So upon getting some very irate emails from my Dad about the True Grit remake and “Jeff [expletive deleted] Bridges trying to fill The Dukes boots?” I decided to rent the 1969 Western to give it a shot.
What I got was a wide ranging movie that varied from happy to sad, upbeat to dark, energetic to slow, and adult to childish. It felt different, it felt old, it felt… good…
Now, I’ve only recently, in the past year or so, really gotten into Westerns as a serious genre. Some of the classics I’ve seen include The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, High Noon, and my personal favorite Western, Once Upon A Time In The West.
Also I’ve been rewatching movies which I previously owned but never really studied as Westerns, including Anything Starring Clint Eastwood and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
And upon watching all these magnificent films again I’ve come to the conclusion that the last great Western was Unforgiven.
I mean, there have been some good ones here and there. The Proposition was a noble attempt at a re-envisioning of the Western. Open Range had most the makings, just not quite the spirit. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was a pretty standard textbook (Modern) Western. Appaloosa was alright but a tad too watered down.
Some real duds include 3:10 to Yuma. Yes, I may be in the minority, but I think that movie pretty much sucked balls. With the exception of Ben Foster, who was awesome, the movie just seemed too full of itself and reliant on the fact that “Oh Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are in this! It must be good!” Seraphim Falls (A Straight to DVD movie) was mostly a mess, with a nice idea thrown in now and then. The Assassination of Jesse James had some wonderful cinematography and acting, but ultimately not quite the caliber one would expect from a ‘Great Western’.
It seems every Genre has evolved on to something else, or fit right into what Hollywood needs. But The Great Western has just become The Western. Now, Western movies don’t really have the same feel, they are just normal movies that take place in the West.
So Wha’ Happen? Why can’t modern day Hollywood pump out a Great Western reminiscent of back in the day? I believe the answer lies in three distinct problems…
1) Its Gonna Be A Long Ride
Pacing… pacing, pacing, pacing. Westerns are known for their slow, deliberate pacing. For taking their time and not rushing anything. Sergio Leone was the master. Look at the 15 minute long opening of Once Upon A Time… It takes him an incredible amount of time just to introduce us to the ‘Main Hero’ Harmonica. Most audiences would have left by now, but Western Fans wait it out… and get (arguably) one of the best openings ever on film. Period.
Another Leone Classic is The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. The last gunfight has an unbelievable amount of tension. We just went on a 2hr40minute journey with these characters and now we are about to find out who’s gun is the fastest and who gets the gold. But first… 8 minutes of more build up. Pure Cinema.
All in all Westerns are not afraid to move slow but Modern Hollywood fears that. We are the ‘MTV’ Generation and can’t handle it if anything doesn’t happen for more than 10 minutes. Again, its that thinking that makes most Modern Westerns just Modern Actioners set in the West, as opposed to an honest Western in its own right.
2) The Good, The Bad, And The… Morally Ambiguous?
A lot of B Movie Westerns had your typical Good Guy Vs Bad Guy but The Greats… they featured morally ambiguous heroes who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. And most the time they weren’t too happy with themselves for doing it.
The most Classic example of this I believe would be John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. A man pushed to such extremes to hold on to hope that in the end, he does not know if he can come back. A newer version is of course William Munny in Unforgiven, a man who was once a feared killing machine pulled out of retirement by necessity… and forced by circumstances to unleash his fury.
Other morally ambiguous roles include Blondie in Good/Bad/Ugly, who isn’t afraid to cheat the system (while his partner cheats death) and repeatedly collect bounty money on the same bounty. Cheyenne from Once Upon A Time… is also an undecided good guy/bad guy who seems to be a nice guy but has his hands in a lot of dirty affairs.
And lets not forget protagonist thieves, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Sure they ultimately may seek some kind of redemption, but their redemption is only as strong as their sins, which we secretly root for.
But Modern Hollywood would like everything spelled out nice and simple. Besides portray your hero as a thief (even if they are redeemed) and you’ve got tons of crap reigning down on you from people saying you should be promoting better values. Its hard to find a Great Western that ultimately is ‘Pro-Violence’ and usually they show the horrors of such violence.
3) Acting Badass Vs Being Badass
This is the most important one. It seems like nowadays, most people are trying to act in Westerns. And some people do a fine job, that’s not a downside. But in order to be A Great Western, you need real people doing the real thing.
John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach. Lee Van Cleef, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Etc. These guys weren’t acting… They just were. They came onto the screen and just demanded presence. When they said a line, they meant it.
The closest we have to that is probably Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex. Sure the movie was goofy and outrageous (I’m not going to argue Hex was a ‘Great Western’, but it was a lot of fun). Brolin was badass and he wasn’t trying.
Movies nowadays have Movie Stars or Mega Celebrities, but there exists very few Icons. And that’s what the Western needs to stay alive.
If you do want to find nods to Great Westerns though, you just have to look to cross-genre films like Inglourious Basterds (Western and War) and No Country For Old Men (Western and Noir). These films are heavily influenced by Great Westerns, but not full on Westerns themselves. All the issues with Modern Hollywood and Great Westerns as described above are expertly answered in these masterpieces.
(Using Basterds as an example…)
1) Basterds had slow pacing. Every chapter felt like its own short film and the Bar scene had every possible drop of tension squeezed from it before its climax. 2) The Basterds themselves fight for good but do very nasty things. And Col. Hans Landa seems to not necessarily want to be ‘bad’, just good at it and exploits it. 3) Pitt is far too ‘celeb’ to be just plain badass but his acting is top notch here (especially his ‘Italian’). Waltz as Landa is pure evil and Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz is just plain badass. And props to Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger for being real badass chicks.
Or if you want real cowboys, look to the smaller screen. Deadwood, Firefly, and Cowboy Bebop carry on the tradition of this wonderful genre the way it was meant to be, with heart and soul.
So, should we consider The Great Western Dead… or do you think we still have what it takes to maybe, one day, make them again? Can Hollywood address these issues? Will The Coen Bros’ True Grit Live up to its predecessor? I think it may be a good place to start… but ultimately I hope the answer isn’t in down right remakes, but brand new material that draws on the Greats for inspiration.
Until we find out the answers, “See You, Space Cowboy…”