As The Wild Bunch turns fifty years old, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley explores the myths and realities of the West in film.
Westerns are rather like Science Fiction in the desert. No, seriously, bear with me.
No borders and intrepid exploration (Star Trek by way of How the West Was Won) are common frames of reference in both.
Look further and you find alien landscapes, often devoid of recognisable life, in the cavernous emptiness of the West. Recall the grand vistas of masters like John Ford and you soon see the similarities with the terrain of many a desolate planet.
Delve deeper still and there are other parallels. Alternative cultures: sometimes friendly; sometimes hostile; always mysterious. The Native Americans of many Westerns fulfilled this role in much the same way that fictional indigenous populations populated the space operas of contemporary sci-fi.
Darwinian struggles populate both traditions of cinema too. In fact, if anything, Westerns were to be even more extreme manifestations of man’s attempts to master his universe, a universe that is beyond mastering. Violent action married with equally violent language, as fans of Deadwood would readily testify.
In the face of this Sisyphean existence, hedonism would also be an omnipresent feature of the Western. McCabe and Mrs Miller was probably the most assured of many filmed attempts to try to answer the question of how and why people, usually men, sought relief from the hollow nihilism of the West.
Finally, just like many a grand epic of science fiction, protagonists in the Western tradition immerse themselves in existential crisis, lonely and introspective (The Ballad of Cable Hogue being one of many, many examples). The space age desire for salvation in the infinite expanse of the galaxy was mirrored here on earth.
If you look outside the sweeping narratives and themes of both genres, you’ll find one other commonality. Westerns, just like Science Fiction, have tended to be relegated to the margins of cinema. Often seen as crass, clumsy or simplistic and, despite some spasmodic awards recognition (Unforgiven springs to mind), the Western is frustratingly, less elevated than the more celebrated melodramas of the Hollywood canon.
This is, of course, a colossal misjudgement.
Not that the Western is without flaws. As cinematic classifications go, the Western is replete with egregious examples of films rooted in traditions of misogyny, racism and vigilante ‘justice’ (although the viewer would do well not to take every great filmmaker at his word when it comes to fictional characterisation).
Nonetheless, figures like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have become by-words for actors who blur the lines between fiction and reality. Their performances frequently, and disturbingly, reflected a Manichean worldview that painted society in crude brushstrokes, not unlike their many loaded public utterances or political interventions.
Dispiritingly, this not only served to reinforce attitudes popular with modern MAGA-endorsing adherents of Herr Trump but also to entrench some cinephile prejudice towards the Western.
Despite these sensible caveats however, there is little doubt that at its best, the Western can be stirringly subversive, slyly comic and thrillingly dynamic as an example of cinematic storytelling.
Moreover, it is ripe for use as an allegorical visual text, one that any discerning viewer can decode for fresh perspectives on society then and now.
That might sound an overblown claim but the evidence indicates otherwise.
McCarthyism was explored adroitly by Gary Cooper’s High Noon. Xenophobia was the predominant theme in the likes of Dances With Wolves or Glory. Capitalist exploitation is revealed in all its grisly horror in Heaven’s Gate. Even gender roles have been interrogated in a genre often accused (rightly) of pervasive sexism, in movies like Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns.
These narrative undercurrents provide ample proof that the Western is more progressive than most people think.
On a more stylistic level, Westerns have been some of the most majestic examples of filmic art, painted on broad canvases that have beguiled us all. Landscapes, both literal and figurative, feature prominently and it is a physical environment that exceeds our every possible point of view.
Like Space, the West orients itself in the endless. At least, that is how it appears to the naked eye.
Every worn rut in the dirt, every monolithic rock formation, every blood red horizon, is utilised to its fullest potency within the Western. Beyond the explicit beauty of the cinematography, the widescreen portraiture adopted by the Western, symbolised liberty, a hugely important theme for most movies of this ilk.
Why migrate to an urban metropolis that might as well be a concrete prison in the minds of frontiersmen and women who have experienced all that space? All that heady, untrammelled freedom?
However, that space and freedom provides plenty of opportunities for disaster – too many hiding places for terrors that haunt the border mentality and countless chances for losing one’s path in a grimly final and mortal way. Free will comes at a painful price.
This ties very neatly with the common and frank violent activity that’s so prevalent in the Western.
