Written & Directed by Buster Keaton
This, the fifth film in my Westerns marathon, marks a stylistic change from what the most recent entries into the series have delivered. When tracing back The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse, and The Vanishing American, a common theme is the drama drummed up by their rather large scale and ambitious projects to cover the importance of westward expansion and its impact on Native Americans. Even The Great Train Robbery feature tense drama in a short run time. With Go West, we get the first of a rare, but often successful breed, the Western comedy. Western comedies, the first you might say sub-genre in the series, take the conventions of the gunslinging, adventure genre and make light of the often barren and lawless setting. Enter Buster Keaton to pioneer and revolutionize the genre. Even if Western comedies are often few and far between the more standard fare, they will pop up periodically here and feature some of the films I most look forward to.
Keaton, a master of the silent comedy, plays a hapless, “friendless” (as his character is billed in the credits) Midwestern man from Indiana. After selling his things and moving to New York City, he finds himself unable to get a job in the city. So he elects to hop a train West, where he miraculously finds a job as a cowboy on a cattle ranch run by an older man (Howard Truesdale). Despite his inexperience, and inability to learn the craft of cowboy, Friendless bungles his way through riding a horse, milking a cow, and even a poker game. He soon befriends a cow named Brown Eyes, and defends her, keeping her from slaughter. After a train carrying the rancher’s cattle is held up, Friendless does all he can to herd the cattle into town and deliver them to the stockyard and save the rancher’s fortune, but causes a ruckus in the busy city streets along the way.
Being inexplicably inexperienced in the films of Buster Keaton myself (I have only seen Cops and The General previously), I understand I am missing out on quite a bit. His physical comedy and trademark stone-faced delivery are perfect virtues for a Western comedy. His antics are, at times, hilarious here, as we see Keaton struggle to adapt to life out West, the rugged, hard work, and desolate environment. I think Keaton’s success with Go West is found in the dichotomy he explores between the city and the country, and how his character adapts, or doesn’t adapt, to both. Lacking the niceties of city life, Friendless finds himself on his own in the West, but surprisingly to his benefit. He is able to actually make friends, as he does with the cow Brown Eyes, and eventually too with the rancher and his daughter. There is even a subtle moment of respect between ranch hands after a game of poker gone wrong.
Keaton explores these themes well, crafting an interesting argument for the misunderstood cowboy, or even the misunderstood loner, and the necessity of both city living and Western traditions. I think this depth is what makes Keaton so attractive as a filmmaker, as he is able to create something much more than just a few laughs. And I am glad he did that with Go West, as many of the moments meant to generate laughter either felt forced or fell flat compared to something like The General, which may not be a fair comparison given how brilliant that film is. But I found the comedy here to be hit or miss, certainly delivery some great laughs, but missing on plenty others. For instance, the closing stampede through the city is brilliant, but goes on for too long and could have benefited from more concentrated gags from Keaton. Its sprawling sequence grows tiresome eventually.
Go West is not going to be my favorite Buster Keaton film, that much I can tell (and I’m not just saying that because of The General, I fully expect to enjoy some of his other films more). However, it is a great indication of Keaton’s talents. He not only is a great physical comedian, as evidence multiple times here, but he is also a superb craftsman behind the camera. Go West features more than a few inventive and impressive shots, including a shot from atop a train which may have proved to be a precursor to his immensely impressive train sequences in The General. Go West is fun, and it’s short enough that its deficiencies are excusable and forgettable, leaving the laughs and good times of Keaton’s hapless cowboy to remain in memory.