A Book Review for a new film studies book: frequent CineSavant reviewer Lee Broughton has been covering the film world for us since the beginning of ‘DVD Savant.’ Having emerged as a UK film scholar, he’s run several seminars on Euro Westerns, and recently recorded a commentary for a new Blu-ray of the Italo Western Arizona Colt.
I was finally able to read Lee’s latest book Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film and am happy to contribute this review. . . the title sounds like New Curriculum for an equity & social justice-woke film study class, but it’s really a sharp academic analysis of aspects of the Euro-Western — not just Italo Spaghetti oaters — that further elevate the subgenre.
The Euro-Western has come a long way since the birth of genre studies, when non-Hollywood oaters were mainly ignored in favor of ‘discovering’ unheralded American auteurs. Sir Christopher Frayling’s books on Italo Westerns turned the tide of academic study. Frayling’s hearty endorsement distinguishes Lee Broughton’s Euro-Western book from fan-oriented publications.
Broughton’s tightly organized book is laid out in three sections. With some general observations, and many comparisons and close readings of selected films, he establishes that European westerns were more socially progressive than American oaters in their depiction of ‘others’ — American Indians, African Americans and women (‘Frontier Femmes’). While acknowledging the presence of pro-Native American sentiment in Hollywood Westerns since the beginning of the genre, he shows that West German ‘Karl May’ adventures foregrounded Indian heroes in a way that made them equal to or more important than the Anglo hero. The Winnetou character is a far more respectful and mature evocation of the ‘Tonto’ archetype. Broughton’s explanation of the long-standing German fascination with America’s wild west is also well documented.
Broughton’s measure of the representation of African-Americans in westerns really gives the advantage to Europe, indicating a ‘liberation’ that really didn’t happen in U.S. films, but that came naturally in Italo westerns. While mid-’60s America fumbled with Civil Rights Tokenism (Duel at Diablo, even Major Dundee), black characters, often women, were at the center of the conflicts in numerous Italian pictures. The prominent study examples are Lola Falana in Lola Colt and Vonetta McGee in The Great Silence, where Lee observes that blacks in Italo films aren’t obliged to acknowledge a subservient position, as was typical even in the John Ford westerns supposedly elevating actor Woody Strode to star status. Strode’s Italo westerns don’t force him to function as a symbol of the filmmakers’ liberalism.
The surprise third part looks at representations of women primarily in English westerns — perhaps because most female roles in Italo genre films aren’t as progressive? One argument given is that even the more liberal American films with strong female characters (or extra-strong, as with Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar) eventually revert to softer, more feminine roles. American formulas insist that life on the wild frontier ‘tames’ outlaws like Cat Ballou and the vengeful Mattie Ross of True Grit. Meanwhile, from the 1930s forward, British comedies consistently presented female frontierswomen as being more aggressive and capable than their male partners, who functioned as Music Hall straight men in comedies like The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. When a frontierswoman takes charge in a comparable American film something seems amiss, as in The Furies and Forty Guns. In wrapping up this argument we get a close reading of two ’70s Euro-westerns with strong female characters that break the mold: Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder and Stella Stevens in the less familiar A Town Called Bastard aka A Town Called Hell.
Besides setting this reader in the direction of the German Winnetou movies and A Town Called Hell, Broughton’s enthusiasm and clarity brings back memories of good academic film books; thanks to better video access and the IMDB authors can no longer briefly describe two hundred titles, add an index, and hang out a shingle as a film historian. Euro-horror has certainly received a lot of attention, but the Euro western subgenre needs more books like this one. It reads well and would indeed serve as a good reference work for millennial film students — the word I get from film schools is that much of what’s taught these days has a strong revisionist bent toward social justice and inclusion. Lee Broughton knows his westerns backward and forward, that’s for sure.
The book’s Amazon link is Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film; and here’s the link to the publisher, Bloomsbury Academic and their specific page for Lee Broughton.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson