From Akira Kurosawa to Quentin Tarantino: Alternative takes on the Western genre
The boundaries of the ‘Western; have broadened over many years; the category has become so well established, it can be used as the backdrop for a wide variety of stories and themes.
While millions of people are forced to remain home amid a strict social distancing lockdown, we’re stepping into the world of Far Out Cinema to deliver some essential film suggestions to get you through.
Western films, a genre that can be traced back to some of the most culturally significant cinematic moments, can include films with a combination of the standard sagebrush setting and gun violence, but which deal with new and unusual subjects; or which simply borrow the familiar tone of the Western for their own purposes, even outside the usual time or place.
Here are a few which stand out for adding new life to an old genre.
Yojimbo – Akira Kurosawa, 1961
The great Akira Kurosawa co-wrote and directed this clever and entertaining 1961 Samurai adventure, filmed in the manner of a classic Western. Toshiro Mifune, seeming to channel the early Clint Eastwood, plays Sanjuro, a mid-19th century swordsman left without a master.
While wandering the countryside, hoping to find work, he comes to a town ravaged by gang warfare, allowed to go unchecked by corrupt officials, and decides to use his skills to intervene. The entire film, including the battle scenes, seems to simultaneously celebrate and mock the western genre, inserting sly humour into the gritty narrative.
Hollywood had already acknowledged the Samurai/Western parallels in 1960 when Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai was remade as a conventional American Western, The Magnificent Seven.
Paris, Texas – Wim Wenders, 1984
Director Wim Wenders calls Paris, Texas his second film, saying all the others were his first, that every film he made prior was “practice which enabled me to make this film,” and that all his other films, as well as his work in the theatre, contributed to Paris, Texas. He describes the 1984 film as driven by story and characters alone, not by what would look good or ‘work’ in a film, it nevertheless depends greatly on the Texas landscape and distinctly Texan music to set the mood. It follows a theme familiar to Westerns: that of returning to and reclaiming one’s old life. Harry Dean Stanton’s performance as the outwardly tough Texan hero laid low by personal grief is undemonstrative but affecting.
Wenders’ distinctly European viewpoint makes his handling of this expressly Texan story unusual, although his ‘outsider’ approach resulted in the film being widely approved everywhere except the US.
The late Harry Dean Stanton took on a character with many similarities in his final performance, the title role in Lucky, actor John Carroll Lynch’s 2017 directorial debut. As in Paris, Texas, the Western setting and the theme of a strong, silent hero’s brave but hopeless battle provide a context for the understated but powerful story of a strong man facing old age and imminent death.
The Hero – Brett Haley, 2017
This film is a showcase for the talents and distinctive persona of its lead actor, Sam Elliott. Director and co-writer Brett Haley had directed Elliott in 2015, in the touching romantic comedy, I’ll See You In My Dreams, and wrote the script for The Hero with Elliott in mind. The veteran of many Western films, Sam Elliott’s gravelly voice, craggy face and handlebar moustache make him perfect for the genre. In fact, some of his later roles were in non-Western films which required an easily recognised, quintessential cowboy type, such as the mysterious narrator in The Big Lebowski, or the dying former cowboy star in Thank You For Smoking. The title role in The Hero falls into that category.
Sam Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an ageing actor who is best known for what he considers his one good film, The Hero, a western-made forty years earlier. He is still fondly remembered by movie buffs, and is being offered a flattering but uncomfortably two-edged Lifetime Achievement Award by a Western fan club, but has trouble finding work beyond TV commercials. Early in the film, Hayden is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; as Samuel Johnson once said of death sentences, it concentrates his mind wonderfully and causes him to rethink his life choices. Being a version of the same strong but unemotional persona he portrayed in his films has left him divorced, estranged from his daughter, and struggling to establish connections with the people in his life.
We follow Hayden through his efforts to both find the courage to face the ordeal of cancer treatment, cope with his own physical decline, and break through the emotional barriers between himself and his loved ones. He accomplishes this partly through metaphorical dreams and reveries in which he finds himself reliving scenes from his own films, the challenges of his current life represented by Western film perils.
The Hero features remarkable beautiful camera work, using a changing point of view creatively to indicate a character’s thoughts, set a mood, or even provide silent commentary. The excellent technical work and direction backs up a wonderful performance by Sam Elliott, ably supported by his real-life wife Katherine Ross as Hayden’s ex wife; Laura Prepon as the complex younger woman Hayden starts a hopeful relationship with; and Krysten Ritter as his estranged daughter. The result is a poignant depiction of a man’s struggle to face his own fears and regrets, using the Western adventure as both background and ongoing metaphor.
