Roast Beef Westerns

May 17, 2020
When most film fans hear the word “Western”, very few would instantly think “Britain”. Yet the subjects of Boris Johnson have made a surprisingly rich contribution to the genre over the years.

Stephen Vagg looks at ten of his favourite categories of “roast beef” Western. (Full credit to Sheldon Hall who coined this term.)

Chips Rafferty vehicles

This is an Aussie mag, so let’s go straight for the local angle – during World War Two, Britain’s Ealing Studios, who had a soft spot for the Empire despite all the commies they employed, sent Harry Watt out to the colonies to see if he could come up with a film idea. He produced a cracker – The Overlanders (1946), a tale of a war-time cattle drive, one of the best roast beef Westerns ever made. It turned its leading man, Chips Rafferty, into a star, should have turned its female lead, Daphne Campbell, into a star (she didn’t want to act for a career), and prompted two more movies, both based on Australian history but heavily influenced by Western tropes – Eureka Stockade (1949)  (mining camp hijinks) and Bitter Springs (1950) (settlers vs natives clashing over water rights) – which did less well. The trilogy is commonly thought of as Australian movies, but were financed by British dollars and made with key British talent. So too was the crap version of Robbery Under Arms (1957), with Peter Finch rather than Chips Rafferty – everyone really walks around like a cowboy in that one.

Veldt-sploitation

The Overlanders not only kicked off other Australian westerns, it prompted Brit producers to look elsewhere in the Commonwealth for locations to set action-adventure tales. Inevitably their eyes settled on South Africa, with its veldt and dramatic, gory history, resulting in several Western-style movies of varying quality shot on location. Diamond City (1949) is a hilariously inept version of a fascinating true tale, the foundation of the Diggers Republic, with David Farrar as a gun-totin’ Stafford Parker, Diana Dors and Honor Blackman perfectly cast if just five years older, and extremely dodgy racial politics (if you wonder why Farrar didn’t become a star after Black Narcissus, this film is part of the reason – director David MacDonald made a lot of flops). The Adventurers (1951), a Treasure of the Sierra Madre style tale on the goldfields with Jack Hawkins is better, but not much. And there was The Hellions (1961) a High Noon style knock off with sheriff/cop/whatever Richard Todd fighting a family of gunslinging criminals. None of these films turned out that well and the South Africans found out that, like the Australians, they were better off making their own movies.

Canuck Films

As well as Australia and South Africa, the British took inspiration from the cold wilds of Canada for some Western-style films with pasty-faced English actors being manly around rocky outcrops: like The Great Barrier (1937) (about the railway), Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) (about a dam, with Dirk Bogarde in a flanno), The Trap (1966) (about trappers, with Oliver Reed) and Grey Owl (1999) (let’s hear it for the Native Canadians). Oddly, the Brits have steered generally clear from making mountie movies – they leave that to Americans.

Euan Lloyd Adaptations of Louis L’Amour Novels

Lloyd is perhaps best known as producer of old-guys-on-a-mission films The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980), but before then he made a trilogy of Westerns from the novels of Louis L’Amour: Shalako (1968) (with Sean Connery as a cowboy), Catlow (1971) (which Quentin Tarantino says is amongst the worst studio Westerns of the seventies) and The Man Called Noon (1973). Lloyd had plans to adapt more but these did not do that well, so he moved into more contemporary action tales.

Alan Sharp Scripts

Sharp was a Scotsman who worked in the shipping yard before moving into writing. He shifted over to Hollywood where he penned some of the most iconic movies of the seventies, including several Westerns: The Hired Hand (1971), directed by Peter Fonda, Billy Two Hats (1972), directed by Ted Kotcheff, and most of all, the classic Ulzana’s Raid (1972), directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the most remarkable, bleak war movies of them all. Sharp later brought a Western style dash to Rob Roy (1995). Very good writer. He moved to New Zealand and I wish he’d made some Aussie movies; he was an excellent writer, and one of the few British screenwriters who has a cult.

