I never met a Western I didn’t like until I watched this film. Occasionally films have poor production values, or stilted acting, or a plot that just is too implausible, but not usually all at once.
Released in 1935 (originally in B&W) starring a young John Wayne as John Wyatt, this is the story of two brothers and their paths in life after the brutal murder of their parents on the trail (and the theft of all their cattle). The elder brother (Wayne) is left for dead while the youngest is taken as a protégé of the bad guys. As soon as he can swagger and wear a gun, John Wyatt commences his personal vendetta of tracking down and killing the men who murdered his family. The film is dedicated to a group called “The Vigilantes” active in the 1860s, and that’s exactly what happens, Wyatt can’t get funding for an actual police force so he assembles a posse of likewise wronged, angry and gun-wielding men to bring ‘justice’ to the area.
I wanted to start at the beginning of the genre, and here it is. The “good guys” (ie Wyatt’s Vigilantes) all ride white horses (I kid you not!) and most of them sing (yes, this verges on being a musical). The bad guys all have poor personal hygiene and frankly are not that bright. With the focus on vigilante justice and a moral code that makes it ok to shoot some men but not others, I found myself seeing parallels to the Batman origins stories. Batman doesn’t kill, that’s his personal line over which he will not knowingly cross, in Westerns it seems that the willingness to make that decision to shoot to kill and move on with life is what constitutes a man and it is just whether you use your power for good (killing bad men, men in your way, or anyone who cheats at cards) or for stealing cattle.
When watching older films it is useful if one has some personal sense of the period from which they spawn. This is not really a film about the 1860s so much as it is about the 1930s idea of the 1860s and possibly also about something that was topical in the 30s that the director thought might be discussed well by analogy through this story. I have enough understanding of most periods of the 1800s in Europe and North America to be comfortable getting half-way towards the mindset the filmmakers were aiming for. This film made me realise how alienated I am from the 1930s. I don’t really know what was going on, and I certainly don’t understand what was being said in this film implicitly.
The best things for me in this film is that many of the horses are part-Arabs and so are very easy on the eyes, and that it is only 60 minutes long. I had borrowed my Brother-in-Law’s 2 volume set of John Wayne Westerns to watch this film, I skipped the other 11 hours of films. Westward Ho! is sometimes listed in the top Westerns of all time. It might be a great film in the history of the genre, but it didn’t tickle my fancy.