With the theatrical release Friday of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”, the arrival next week of the superb film “Hostiles” and “Godless” pulling on old Netflix, we are seeing an encouraging revival of the western that. . .
Tarnades! I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been writing western comeback stories every few years since the 1980s, and it gives me saddle sores. Look people, what had been Hollywood’s most trusted action / mythical / metaphorical / sociological genre from the dawn of the sound age to 1980 bit the dust over three decades ago, and not all of the “Dances with Wolves,” “Unforgivens,” “Deadwoods,” “Django Unchaineds” and “RevENTS” since then haven’t resurrected it as a regular, viable thing.
Maybe it’s for the best. Even though the best westerns were and always will be, the category as a whole was based on questionable assumptions, such as whether it’s okay to steal other people’s land, that white does well, and anything can be solved with guns. .
Not to say that meant westerns deserved to end up on boot hill. Movies reveal a lot about the cultures they come from, and whether intended to be informative or not, equestrian operas reveal more about America than any other type of film. The current ones each do a great job in their own way, and it is significant that each is built around a particular aspect of closing the Wild West as the 20th century approaches: imposing a corrupt political order on the once new states / territories. savages (“Lefty Brown”), accepting the animated hatreds that have conquered the frontier (“Hostiles”), armed women who are no longer going to take all your cowboy bullshit (“Godless”).
All this leads me to think: which westerns are responsible for the death of the Westerner? The ones who blew up the underlying assumptions of the genre, of course, and / or lost their producers a lot of money. These also tended to be some of the best westerns ever made, naturally; they were motivated more by ideas than by action, although the good ones also contributed a lot.
Here are five films that have turned the genre where it hurts. All of them – even the last one if you have time to spare on the director’s cut – are worth a look for a lot more than that.
1. Researchers: Weird that a 1956 movie, near the height of western popularity and early in their TV-dominating decade, has to be seen as the beginning of the end, right? Let’s see. Director John Ford had almost single-handedly pulled the genre out of his sleepy archery and cowboy discomfort with the iconic, thrilling, kinetic “Stagecoach” in 1939. He spent the decade following the Second World War II to establish the overt details of the Western Hollywood legend with as “My Darling Clementine”, “Wagon Master” and the cavalry trilogy “Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”, films designed to last as long as the sandstone mesas he loved in Monument Valley and the granite presence of John Wayne.
Imagine, then, the shock of Ford’s triumphalist system making Wayne the unreconstructed racist of “researchers” Ethan Edwards, pathologically determined to find his niece the Comanches captured as a girl, and kill her if she did. slept with one of them as a woman. Even the Anthony Mann / Jimmy Stewart psychological westerns that followed Ford’s folk masterpieces didn’t have such a psychopathic hero. The idea of Good Guy would never be the same. And Ford – in this perfect final photo of civilization safely entering the cabin to celebrate while the monster that made it possible remains, unwelcome now, outside the door – showed us he knows it.
2. A handful of dollars: Sergio Leone’s 1964 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai dispatch “Yojimbo” established a cynical, selfish and untrustworthy Western hero in Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, perfect for the budding attitude of years 60 consisting of blurring the lines between outlaw and heroes and asking questions about morality. The beautifully grimy look of Leone’s spaghetti westerns – Eastwood’s two sequels “For A Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, his unshaven epic “Once Upon a Time in the West” and the destructive comic “Duck, You Sucker” – posed a subversive twist of Italian neorealism on the idealized take on Hollywood history, and the studios just couldn’t fall back on their cleaner version after that.
3. The Savage Band: No American director has woven the closure of the West and the collapse of the films that celebrated it together better than Sam Peckinpah. He has made more modest passes on the subject in “Ride the High Country” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”. But that 1969 eruption, which took place in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, killed everything that moved. Outlaw codes, unbridled masculinity, horseback riding, how being a good marksman could get you out of any tough situation – Peckinpah mowed down standard movie concepts like this latest-gen machine gun brought everyone out . And he did it with a violence and speed (both incredibly fast and graphically in slow motion) that many Americans weren’t prepared for, but needed to see.
4. Little big man: Hollywood has sporadically portrayed Indians with sympathy since at least the “Broken Arrow” of 1950 (Ford even attempted to do this, not very well, in his last western, “Cheyenne Fall” of 1964). In 1970, the paradigm changed forever with Arthur Penn’s picaresque black comedy about the lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Raised by Cheyenne, Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabb travels a border of crazy and dangerous settlers and not always noble, but well-defined, Native Americans. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, topped off with Chef Dan George’s disappointed and still alive acceptance of Old Lodge Skins that things don’t always end the way you want them to: “Sometimes the magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t. “
This sentiment would apply to the dying West for the next 10 years. Penn went on to do another one with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson at the height of their popularity, “The Missouri Breaks,” but it was unexpectedly one of the worst box office failures of 1976. The following year, a passionate little project that transferred western tropes into space, “Star Wars”, planted another big nail in the genre’s coffin, which was ultimately sealed by:
5. The gate of paradise: Michael Cimino had won the 1978 Oscar for Directing for his second feature, Best Picture winner “The Deer Hunter”, so obviously no one was going to say no to him on his follow-up project. Big mistake. Over budget, overly indulgent and under stimulating, “Heaven’s Gate” has defined the flop for generations to come. Although it has benefited from a critical rehabilitation in recent years, this story of a war in Wyoming between ranchers and immigrants (hey, she might find an audience now) was the key film that convinced Hollywood that more nobody wanted to see westerns. The project also brought down the confidence of his studio and its executives in directors with realistic shots. There were no more new frontiers, so movies have turned their eyes to the sky ever since.