Like the gangster genre, the Western is a category of cinema that revels in its propensity for sudden, shattering conflict that emerges in many of its movies. The immediacy of death is one constant that unifies many otherwise disparate depictions of the Old West and New West.
Sometimes that casual use of force is displayed with grotesque visceral honesty (say, in Deadwood or in the weird horror-Western crossover Bone Tomahawk).
At other turns, it has been fetishized by some of cinema’s finest stylists. Always though, it has a secure place in the Western canon because survival remains a constant of that universe, and of the historical context that inspired its works.
In that regard then, the Western can prove to be a difficult watch for those of a sensitive disposition. The sheer savagery of a nation engaged in painful emergence, often at the expense of vulnerable minorities, is one that is granted bald exposure in the finest examples that the genre has to offer.
The flag-waving hagiography of Westerns of yesteryear, burdened by popular concepts of Manifest Destiny, has been supplanted by those with clear eyes and heavy consciences. Indeed, even at the time, films like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were prepared to puncture the balloon of Western hero-worship.
Moreover, the modern approach to the Western has tended to have an elastic impact upon the boundaries of definition that used to exist. Protagonists and plots are now more diverse, more nuanced and more complex.
An already rich filmic tradition is enriched still further therefore. The contemporary Western now resolutely inhabits the present-day. No Country For Old Men, Hell or High Water and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada all draw heavily on the heritage of the cinema that preceded it.
Thus, the Western, far from subscribing to the lazy label of conservative or anachronistic, has proven to be part of a progressive continuum. Every time it is in danger of eclipse, the Western has succeeded in capturing our imagination once again.
In celebration then, of this marvellous evocation of cinema’s mercurial magic, Getintothis selects our Top 10 Westerns along with a competition to win tickets to the screening of our top pick at Picturehouse at FACT on March 24.
1.The Wild Bunch – Sam Peckinpah (1969)
Violence as art form?
That feels like a trite disservice to a director as multi-faceted as Sam Peckinpah.
Nonetheless, it cannot be doubted that, alongside Arthur Penn’s ground-breaking Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah revolutionised the depiction of conflict and death on screen. On this basis, Peckinpah could be justifiably referred to as Hollywood’s greatest choreographer of cinematic mortality, and a bravura one at that.
In addition to this critical reverence though, he attained an unenviable reputation as a misogynist, a drinker and a rabble-rouser. Yet, he was unsparing in his work.
His caustic take on male relationships and their explosive fragility more than matched the baleful eye that he cast upon his female characters. Indeed, one could say that Peckinpah’s personal travails mimicked those of his most famous characters.
This is especially evident in The Wild Bunch, arguably Peckinpah’s most complete cinematic statement.
At a point when legends of the Frontier were still common (if not omnipresent), The Wild Bunch shattered expectations of Westerns and their gallery of rogues. Heroes were villains were heroes were villains, to the point where all became indistinguishable.
While outlaws are direct and phlegmatic, lawmen are moral vacuums who are still capable of doing the right thing…or at least what we think the right thing might be. Communities exist in The Wild Bunch betwixt the two, unsure who to embrace and carefully weighing the odds of survival when making that choice.
Crucially, Peckinpah conveys all of this without manufacturing an overly complex plot. The Wild Bunch is essentially the story of an audacious group of desperadoes seeking increasingly unlikely escape from a pursuing posse, including old friends. On their journey, what they find, paradoxically, is both their redemption and their doom.
This cast of the damned, of enforcers and mercenaries, was drawn from some of the finest actors of the day. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates all proffered an embarrassment of riches to the fortunate Peckinpah. No other group could have imbued their roles with such a convincing mixture of toxic masculinity and generational vulnerability.
Yet, they alone could not mark this film out from the rest, given that the narrative was nothing new.
It required the balletic violence, the ostentatious operatics of conflict that Peckinpah had mastered, in order to transfigure this grubby tale of criminality at the margins into something approaching tragic nobility.
The dream-like cinematography of The Wild Bunch may have been seen by some critics as glorifying the bloodshed (and there’s plenty of it during the film), but others might contend that it actually elevated it.
The aesthetics of Peckinpah’s photography and composition will always be contentious but it remains an idiosyncratic approach that has never been matched for its bold ingenuity.
