Jack Haley Jr.'s "100 Years of the Hollywood Western" manages to survey with some insight and admirable comprehensiveness a genre with more than 20,000 titles, spanning footage taken of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show a century ago to a spate of Westerns currently in production.
Sure-fire entertainment, it's deeper on research--the clips are terrific--than on thought. The special's hosts are Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, Gene Hackman, Robert Mitchum, Kurt Russell and Jane Seymour.
Haley points out that the "Old West" lasted only a few decades but captured the popular imagination enduringly with its endless possibilities for tales of high adventure. He and co-writers Aubrey Soloman and Phil Savenick touch many bases, and they constantly keep us aware of the movies' peerless capacity to turn sometimes sketchy history into potent myth; in doing so, they also manage a tip of the hat to the most famous Westerns.
What they might have made clearer is that the Western became America's morality play, and that the difference between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood is that, in the 1960s, Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Western injected an existential quality to Westerns, blurring the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.
Once past a nod to pioneer Bronco Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, who brought realism to the Western, and Tom Mix, who brought glamour to it, Haley gives the silent era short shrift; surely, "Covered Wagon" and "The Iron Horse" rate at least mentions. (Serials--silent and talkie--aren't dealt with at all.)
There are apt discussions of the treatment of legendary historical figures, and there are entire sequences devoted to cliche expressions, lawmen, gunslingers, saloons, singing cowboys, Native Americans, frontier women and the eradication of the buffalo.
John Ford and John Wayne were so inextricably linked that Haley is able to deal with Ford's career in the context of the Wayne homage. Most other major directors of Westerns barely rate a mention, however, even though their films are glimpsed. You'll not hear the names of Budd Boetticher, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz or Anthony Mann; perversely, Haley credits the direction of Mann's 1960 remake of "Cimarron" to his former father-in-law, Vincente Minnelli.
* "100 Years of the Hollywood Western" airs at 9 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).