Oh, like you could have possibly resisted the temptation of such a pun. You couldn’t, so stop whining. And I really wanted to embed YouTube videos to this, but just can’t get it working, so click on the titles and check out the trailers (or scenes as the case may be.)
So yeah, without Western movies, there wouldn’t have been a STRANGEWAYS. I never took to the books at all. Barely flipped through a Zane Grey or a Louis L’Amour or any of the LONESOME DOVE offerings. I remember reading SHANE once when I was an older young kid, but it didn’t stick. For me, Westerns are primarily visual in their appeal. Maybe I haven’t read the right prose, that’s entirely possible. You could fill rooms with the books that I haven’t read.
Okay, sure, you’ve got to have a great story to really make it sing. And you’ve got to play by the rules as it were with the plot and action, the primacy of the gunfight and six-shooter making everyone pretty much the same size. There’s law and lawlessness, though good and evil don’t always happen to take those same sides.
And there’s the setting. The west is the last land to be tamed, shrugging off the trappings of civilization until bound with barbed wire and girdled by railroads carting in Easterners with their laws and fancy hats and buffalo rifles that felled gazelle and bison alike. Sure, that’s a myth, but it’s a compelling myth. Or at least you can make it such if you present it right. Go wrong and it’s dull as dishwater, cliché-ridden to its very core. Black and white hats shooting each other up on that same dusty street in the town where all the clocks are stuck on high noon and the same breathless maid waits for The Right Guy to win.
More interesting to me, the West is the alien in the heart of America, as unlike the lush green of the colonies as it is unlike the flat range of the Ohio Valley or the forests of the north or the swamps of the south or the nondescript and ceaseless Midwest. Instead of clumps of oak and elm, the West is populated with chapparal of thorns and pungent with oils (I only know that after having walked among ‘em, since we don’t yet have smell-o-vision) and rock outcroppings like giant knucklebones stacked on one another, carved out of red rock or bleaching granite.
There’s no Big Industry, no machines to lean on (other than those that are busy at work, wresting riches from the earth). It’s a hostile and unforgiving land on its own, much less with the addition of desperate and twitchy drunkards who all go out heeled with hoglegs and big iron. More interestingly, those drunkards are to a man (and woman) always from somewhere else by sheer fact that there wasn’t all that much before they got out there. Okay, okay, the Spaniards were there before the gringos were and the Nations were there before them (even before there was such a concept of the Nations, as I understand it.) But the gringos were often nuts, forcing towns out of places that were never intended to support anything like civilization.
Hmm. I seem to have digressed. That hardly ever happens.
So let’s talk about some good Westerns. Here’s where I display my colossal ignorance of much of the western genre (though I should put that in quotes, but it looks too precious when I do so) by omissions. I’m not going to pretend this is comprehensive.
Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy.
There was a time that the addition of such to a list of great westerns would have caused fistfights. Luckily we’re past that, right? I’d say something silly like “Leone made everyone gray hats instead of black and white,” but that’s not true. Blondie was clearly the center of good in those movies, even if he was a bastard and the bad guys were always more bastardly. I don’t have a problem rooting for the Man with no Name. He’s smart, ruthless, but not unnecessarily sadistic (or even particularly necessarily so), but he certainly wasn’t a traditional good guy or singing cowboy out there to make the range safe for everyone.
The settings of these movies weren’t the comfortable (if weird) Southwest of John Ford and company. Instead, rocky and remote chunks of Spain stood in for the familiar, and made things even more shocking and unsettling. Add in Morricone’s unforgettable scores which evoke the feeling of an authentic west but are at the same time, totally original, and you’ve got an effective updating of the western. And they’re great stories, filled with betrayal and vengeance, naked greed, humor and visually inventive situations. In many ways, they’re a standard, which is odd, given how they were received in the day. Isn’t progress nice?
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
John Ford can’t be imitated or duplicated. His southwest (even though I perhaps gave it a knock in the above) is utterly his own creation, mashing together Monument Valley and Zion and Arches into a perfect sort of meta-west. Yeah, he played fast and loose with geography, culling shots from all over the west, to create his fictional Tombstone, AZ and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but if you’re going to do that, you go all the way and you make it work.
