Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Fistful of Westerns: A Cinephile's Look at an Age Old Genre

Ever since the invention of cinema first graced Earth, people have been making westerns. The first western film was made in 1903, back when the Old West was practically still around!. It was called The Great Train Robbery. It followed a very simple plot. It was exactly what it sounded like. Some guys robbing a train. The genre has evolved quite a bit since 1903. Going through ups and downs. Reaching its peak around the 50s and 60s then slowly but steadily fading from the public conscience. There have been few great westerns in the last decade: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, and Django Unchained are the only ones that come to mind. If it weren't for people like Clint Eastwood and The Coen Brothers, I believe the genre would be completely dead. If you haven't noticed by now, the western is a genre very dear to me. I've been watching them since I was first captivated by Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid as a small child. I remember being completely blown away after experiencing The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the fifth grade. I could never get enough cowboy hats, six shooters, and sweeping shots of the expansive western landscape. I sometimes fell away from the films in search of others, but I always came back. Nothing captured my imagination quite like a good western film. Maybe it was the
wondrous sense of adventure. Maybe it was the thought of a wide open and exciting unconquered land where anything was possible. Maybe I just love a good hero story and the Wild West is a good template for the story. Maybe it's a mix of all of them. No other movie genre is so distinctive and exciting as is the western. It can be used simply as an action movie template (i.e. For a Few Dollars More) or for a deep and meaningful story (i.e. Duck, You Sucker and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It can even blend the two as The Searchers did. It's a malleable genre. And a wholly wonderful one at that. Westerns can be big and ambitious and epic as in Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in the West. Or they can be small scale pictures like Rio Bravo or High Noon. I have to say, I'm partial to the epic western.  Many directors have ventured into the western, some more successful than others. I'd say the most adept at making western movies are Sergio Leone and John Ford. Leone has been a favorite of mine for quite some time. He's made what are some of my favorite western films and has an unmistakable style that's indistinguishable form other directors. Plus, he always collaborates with composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone's music can make even
the most mediocre westerns seem wonderful. Not that any of Sergio Leone's movies are mediocre. My favorite, as you probably know, is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet, he has made many other great films, like Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in the West. I consider Duck, You Sucker to be an under seen and underrated masterpiece with one of Ennio Morricone's best scores. As I mentioned before, Leone has a very distinct style. Close ups, violence, shoot outs, and emphasis on the lone outlaw. In all of his movies, there is a singular hero. Or some silent/charismatic type that fits in with his original Man with No Name character played by Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. And a mix of Rod Steiger and James Coburn in Duck, You Sucker. There's also almost always some epic shootout or standoff towards the end of Leone's western films. My favorite being in either For a Few Dollars More or Once Upon a Time in the West. John Ford's westerns on the other hand are slightly more peaceful and character driven. My Darling Clementine is a very sweet hearted western were the violent shootout doesn't come towards the end, similar to High Noon. Except My Darling Clementine is a much better movie in
general than High Noon. The Searchers also strays away from the violence mostly until the last ten minutes or so, and focuses on racial issues, the landscape, and John Wayne's character. It has bits here and there, but nothing compared to a Sergio Leone movie. None of this is bad for either director, it's just their different styles. Both very good. The Searchers is my favorite John Ford movie by the way. There are other directors like Andrew Dominik, Quentin Tarantino, and The Coen Brothers who have made great westerns, but have only done it once or twice. They have practically mastered the genre on a first try. Each of their films are imprinted with a particular style, though. It would be awesome if they could make another film like that. There's a common misconception that westerns, at least older ones, are very cliche and often boring. This is very, very wrong. I have watched quite a few western movies in my life and very few of them have seemed cliche or boring at all to me. Almost every western I've seen has been distinctive and I may be bias just because I like and appreciate the genre so much, but I've only seen a few westerns I really didn't like. High Noon is a critically lauded film starring Gary Cooper. It won Oscars and everyone seems to love it. I did not. It was boring and slow and DID fall into cliches often. The "big" payoff at the end wasn't big at all and Lee Van Cleef was completely wasted as an actor. Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo follows a similar premise to High Noon but does it better and with more excitement and style. I didn't love Rio Bravo either but it did what High Noon couldn't. Dead Man which was directed by Jim Jarmusch was so slow and not enjoyable I couldn't finish it. Out of all of Sergio Leone's movies, I actually dislike A Fistful of Dollars the most. Don't get me wrong, I love all of his movies, that one just is the weakest. It also came off a tad cliche at parts. I feel as he went on, Leone became a better director and better at holding the audience's attention. Most people don't realize but there is are different sub-genres in the western genre. There's the well known spaghetti western, popularized by Sergio Leone. The spaghetti western often involves the film being shot in Italy, lower budgets, traditionally more violence, and selfish character motives. The spaghetti western is my favorite sub-genre. Then there's the Revisionist western, which I'm not as familiar with. That involved the changing of ideals and landscape in the not so Old West. One of my favorites is the neo western. The neo western takes place in a contemporary
American west setting, but makes use of western tropes and themes like, shootouts, wide open landscapes, and a lone hero (or anti-hero). Some examples are No Country for Old Men, 2 Guns, Desperado, Brokeback Mountain, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. No Country for Old Men is the best example of a neo western in my opinion. One could even argue that Rian Johnson's 2012 sci-fi flick, Looper, is a neo western (or I guess sci-fi western). It fits the categories. A future setting not in the Old West. A lone anti-hero. Shootouts. Open western landscapes. Bruce Willis' character even uses a futuristic revolver. Unfortunately the western is going out of favor. but I feel like the neo western may be coming into play. This excites me because the neo western is a malleable and interesting genre that a lot could be done with. Who knows? Maybe in a few years the neo western will be as popular as neo noir has become. As I mentioned before, the western is going out of favor. It's very depressing. The last western released, The Lone Ranger, flopped really badly and got less then favorable reviews. Quentin Tarantino was originally going to make another western called The Hateful Eight to follow up Django. He now isn't going to make that. The next big western coming out is Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. It's a comedy and has the potential to be very bad. Really the only good comedic western is Blazing Saddles. The state of the western is a sad one. I truly love the genre and hope it doesn't befall the fate it looks like it's headed to. In the mean time, go watch Duck, You Sucker or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford! Go watch The Searchers! There are a whole lot of fantastic westerns out there and I've only scratched the surface. I still have to watch How The West Was Won and Unforgiven, along with many other westerns I've yet to watch. It's a vast and awesome genre that doesn't get enough credit. The western is old, wonderful, and exciting. It always will be. That's all for now. Happy Viewing.
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