Nor does Peckinpah allow the brutality to stand without context. The arcs of arterial spray and bullets are meant to convey something deeply sad and coruscating in their frankness. Instead of hero-worship, the gruesome crucifixion of these frontier gangsters in The Wild Bunch is, in reality, a hypnotic car-crash of lost souls with nowhere left to run.
In essence then, The Wild Bunch is a meticulously conceived elegy for times past and codes of behaviour long since made anachronistic by the dawning of a new America.
If we seem overly generous towards the irascible Peckinpah, it is because his undeniable creative vision demands it, even if his personality and attitudes do not. Indeed, despite Peckinpah repeating his cinematic stylistics throughout his filmography, nowhere did he do it with such gut-wrenching panache and mournful sincerity as with The Wild Bunch.
WIn tickets for the screening of The Wild Bunch at Picturehouse at FACT on March 24
In a very welcome return to the big screen, Picturehouse at FACT are showing George Stevens’ Shane on March 17 and Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch on March 24
To win a pair of tickets for the screening of The Wild Bunch at Picturehouse at FACT all you have to do is like the Getintothis Facebook page, share the post below and tag in two of your friends.
Or follow the @GetintothisHQ Twitter account – and RT our competition post.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West – Sergio Leone (1968)
Leone was already famous for the Dollars Trilogy by the time he made possibly his definitive film.
Like so many other Westerns made in the late 60s/70s, Leone sought to reconceive the older, more optimistic movies as a more nuanced reflection on America’s drive West.
As a counter-weight to that naivety, Leone utilises the growth of the railroad (a potent metaphor for the remorseless advance of mechanised servitude and cynical profiteering) as a hinge for this expansive story of crime and vengeance.
Unlike the Dollars films, Leone selected a cast beyond the enigmatic, taciturn Clint Eastwood. Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Henry Fonda (playing against type with startling effect) all manufacture a cinematic alchemy that is not easily forgotten or replicated elsewhere. Add to that the dramatic photography, intelligent editing and euphoric Morricone score, and you have a bona fide classic of the genre.
3. Little Big Man – Arthur Penn (1970)
By the time the 70s dawned, revisionist Westerns were all the rage but few were as playful as Little Big Man, or as perceptive.
Told via the character of Jack Crabb (played with relish by Dustin Hoffman), we are able to enjoy an alternative history of America as his picaresque, fantastical adventures are related to the audience.
In many respects, Crabb is like a frontier Baron Munchausen, often at the heart of some of the key events that punctuated the history of the American West. Chief Dan George and Faye Dunaway add further spice and laughs to a film that also exposes American hypocrisy to the full glare of its acerbic satire.
Much of the film could just as easily be related back to American modernity and its various pitfalls, which is of course just as Penn intended. In that, and in so much else, Little Big Man manages to carve out a cherished niche in any Western fan’s film collection.
4. El Topo – Alexander Jodorowsky (1970)
The Western has not just captured the imagination of American filmmakers, as El Topo proves all too clearly.
Jodorowsky is a Chilean director who became notorious for so-called ‘Midnight Movies’ which attained cult status and enthusiastic fans.
El Topo was one such film, where Jodorowsky himself portrays the lead, a mysterious gunslinger who, rather than the usual vengeful mission, is instead seeking some kind of esoteric spiritual enlightenment.
In seeking recompense for crimes against the world, he explores a psychedelic landscape that is frequently bizarre, violent and inexplicable. Indeed, it is fair to say that no other movie matches El Topo for its illogical yet captivating attempt to give a fresh perspective on the Western mythology. Once seen, never forgotten.
5. Blazing Saddles – Mel Brooks (1974)
Some of the Westerns already selected have their comic facets but none are full-blown farces to match the hilarious Blazing Saddles.
This was a much-needed send-up of the Western and offered a welcome antidote to the po-faced travails that were usually depicted.
Cleavon Little gives what should have been a star-making performance as a black sheriff, sent to a town as part of a criminal scheme by a railroad magnate, where he receives a predictably ambiguous welcome.
Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens and Mel Brooks himself, all help engineer plenty of belly-laughs, spoofing everything from race to federal corruption and frontier myth-making. All of this cinematic tomfoolery is completed with considerable affection for the genre, thus making Blazing Saddles both a joyous homage and a wise satire.
6 Tombstone – George P Cosmatos (1994)
Some movies, unlike the revisionist takes that we have so far included, decided to embrace the Western mythology with a full-throated enthusiasm that manages to sweep the viewer along with it.