Henry Fonda is immaculate and wide-eyed as Wyatt Earp, patient and restrained. Victor Mature sweats from the burden of tuberculosis and his own impending doom. It’s a luminous black and white masterpiece that really, I haven’t seen in too long.
I’ll throw in a nod here to TOMBSTONE, which featured some astonishing performances (and to keep to the subject, tells basically the same story as CLEMENTINE), particularly by Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe’s immortal “Well…bye,” which dripped with venom and contempt, unimaginably so. Overall the film as a whole isn’t as strong as it could’ve been, overwrought in many places, sentimental in others, but you could do much worse for modern westerns (and let’s use that term loosely.)
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN
Now things get a little crazy. Paul Newman plays “The only law west of the Pecos,” and does so masterfully. He is at turns grizzled, drunk, wild and calm, and he isn’t afraid to dispense justice by way of 12-gauge if need be. This isn’t your average western, nor should it be, as it came during that wonderfully wild period in Hollywood between Viet Nam and Watergate. It was like the whole studio system went insane and let these directors get away with murder (see the excellent EASY RIDERS AND RAGING BULLS for more on that.)
THE WILD BUNCH
Peckinpah. I don’t need to say any more, do I? Okay, I do. But I already said it over at Dark But Shining a couple of years back. Go take a look over there; that essay would choke this piece to death.
In short, Peckinpah took the book and threw it out. And what he raised up in its place was nothing short of amazing. Though strictly not a period western (it takes place in 1913 if memory serves), it is as Western as they come. There’s been imitators, but none of them have even come close.
I’ll also toss in a nod here to BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, which is even less strictly a western (taking place in the late sixties in rural Mexico), could easily have been transplanted to the 1880s and nobody would’ve batted an eyelash. Okay, well, except for the content, which would’ve blown minds. Do yourself a favor and just go watch it. I don’t want to be the guy who ruins it for you.
THE ROAD WARRIOR
AKA MAD MAX 2 for you Aussies, Brits and Europeans. I’m going to get a lot of squawks here and I’m going to ignore every single last one of them.
Stranger rides into town, town is beset with vermin trying to suck it dry, stranger saves the town after rousing everyone to defend themselves. There’s even a kid who becomes attached to (and rejected by) said stranger. And yeah, there’s a big twist, which you really need to see. I mean, I’m sure there’s people who read STRANGEWAYS who haven’t yet seen ROAD WARRIOR. To those people, I say, stop now, and go watch it.
Okay, so pure western storyline, right? Only there’s no horses, there’s ramshackle cars and motorcycles (and helicopters and road-trains). People are fighting over gas, not gold. And oh yeah, it’s set after the fall of civilization in Godforsaken, Australia (which is really New South Wales, and even more alien and strange than the US Southwest could be.)
It’s a western, and a damn good one at that. I can forgive Mel Gibson a lot after seeing it.
Honestly, I haven’t seen an episode of DEADWOOD yet. I’ve got the box set sitting there and no time to watch it. Can’t really leave that on with the kids around, right? I mean, how do I explain to my wife how my 8-year-old son learned to swear like that? I won’t, so that’s an after-kids activity. Of course, they’re of an age that “after kids” means “I’m going out of my mind and need to decompress by hosing down zombies on the X-box.” It’d be easier if I could download it right to my brain.
Same with THE PROPOSITION and 3:10 TO YUMA and APALOOSA. Just hasn’t synched up yet. Maybe NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN counts as a western, but I’m not entirely convinced, even though it does take place in the west. So, I’m really behind on the most up-to-date westerns, I suppose.
There’s lots of other good ones out there. Hell, I’ll even throw a bone to the novel version of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (been so long since I saw the movie I can’t remember it clearly.) BLUEBERRY pretty much sets the standard for Western comics, period or otherwise. I’ve seen some of the other European offerings, but not many of them have stuck. SCALPED is pretty damn good, though I can hear the purists wailing from here.
But I don’t have a lot of energy to worry about purists. Other things to do.
Back on Monday.
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