Cowboys and Aliens – Jon Favreau, 2011
The film, Cowboys and Aliens, is described as being based on the graphic novel of the same name. More accurately, plans for the film came first. The film pitch was presented to movie studios while the comic book was no more than a general concept in its authors’ minds. The rights to the proposed film were acquired nine years before the graphic novel was actually published, in 2011. Once published, the book’s popularity was artificially exaggerated through deceptive (but legal) marketing techniques, which in turn gave additional publicity to the upcoming movie.
Such a cynically profit-driven creation process tends to force cowboys and aliens into the mainstream category, as does its major studio backing, all-star cast, a generous budget, and the presence of major Hollywood names (Stephen Spielberg, Ron Howard) among the producers. The one thing that sets it apart is the highly unconventional storyline, which blends the apparently incompatible genres of traditional Western with science fiction.
The film starts out with a familiar western format, set in the arid scrublands of New Mexico, peopled with the usual townsfolk, farmers, bandits, and hard-bitten derelicts. For the first thirty minutes, the film follows the wanderings of lead character Jack Lonegan (Daniel Craig), who seems to have been robbed and beaten, and left with no memory of the event. That changes when alien spacecraft fly over the small town of Absolution and begin abducting its residents.
The film does a decent job of portraying the bafflement of nineteenth-century characters faced with unthought-of technology and a threat outside their imagination. As the alien onslaught continues, the men of the area take the expected approach and form a posse to track down and destroy their attackers.
The most pleasing aspect of the film is the overlay of nineteenth-century technology and practices upon the aliens and their technology. In spite of their supposedly advanced civilisation, the aliens, when threatened, fight more or less like their cowboy opponents. They have come to Earth, it turns out, for the same reason many prospectors travelled west: in order to find gold. Best of all is the aliens’ means of abducting humans: not through teleportation, but by hauling individuals from the ground and into the alien craft by means of what appears to be a high-tech version of a lariat. These inventive details, and high-end production values, almost make up for the lacklustre plot.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Rob Ford
Legendary outlaw Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882, shot dead by a member of his own gang of bandits, Rob Ford, the ‘coward’ of the title. The familiar saga, based on a kernel of truth, is told in this 2007 film from the perspective of Ford himself. It is a standard Western in every way, apart from the focus being taken from the famous outlaw and his daring exploits, and placed instead on minor camp follower Rob Ford and his emotional baggage. Director Andrew Dominik, along with master cinematographer Roger Deakins, and veteran costume and production designer Patricia Norris, make the film visually impressive, sparing no detail to ensure a naturalistic, believable look for every scene; it comes across, initially, as a familiar but high-end Western, unconventional mainly in its approach to the story.
The film takes an interesting approach to the heroes of the wild west, incorporating what might be called their fandom into the story. Ford had kept track of the James Gang’s career from childhood, and had become a tremendous admirer of Jesse James. In a sense, he occupies the position of the youthful admirer of frontier tales and their heroes. He is delighted to be taken into the James gang, but his feelings gradually change as closer observation reveals his heroes’ flaws. When Jesse James fails to appreciate Ford’s devotion, and ridicules his boyish hero-worship in front of the gang members, resentment and disillusionment finally lead to the fatal shooting, and Ford’s pitiful and ineffectual efforts to turn himself into a hero of the Wild West.
Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt, 2010
Director Kelly Reichardt is the ultimate master of subtlety and understatement, and this tale of early 18th-century American settlers is a fine example. The theme is very much part of the Western genre: a group of pioneers travel by covered wagon through the largely unexplored country to reach their homestead, facing toil, deprivation, and danger on the way. It is not told in the usual way, however. Reichardt uses the pioneers’ quest to present a mystery of sorts, about human nature and the complexities of trust.
Two young couples and their children have employed a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them through a purportedly shorter route to their homestead site. The route is more hazardous, however, leading through a desert inhabited only by the area’s indigenous people, who may themselves be a source of danger. Reichardt’s scripts typically offer a seldom-seen look at the minor players in society, and she does the same here: while the decisions are made by the men leading the expedition, the perspectives of the women and the displaced native people offer other angles on the situation and open up possibilities. The film leads to an intriguingly unresolved, lady-or-the-tiger ending which is atypical of Westerns, but which seems to fit the situation perfectly.
