Sunday, June 4, 2023

UNM Press Explores "Reel West"

Screenwriter Kirk Ellis Reflects on Iconic Western Film



The University of New Mexico's UNM Press just launched a new series of non-fiction books examining Hollywood Westerns of historical significance. The first two books in the  "Reel West" series, Alan K. Rode's look at Blood on the Moon and Kirk Ellis' examination of Ride Lonesome, will be published in March. Ellis is a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, having penned the award-winning mini-series John Adams and Into the West.


The Paper. took the opportunity to chat with Ellis about his deep personal connection to cinema and his desire to shine a light on the iconic collaboration between director Budd Boetticher, actor Randolph Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy.


The Paper.: Are you still considered a Santa Fe resident?

Kirk Ellis: My wife Sheila and I have been permanent residents of Santa Fe since 1999. I grew up in El Paso and fell in love with the Southwest and the Borderlands. Sheila lived and worked in Albuquerque years before we met, so when the time came to leave Southern California—not a minute too soon—Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico already felt like home. Winters here got to be a bit of a creative buzzkill for me, so about 12 years ago we started to regularly decamp to a second home in Palm Springs to wait out the snow, the cold, the wind and the allergies. These days we average seven months in Santa Fe and five in the Coachella Valley.


How did the “Reel West” series got started?


"Reel West" series editor Andrew Patrick Nelson and I got to know each other when we served as talking heads for a series of "Legends & Lies" programs for Fox. (Remember those? They used to be hosted by Bill O'Reilly, but after his fall from grace they replaced his intros and outros with Brian Kilmeade.) Our segments were always taped on the same day up in Missoula, Montana, and after the sessions we'd have a long dinner with the producers, where we discovered a shared interest in cinema and history. When I heard that Patrick was contemplating a series of monographs on seminal Western films, I immediately reached out and pitched Ride Lonesome.


With so many Westerns to choose from, how did you settle on Ride Lonesome?


Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher were both influential early mentors of mine. I'd never heard of Budd before college, but when I saw Ride Lonesome in a University of Southern California film school class on Westerns it really made a profound impression. I wound up putting together one of the first major retrospectives of Budd's work in the U.S. while still an undergraduate, which led to a long personal and professional association with Budd, and a friendship with Burt, who's still the most generous—and most economical—writer I ever met. I miss them both to this day, and the book for me was a chance to repay the creative debt I owe them.

Burt's never been given his due as co-creator of the films he and Budd did together, and I wanted to set the record straight on that score. As readers will discover, Burt had an inspiring history (which, characteristically, he never bragged about) as a member of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division in the Pacific theatre of World War II. His experience in the Philippines deeply influenced his approach to refashioning the traditional Western hero, and it struck a real chord with a maverick director like Budd. I can't think of two creative collaborators so unlike each other, but they worked together seamlessly, and did their best work in tandem.


The Western genre has had countless ups and downs over the history of Hollywood, and yet films are still being made today. To what do you credit the endurance of the Western?


All you have to do is look at the phenomenal success of "Yellowstone" and the whole Taylor Sheridan, Inc. spinoff empire that show created to realize the Western is alive and thriving. The genre speaks to something deeply rooted in the American characters—which has both positive and negative connotations. The Western's always been a product of its time, and today we're finally seeing more stories grounded in contemporary realities and other voices: shows like "Reservation Dogs" and "Dark Winds" are as "Western" as Stagecoach and High Noon.

When I was president of Western Writers of America, we encouraged both publishers and our member writers to think outside the "traditional" box. I don't mean to imply there's no longer any room for those stories, but to a large degree there's been a law of diminishing returns both creatively and in the marketplace for material that merely recycles the same old traditional legends of cowboys and outlaws. To borrow a familiar phrase, "That string is mostly played out."


Budd Boetticher was a journeyman filmmaker, producing a string of inexpensive studio films over his career. Yet he's regarded these days as something of an auteur. What do you think separates his work from the work of other "B picture" directors of the era?


The so-called "Ranown Cycle" that's the focus of the book is still not as well known as it should be, even among Western aficionados. Contemporary American critics tended to regard them (when they regarded them at all) as slightly above-average "B" pictures. But European audiences and critics saw them in a much grander light. Andre Bazin, the éminence grise of French cineastes, regarded Seven Men from Now, Burt and Budd's first collaboration, as "an exemplary Western," and the films have stood the test of time much better than their more lauded competitors.

Budd's work with Burt and Randolph Scott offers an antidote to the thumping triumphalism of John Ford and whole "classical" tradition. The films occupy a near-existential, sun-scorched landscape stripped of history and ritual, occupied by protagonists (always played by Scott) who seek vengeance or retribution but find no satisfaction or redemption in the quest. There's a direct link from the Ranown Cycle to the revisionist films of the late '60s and '70s like The Wild Bunch, Ulzana's Raid and Fistful of Dollars. Budd made Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone possible.

A colleague in Germany told me recently that Budd was revered by Munich film directors of the early '70s. Apparently they'd go to see late night screenings and nearly beat up anybody who threatened to talk during the film. Budd would have loved that.


I suspect this is a topic you've been thinking about for a long time. How long did it actually take you to write the book?

You're right—I've been living with the idea of paying tribute to Burt and Budd for a long time. Call the timing fortunate or otherwise, but I was able to write the book during COVID—simultaneously with the initial drafts of scripts for the Benjamin Franklin project for Apple TV we just finished shooting in Paris last December. Luckily, I had on hand a library of reference material I'd accumulated over the years directly from Budd and Burt, so the closure of so many research libraries didn't delay completion. Writing the book was a sheer pleasure—the best time I've ever had my desk.





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