Lumière Festival: Bertrand Tavernier on His Lifelong Love of Classic Westerns

French director Tavernier programs a retrospective at the Lumière Festival, and shares his knowledge of great but overlooked Western novels

Bertrand TavernierLumiere Grand Lyon Film Festival,

This year’s 9th Lumière Festival includes a section dedicated to classic American Westerns, selected by French helmer Bertrand Tavernier (“The French Minister”), who is also curating a collection of books dedicated to the genre, published by Actes Sud.

The fourteen films to be screened span the period between 1943 and 1962, including titles such as William A. Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” (1946), Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948), Delmer Daves’ “Broken Arrow” (1950), King Vidor’s “Man Without a Star” (1955) and John Ford’s “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).

Tavernier will personally present each film. He has been a fan of American Westerns since he was a teenager and became an avid reader of Western novels as soon as he learned how to read English, in his early twenties.

Through this section and also a book collection published by Actes Sud, Tavernier is paying his own personal tribute to this quintessentially American genre. He is thereby able to complement his own tribute to French cinema, achieved via his recent documentary and accompanying 8-part series, “My Journeys Through French Cinema.” In this exclusive interview with Variety, Tavernier talks in-depth about how he selected the Classic Westerns for Lumiere.

How did you choose the Westerns to be screened in this section?

The same way that French cinema is very eclectic, with tremendous variety, but is sometimes identified BY a single current, like the French New Wave, Hollywood Westerns have also sometimes been stupidly categorized as being monolithic, when there is tremendous variety. There are all kinds of films and subjects. Some deal with themes of law and order, others with vengeance. Some are very political. I wanted to reflect this in the selection. For example, one of the films, Phil Karlson’s “Gunman’s Walk” (1958), shows that there is a link between macho attitudes, the cult of the gun and racism. It was written by Frank Nugent, the former NY Times critic, who wrote all the classics directed by John Ford

Another example is William A. Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) based on the 1940 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, which was the first time that lynching was shown in detail. Before then there had been articles about lynching but never a novel or a film. A few years later, William Faulkner published his novel “Intruder in the Dust” (1948) also about lynching.

Can you tell us a bit more about your collection of Western novels published by Actes Sud?

I’m passionate about Western novels and this is an opportunity to share works of art that I love, many of which have never been translated into French before. It gives me the chance to break a lot of clichés. The great Western novels weren’t written for kids. Of course, a lot of pulp novels were published. But some novels are very adult. Some are fifteen years ahead of Hollywood in their liberal outlook. For example, Ernest Haycox’s novel “Bugles in the Afternoon” (1943), about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s much more complex and historically researched, true and profound than all the Western films made in the 1940s addressing the same subject, in which Custer is glorified. The novel is much more realistic and modern.

Another example A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s “The Big Sky” (1947) one of the first ecological novels. Another is Tom Lea’s “The Wonderful Country.” Some have great contemporary relevance, for example W.R. Burnett’s “Saint Johnson” (1930), the first novel about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which Wyatt Earp says that it’s because of the new guns that we have so many murders. The sheriff’s plan was to confiscate the guns.

I read many of these novels in my early twenties after I had learned how to read English. I had several in English because there were no French translations. At the time there was a great prejudice against these novels.  They were considered to be books for kids. But some are great novels and extremely well-written.

I loved Western films and was also interested in the screenwriters. I read interviews with W. R. Burnett, who is very well known for his thriller novels such as “Little Caesar,” and “Asphalt Jungle,” but in one interview he said that his best works were Westerns, such as “Adobe Walls,” – which is a wonderful, very terse, laconic, and very dry work. With all this in mind I went to Actes Sud and suggested we publish a book series. They agreed and it’s been working very well.

What drives you to share films and books that you love with others?

The same way that I want to show the riches of French cinema I also want to share the beauty of these books. My passion has always been to explore and share. You can also see that in my own films, where I like to address new subjects, such as historical periods that have never been dealt with before. For example, I directed the WWI drama, “Captain Conan”  (1996) about 500,000 French infantry soldiers who in September 1918 were sent to fight in Bucharest, Romania. I screened the film to an audience which included two former French ministers of education, Jacques Lang and Lionel Jospin, who said they both had no idea of this period of French history.

How did you choose the films for the Classic Westerns at Lumiere?

The festival staff told me that they had shown some classic films, such as “The Big Sky,” or “Canyon Passage.” Others had been chosen recently, such as John Huston’s “Law and Order” which was chosen by Martin Scorsese when he screened his favorite films at Lumiere. There were other titles I wanted to screen, but for which were unavailable in DCP copies, such as Robert Wise’s “Blood on the Moon,” (1948), which I regret because it’s a very good western, starring Robert Mitchum.

I asked Lumiere to screen “High Noon,” because of the film itself, and also because of the book by Glenn Frankrel, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.”

Reading the book made me want to see the film again. The film is actually a great story about the blacklist. The story is a mirror of what was happening to the pic’s writer, Carl Foreman, behind the scenes. He was deserted by the Hollywood establishment. Stanley Kramer suddenly asked Foreman to leave the film.

Gary Cooper was a member of the anti-communist actors group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, but he stood by Foreman. He emulated his role in the movie. There were many paradoxes at this time. John Wayne had said that “High Noon” was the most anti-American film ever made, but he received the Oscar on Gary Cooper’s behalf for the film and made a very beautiful speech.

Have any of your own films been influenced by your love of Westerns?

I actually decided to become a film director after I saw John Ford’s “Yellow Ribbon”, when I was thirteen. I wanted to film the sky and the landscapes in that way. I think that my “The Princess of Montpensier,” (2011) is ultimately a Western. You can also see this influence in my films such as “Captain Conan” and “The Judge and the Assassin” (1976). Unlike the Italians, French directors didn’t try to make Westerns, but they explored many of the same themes and cinematic devices, such as how to show landscapes and so on. I’m not a great fan of the genre of Spaghetti Westerns, unlike Tarantino. I like the films by Sergio Leone, and by Sergio Sollima, who did something original. French cinema explored some of the ideas of Westerns when doing swashbuckling films. But Westerns nonetheless had a very important influence on French films. For example, Hawks’ mixing of comedy and drama influenced many people. Jacques Becker was very much influenced by Hawks. There is a difference between influence and imitation.

What’s so special about the Western as a film genre?

In the great Westerns you have the impression that the character belongs to the soil and to the historical period. They are rooted in a specific place and time. That’s something I’ve learned  from American cinema. You can’t separate John Ford from Monument Valley. The Westerns are a cinematic creation, but because of this authentic rooting, you believe in the films. When we see John Wayne coming back from the Civil War, in the first shot of “The Searchers” we get the feeling that he’s carrying the entire burden of the Civil War in a single silent shot.

How did you decide the time frame of the section?

You have to set limits. There are some great recent Westerns, such as the films by Clint Eastwood or Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” I myself was press attaché on Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man” and also worked with Clint Eastwood. But for this selection we chose the period between the early 1940s and early 1960s. Maybe we’ll do other tributes in the future, for more recent Westerns and, why not, about Westerns from the silent era. You have to leave space for future tributes!