possibilities of miscegenation. His first instinct is to kill the girl-turned-Indian. Eventually, though, he manages to vanquish her captors, in the process scalping the Indian chief who led the original raiding party. After much wavering, he takes pity on the girl and brings her home alive.

So the bare bones of the plot, the revenge quest, are certainly conventional. However, while The Searchers' celebration of the pastoral aspects of the Western myth chimes with many other films, albeit outdoing most of them in the magnificence of its location and the skill of its cinematography, Ford's filmturns out to be a subtle overturning of many other cherished aspects of the genre. In particular this involves Wayne's role of Ethan, which is central to the film and which continually calls into question the ethics of the conventional hero. Recall those contradictory heroic traits that I quoted earlier from Martin Pumphrey: "Heroes must be both dominant and deferential, gentle and violent, self-contained yet sensitive, practical yet idealistic, individual but conformist, rational but intuitive, peace-loving yet ready to fight without 'quitting' when honour demands." There's little doubt that the basic John Wayne persona conforms to this demanding set of binaries-that's why he was and perhaps still is the classic exemplar of the type; but in The Searchers this persona is overlaid with ambiguity even distortion: cracks appear from the very start, and grow alarmingly as the film progresses.

The very first moments of the film give a hint of this, but such a subtle one that it might easily be missed. I'd like to play the brief scene in which Ethan (Wayne) first appears at the Edwards' homestead, following his long absence during and after the Civil War, and I want to play it first without sound, which means losing a small amount of lost dialogue but also a large amount of musical accompaniment. Pay attention to the relationships among three main characters: Aaron Edwards and his wife Martha, the brothers Aaron and Ethan, and-most of all-Ethan to Martha.

            PLAY The Searchers Chapter 2 (1:35)-3:10 WITHOUT SOUND

As you see, there are some strange goings-on here. Anxious looks between Aaron and his wife as Ethan approaches; obvious difficulty and uncertainty between the brothers; and, most of all, some extremely strange camera work as Ethan kisses Martha, and then she beckons him into the house, retreating backwards in an almost worshipful manner. The message is subtle but I think unmistakeable (and John Ford later confirmed his intentions here in interview). As one of my undergraduate students said when I was discussing this scene in a class once: "There's history between those two". It's the first, and in some ways the most critical crack in the cowboy hero's persona: Ethan's feelings (reciprocated feelings) for his brother's wife are emphatically not what the code dictates.

Let's see what the music contributes to this scene. For the film as a whole, Ford wanted, and Steiner in part provided, a kind of folksy backdrop, with famous tunes of the period prominent. The credits feature a contribution to this: another attempt at a "hit" tune, this time the highly apposite "What Makes a Man to Wander", sung by a group called "The Sons of the Pioneers" (perhaps more accurately termed the "Not-Entirely-in Tune Sons of the Pioneers"). But their song is preceded by a brief, "symphonic" opening (with clichéd Indian music), very different in tone and somewhat jarring. This tension between the folksy and the ambitiously symphonic also runs through the first scene. It is dominated by a simple folk tune called "Lorena", which will become Martha's theme throughout the picture. And again the words (were we to know them) would prove apposite, as one verse begins:

We loved each other then, Lorena,

More than we ever dared to tell.

The theme is interspersed with snippets of two other melodies, first a Confederate song called "Bonnie Blue Flag", and then a reprise of "What Makes a Man to Wander". But at the moment of Ethan's and Martha's kiss and Martha's strange backward walk into the cabin, there is a sudden dive into the "symphonic": a dramatic moment of pause in the basses over a chromatic chord, which seems (to me at least) rather out of keeping with the subtlety of the filmic hints; the music then merges into the "Lorena" theme, passionately and "meaningfully" on the violin, to close the scene. Let's hear the entire sequence, this time with sound and with the opening credits.

PLAY The Searchers 0:00-3:10 WITH SOUND

Max Steiner's contribution, to my mind rather over-determining the opening sequence.

