The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.

Behind the Scenes: Isadora (1968)

“Only Vanessa Redgrave could portray the full range of emotions in the tour de force title role performance of Isadora,” runs the opening line to the sumptuous 52-page program (cover shown above) that accompanied the film.

Programs like this were part of the package for a movie intended for roadshow. I’ve no idea how many Universal printed but most were shredded since after an initial launch in Los Angeles, the movie was not shown in roadshow in America (though it was overseas). It was also drastically cut from 168 minutes to 138 minutes.

Redgrave had been on the cusp of major stardom after an Oscar nomination for Morgan!(1966) and box office breakout Blow Up (1966) but under-performing Warner Brothers’ musical roadshow Camelot (1967) and flops Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) had put a dent in her surge to the top of the Hollywood tree.

Directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, and Morgan!), the movie was filmed entirely on location – 72 of them – for six months. Main locations in Britain were Oldway Mansion in Devon and the British Museum.

Different rooms and aspects of South Lodge mansion in London, once owned by the Royces of Rolls-Royce fame, provided backdrops for scenes set in Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago and Boston. Yugloslavia doubled up for France and Russia, the Berlin Opera house represented by National Theatre in Rijeka, and the resort of Opatija on the Adriatic standing in for Nice.

The film was produced by the Hakim brothers, better known for arthouse picture like Purple Noon (1960) and Belle de Jour (1967). Jason Robards, on the first of two European excursions that year (the other being Once upon a Time in the West), played one of her many lovers. According to Robards, the art of acting “is an intuitive process; any actor can prepare only so much for any given part and the rest must come from a deep resource within him.” Although Redgrave received an Oscar nomination, the movie made a huge loss.