From Epic to Entr’acte: How the West Was Won
Jean-André Fieschi

Everything happens as if it were a matter of the conscious destruction of realism, for the benefit of another reality, one whose essence is purely mythological. Not the mythology of the West, as we’re invited to believe, but that of the cinema itself. One thinks a little of The Longest Day where, like here, the face of History fades behind the faces of the actors who incarnate it, a Grand Parade of all Hollywood. There are no more characters, just a giant “show.” The viewer can only be the ‘conscience of the show.’ The two seams and the roundness of the Cinerama screen inevitably increase this feeling.

The first programs – eye-catching documentaries where the Fitzpatrick’s aesthetic was increased as much as possible – accommodated themselves somewhat poorly to a particularly heretical process. To narrate a story with this all-consuming tool, even one reduced to its simplest expression, bordered on being an impossible challenge. You can’t scorn the auteurs, then, for having tried. At least the dialectical linearity of the screenplay allows the imagery to assert itself, a point so elementary at heart as might have been feared. Or rather, a heroic naivety that joins the film, through an unexpected detour, to the spirit of the pioneers whose gesture it had been charged to sing. Hathaway – this honest illustrator who sometimes emerges from a sage-like sleep to suddenly become passionate about the rhythm of a fight – knew to conserve in his work the academic dignity expected from him. If he works in convention, he also allows the film to exist, a film that has, precisely, certain conventions of American cinema.

It is not, for all that, a revisionist western, but the sum of ideas that one generally can have of the western when it is imagined as an epic. It obviously is lacking the seed of madness with which the epic imposes itself, but Hathaway isn’t Vidor, and it’s Vidor who would have been needed. You think more or less about all this during the screening and your own ideas added to what is happening onscreen banish any boredom, all the more so as the awaited and thundering bravura sequences every ten minutes arrive just in time to avoid any hint of drowsiness. In short, all this sticks out disagreeably, a kind of cocktail of the mind, a circus, a rodeo, and comic strip.

After the entr’acte, a mother’s sudden farewell to her son who is leaving for the Civil War – on the family farm, with the patch of graves and blooming trees – instills the serenity of the old legends, a biblical, elegiac tone that is unable to prevent, in spite of everything, a certain emotion from arising. Then the red uniforms shine like stripes on the blue of the night, the canons boom, the dead are stiff with fear like in a painting by Gros, the blood on the table where the wounded are operated on is cleared off with big buckets of water, the door opens and Wayne appears as Sherman, muddy, unkempt and tired, like himself in his stubborn, catlike approach. It’s John Ford’s passage, an incredible anthology, with a superior, elegant form that one takes as either good-natured or routine.

In fifteen minutes, everything is said with a Griffithian sharpness; thenceforth the show fades and seems worn out. It’s a bad idea to mix cinema into this parade.

Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 148, October 1963.