British Spaghetti Westerns

The Spaghetti Western is held to be an Italian genre (the whole “spaghetti” in the name and all that), but the Brits made their own contribution. Indeed, arguably the first Spaghetti Western ever was The Savage Guns (1961), made in Spain by the British team of Michael Carreras and Jimmy Sangster (better known for their work at Hammer). The movie was a box office disappointment, but it inspired other European producers to make Westerns in the region, a movement which became a flood after the success of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. In the early seventies, for some reason, a whole bunch of spaghetti Westerns were made in Spain with British finance, including Captain Apache (1971) and Bad Man’s River (1971), both with Lee Van Cleef, The Hunting Party (1971) with Oliver Reed, A Town Called Bastard (1971) with Robert Shaw, Pancho Villa (1972) with Telly Savalas, and Charley One Eye (1973), produced by David Frost’s company and directed by a Brit, Don Chaffey. The British were all over Westerns in the early seventies – along with the movies of Lloyd and Sharp, and the spaghettis, you had Tony Tenser of Tigon financing Hannie Calder (1971) with Raquel Welch, and Michael Winner directing Burt Lancaster in Lawman (1971) and Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972). I have no idea why this happened – maybe Spain wasn’t too far away and Westerns were seen as a surer financial bet than something shot locally (they were wrong about that – the market was dead by 1974). Maybe, you simply had a generation of British filmmakers who grew up loving them.

Art House

In the late seventies, for some reason, the Rank Organisation decided to finance the art-house-ish, not-British-at-all-in-terms-of-subject-matter Eagle’s Wing (1979), directed by Anthony Harvey with Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. It was one of the last movies financed by Rank, and it’s bewildering why they thought there was a market for it, although the film does have its fans. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of arty Westerns from the British, others including Barbarosa (1982) from ITC, The Claim (2000) (Michael Winterbottom does Thomas Hardy in the old West), The Proposition (2005) (an amazing movie, possibly the best British Western, though mostly Australian in sensibility) and Slow West (2015) (partly shot in New Zealand with some Australian involvement).

Parodies

The flipside of being arty are the Western spoofs the British have turned out over the years. There’s the inevitable Carry On Cowboy (1965), plus  Arthur Askey out west in Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956), the Crazy Gang out west in The Frozen Limits (1939), and Kenneth More out west in the charming Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958) (the first Western shot in Spain, apparently). In more recent years, Edgar Wright’s little-known-that-it-was-his-debut-feature was a take-off of Westerns, A Fistful of Fingers (1995), and British TV have long enjoyed mocking the genre, such as “A Fistful of Traveller’s Cheques” in Comic Strip Presents (1984). The Lew Grade-financed Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) was not a parody but might’ve been more successful if it had been.

Female directors

British female directors have gone out West a few times but not had the best luck – Antonio Bird never made a feature after the entertaining Ravenous (1999) and Lynne Ramsay’s bad experiences on Jane Got a Gun (2015) are well known. Mind you, a lot woman directors seem to get rough treatment in this genre – Tamra Davis was booted off Bad Girls (1994). (Aside: it’s a shame they never gave a Western feature to Ida Lupino who directed many excellent episodes of Have Gun Will Travel.)

Whatever The Singer Not the Song Is

This 1961 film is so weird, so odd, that it deserves its own category. I don’t know why the Rank Organisation of all studios sunk money into this – sure, Dirk Bogarde camps it up in black leather, but even at treatment stage, was this going to be anything else other than a kinky weird love story between a bandit and a priest. Absolutely worth seeing if only to prove it exists.

 

A random final note on roast beef Westerns – British history actually offers the perfect period of lawlessness, bandits, frustrated police, pursuit on horseback, tavern owners and chivalry in the face of danger… the time of the border reivers (raiders) along the English-Scottish border between the 13th and 17th century. There was a ‘60s TV series called The Borderers, but the British film industry has displayed a confusing lack of enthusiasm for exploiting the action movie possibilities of this period. Seemingly, when it comes to Westerns they have as much cultural cringe as anyone.

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