Very similar in subject matter is a scene a little later, one which takes no more than a minute, but which is a masterpiece of understatement. The cattle rustling has been discovered, and a group is organized to go in pursuit, Ethan among them. The leader of the group is called "The Reverend Clayton", someone who will be a strong moral force (a "true" holder of the cowboy ethic) in the first half of the film, curbing many of Ethan's excesses. Clayton walks smiling to the centre of the room, and then stares off to the right. What film theorists call a "point of view shot" shows us Martha, taking up Ethan's coat, stroking it and holding it lovingly to her. Clayton realises he has stumbled on something uncomfortably personal, and looks away, in other words looks towards us. He then hold this pose as Ethan comes in, receives the coat from Martha, kisses her and exits. Notice how she is frozen for a moment after the kiss, her left hand remaining in position after he has gone, in a kind of despairing, entreating gesture. She then follows Ethan to the door and looks out after him. Now released as an unintentional witness of this private scene, Clayton finishes his coffee, picks up his hat and squeezes uncomfortably past Martha, she seeming to start, as if she has been oblivious of his presence. This scene, so moving in its understatement, is perfectly complemented musically by a simple restatement of the "Lorena" theme: Steiner wisely resists the attempt to "mark" the scene with any melodramatic gestures, letting the innocent tune take all the burden of significance.

PLAY The Searchers Chapter 7 (12:36-13:46)

My last example shows all these elements (the conventionally melodramatic/symphonic idiom and the simple folk music) coming together in the first climax of the film. Ethan and companions ride furiously back in an attempt to protect the homestead, but arrive too late, finding it burning. This first passage is accompanied by fairly routine "action" music and then by a self-consciously tragic theme as the burning house is revealed. But when Ethan finds Martha's dress (the one she was wearing in the previous scene) and moves towards the shack where he will find her body, we get, with a heavy helping of Wagnerian reminiscence-motive treatment, a minor-key version of the "Lorena" theme, then more Wagnerian sequences as Ethan discovers the disappearance of the daughters, all rounded off by another repetition of "tragic Lorena" and a cut to a straggling rendition of a funeral hymn.

PLAY The Searchers Chapter 14 (20:14-22:50)

Does this heady mixture have the desired effect? It's clearly a matter of opinion, but my personal feeling is that Steiner's particular blend of styles here does not do the film complete justice. As we have seen, Ford's film makes its powerful effects by not showing what is obvious. In all the scenes we have watched, and in so many other places in the film, elements lying beneath the surface are the more powerful because unseen. Just as, in the opening scenes, the connection between Ethan and Martha is merely hinted at, here we don't see Martha's body, nor do we even see Ethan's reaction-his face is shrouded in darkness. These hidden emotions are, in a sense, what drives the film forward, and in particular what drives Ethan on his grim, five-year quest to have revenge on Martha's murderers and (again the matter is merely hinted at) her rapists. In this context, do Steiner's naked emotionalism and heavy-handed thematic reprises serve the film's subtlest interests-

I will leave that question unanswered, just as I must leave the rest of this wonderfully rich film un-discussed. But even to contemplate such issues of congruence and non-congruence may remind us that, while we all know that music can have a profound effect on our perception of a film, it is nevertheless hard for us to dissociate the two mediums sufficiently to allow us to be critical of one but not the other. In this case, anyway, the two have become indissolubly bound together-they are part of a "classic" film, after all. We must live with the results, and may even take pleasure and edification from identifying moments in which they might have made a more perfect union.

And so we must leave the Western, and leave it with much unsaid. As I mentioned at the start, this genre started far down the filmic food chain, and was hardly explored by the major studios in the first decade of sound. But then it experienced a great flowering, giving rise to some of the finest and most innovative films of the 1950 and 1960s in particular. And, as we would expect, the musical clichés that collected around those creaking "B" movies of the early days of sound gradually changed as the genre came of age, the musical developments in turn posing new questions for film-makers and producers. This lecture could, in other words, spawn many companions: whole books, for example, could be written about the musical experiments of the "spaghetti" western in the 1960s, experiments that in so many ways were an essential part of the newness of these particular films. And perhaps there my non-horse opera experience might come in handy. After all, as the Western scholar Lee Clark Mitchell once told me, "spaghetti Westerns are really operas: it's just that the arias are stared rather than sung". But I must resist the temptation to spend longer, despite the evident attractions of delving further into the delicate problems of modern masculinity. With only three lectures to go, and with untold acres of film footage before us, we must press on.



©Professor Roger Parker, Gresham College, 21 June 2008

This event was on Wed, 26 Nov 2008

roger parker

Professor Roger Parker FBA

Professor of Music

Professor Parker was the Gresham Professor of Music between 2006 and 2010. He is currently the Thurston Dart Professor of Music at King’s College London...

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