As in Meek’s Cutoff, a previously neglected perspective is the inspiration for several unconventional Westerns. For example, The Homesman also features a different point of view, that of the women of the early frontier. Set in 1850, it is a fairly standard Western in terms of plot, involving an arduous trek by mule-drawn wagon across the unpopulated country. The story is a typical quest saga on the surface but filled with mythical and Biblical metaphor. It differs sharply from most Westerns in that the central characters, including the main protagonist, are women. It focuses on the ordeals of the young women who help to establish settlements on the frontier, often in gruesome detail. When three of the female settlers are driven literally insane by a long series of tragedies and ordeals, it is decided they should be transported to the nearest town – a great distance away – to be cared for. No one will volunteer for the difficult journey except stoic local spinster (Hilary Swank), who manages to enlist a condemned criminal (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her.
The film is melodramatic and freely diverges from realism at times, but is effective. It features an impressive cast, apart from its two leads, including Meryl Streep in a tiny but important role, and her daughter Grace Gummer as one of the madwomen.
In the category of the Western saga using an uncommon perspective, Dances With Wolves, although a conventional frontier tale in many ways, stands out for removing the region’s “wild Indians” from their typical roles in Westerns, that of either background scenery or menace, and making them genuine, fully rounded human characters. That may be partly due to Michael Blake being permitted to write the screenplay, adapted from his own novel. A member of the frontier military (Kevin Costner, who also directed), left alone at an abandoned fort, is forced to meet and negotiate with the members of a nearby Sioux village. He eventually learns to regard them as good people, and ultimately as close friends and allies. While remaining the sole while character’s story, it is one of the very few westerns which give a positive depiction of the Native people of the time, along with the 1970 Arthur Penn film Little Big Man and the work of a growing number of Native American filmmakers. (The subject of the Native character in the film is more fully addressed in the entertaining and informative 2009 documentary Reel Injun.)
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino, 2012
Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to Western films is a revenge fantasy, something not unusual
in the genre; but it is a revenge fantasy full of the distinctly Tarantino array of offbeat characters, extreme violence, and black comedy. Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a slave who is purchased by bounty hunter King Schultz, colourfully portrayed by Christoph Waltz as genteel and gleefully homicidal. Schultz, although central to the plot, is essentially a sidekick to Django, who is presented as the archetypal avenging cowboy hero, strong and silent, full of barely repressed rage and cold determination.
The revenge aspect of the plot appears early, as we see an escaped slave horse-whipping his former overseer before summarily killing him. It is a scene that fits in with the standard Western imagery, yet is one not found in any traditional Western – few of which involved open rebellion by slaves, Native Americans, or other such typically secondary characters. Django and Schultz work together toward their final goal of finding and freeing Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilde (her name purposely giving a flavour of the mythical quest to Django’s efforts), alternately successful and thwarted in their efforts, until the inevitable and alter-conventional conclusion.
As with other Tarantino films, the look and sound are a huge part of the picture. The late, highly gifted production designer Michael Riva provides a perfect juxtaposition of idealised Southern plantation and naturalistic, brutal slave colony. Changes in light and colour unobtrusively establish the tone of darker scenes, lapsing into red-tinged light in the more hellish moments. By contrast, the first glimpse of the opulent Candyland plantation is exaggeratedly pretty – “like Disneyland,” Riva once commented, in sharp contrast to the horrific realities behind the place, making it outwardly beautiful and innocuous, and “letting the bad stuff happen inside… a horror, but surrounded by beauty.”
The soundtrack, as in all Tarantino movies, is intriguing and carefully chosen. It ranges from half-jokingly standard Western film score (including Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash and pieces from classic Westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s Two Mules for Sister Sarah and ‘70s ‘spaghetti’ Western They Call Me Trinity) to deliberately anachronistic (several well-chosen rap pieces), the music itself often serving as a commentary on the scene. Even classical music is used effectively for several scenes: Ancora Qui to establish a peaceful background to a scene of plantation housekeeping, and Verdi’s alarming Dies Irae for the entrance of the proto-KuKluxKlan on a murderous rampage – although this scene quickly devolves into comedy at the expense of the inept and bickering Klan members. In fact, Tarantino uses comedy freely, sometimes as a respite from the endless horrors of the storyline, and sometimes to sharpen their edge.
Django Unchained half emulates, half parodies the classic Western, right down to the final shootout complete with Tarantino-esque fountains of blood; the final, overblown dream of ultimate revenge; and the final scene of the hero walking away from a fiery scene of ultimate destruction to ride off into the sunset.