Forget Tarantino, if you Want a Real Western Watch the Peerless “Johnny Guitar”.

johnny-guitar-movie-poster-1954-1020143876Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film John­ny Gui­tar is one of the tru­ly great west­erns. It’s also one of the first meta westerns.

Once the stranger of the title has rid­den into town, the first scene prop­er unfolds in the saloon. It’s 15 min­utes of pure dia­logue. And it’s one of the best writ­ten, per­formed and direct­ed pieces of dra­ma you’ll ever see.

Absolute­ly every­thing is set up in it. Good ver­sus evil. The two rival gangs, and the abject hatred that their two lead­ers have for each oth­er. The com­pet­ing love inter­ests, and the con­flict that erupts as the towns­folk are faced with the arrival of the mod­ern world in the form of the railroad.

But all of this is turned com­plete­ly upside down by the fact that the two gang lead­ers are women!

Not only that, but the two actress­es in ques­tion, Joan Craw­ford and Mer­cedes McCam­bridge vis­i­bly detest­ed one another.

So every­thing we find in this quin­tes­sen­tial­ly male land­scape is glo­ri­ous­ly under­mined. And the John­ny Gui­tar of the title isn’t the hero at all. He’s just the hero’s love inter­est. Not only that, but he’s played by Ster­ling Hayden.

JG2Hay­den might have been a 6 foot 5 Nordic God. But he was also unavoid­ably threat­en­ing. He would lat­er appear in Kubrick­’s The Killing, as the mad gen­er­al in Dr. Strangelove, the cor­rupt police Cap­tain in The God­fa­ther (who breaks Al Paci­no’s jaw), and as the unhinged writer in Alt­man’s bril­liant hymn to film noir, The Long Good­bye.

Not your con­ven­tion­al hero then. Indeed the whole land­scape is peo­pled by sim­i­lar­ly con­flict­ed, glo­ri­ous­ly Freudi­an archetypes.

So not only is this a gen­uine­ly great west­ern, it also decon­structs all of the ele­ments that a tra­di­tion­al west­ern is made up of. Cru­cial­ly though, this is done by Ray to height­en our emo­tion­al invest­ment in the char­ac­ters involved.

If for instance all Piran­del­lo had done in Six Char­ac­ters In Search Of An Author, was to decon­struct the for­mal ele­ments of the play, instead of using this to accen­tu­ate our emo­tion­al involve­ment with his char­ac­ters, then he would­n’t have pro­duced the sem­i­nal work that he did. Instead of Piran­del­lo, all we’d have got would have been Stop­pard. Clever, but vacuous.

Django-Unchained-wallpapers-1920x1200-2Which, once again, is all we get with the lat­est Taran­ti­no film. He does­n’t deal with real peo­ple, so his films don’t pro­duce gen­uine emo­tions. All he’s inter­est­ed in are char­ac­ters from the movies.

So when John Tra­vol­ta gets killed in the mid­dle of Pulp Fic­tion, you smile and think How ter­ri­bly clever. But when one of your lead char­ac­ters gets killed, you’re not sup­posed to think any­thing. You’re sup­posed to feel devastated.

When Beck­ett, Pin­ter or Sarah Kane explored the for­mal con­structs of dra­ma, they did so to enhance the emo­tion­al heft of the works they produced.

Which is what Ray does here in John­ny Gui­tar. And that’s what makes it tru­ly great. Not the for­mal games, but the emo­tion­al end that they serve.

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