Tombstone is one of those movies and this is evident from the opening and closing monologues (delivered by the peerless Robert Mitchum), setting the scene for yet another adaptation of the Wyatt Earp legend.
The story of Earp’s duel with Ike Clanton and the Cowboys gang is delivered with charismatic gusto through a cast including Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton as members of the Earp family.
They are ably assisted by the inscrutable alcoholic but erudite Doc Holiday (played by Val Kilmer in a career-best turn), blessed with some of the most memorable slices of dialogue that 90s cinema has to offer (‘I’m your huckleberry…’).
This is further fleshed out by some exceptional villains, played with lewd hysteria by Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn and Stephen Lang. There is no subtlety here and there doesn’t really need to be.
Tombstone is an exhilarating evocation of the kind of Boy’s Own adventures that we all grew up with, just without the clumsy flag-waving.
7. Dead Man – Jim Jarmusch (1995)
Jarmusch is the master of the off-kilter indie flick but few, if any, film fans expected him to make a foray into the Western canon.
Perhaps fewer still expected him to produce such an authentic and hallucinatory ride into the deadly borderlands of the great western expansion.
Johnny Depp plays William Blake, an accountant who is seeking much-needed employment at a frontier metal works. The job proves to be illusory, as does much of what happens next when Blake seeks any kind of available respite from the irredeemably harsh world that he now inhabits.
Along the way, he meets the impassive Nobody (played by Gary Farmer) who asserts that Blake is in fact the reincarnation of his more famous namesake.
This becomes a recurring, weirdly compelling theme for the remainder of the film, one that mimics the kind of free-wheeling post-modernist word-play that is a more familiar feature in books by Thomas Pynchon.
For some this was a divisive entry in Jarmusch’s filmography, but for this writer it remains a touchstone of adventurous nineties cinema.
8.The Proposition – John Hillcoat (2005)
Just as Jodorowsky gave the Western a Latin American spin, John Hillcoat (alongside Nick Cave as screenwriter) was equally adept at cultivating an Antipodean version of the outlaw existence.
Set in the 1880s Australian outback, The Proposition relates to an implacable lawman’s offer to a criminal (played by Guy Pearce) to save his younger brother from the gallows.
All he must do is hunt down his older brother (Danny Huston), a notorious bandit with much blood on his hands.
Dysfunctional family ties are explored, alongside the strange experience of Ray Winstone’s morally compromised lawman and his detached, alienated wife (Emily Watson).
There is no redemptive solace here, no honour amongst thieves. Simply, a hand-to-mouth existence lived by people whose fatalistic acceptance colours their every attitude and utterance. The Proposition is a bleak cinematic vision but one that is more likely to match the true histories of this time and place.
9. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Tommy Lee Jones (2005)
Sadly, the Western has often excluded the voices of minorities, be they Native American, Black, Hispanic or other ethnicities.
Tommy Lee Jones decided to partially remedy this, at least obliquely, with this melancholy reflection on border communities, particularly within the Hispanic population.
An unexplained death (the victim is played by Julio Cesar Cedillo), a friend bereft (Tommy Lee Jones) and intent on investigating this death and a Border Agency officer (Barry Pepper) drunk on what little meaning and power his banal existence contains, are the main protagonists.
It is a demonstrably assured effort by Jones behind the camera, a man evidently keen to remove the glossy veneer that the West can sometimes labour under on the big screen.
The episodic flashbacks provide partial hints as to what has happened and how, making the film an engaging narrative puzzle as well as a rumination on what it means to be on the frontier in contemporary America.
Influenced by both real events and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, this is a Western that is dextrous, mature and moving.
10. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford – Andrew Dominik (2007)
Our final choice is Andrew Dominik’s deft take on another Western piece of folklore, the life and death of Jesse James.
Instead of playing up to the legend as prior films had done, Dominik prefers to inhabit an imprecise and opaque world, seen not through the eyes of James but by his followers and acolytes.
Indeed, Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is impassive, existing as a source of envy and jealousy rather than as a comrade who shares any kind of personal connections to those in his entourage.
The film reveals James for what he surely was, a violent and ruthless criminal, but also goes some way into exploring why people sought to follow him and then, to seek his death.
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford is part of a wider coterie of actors including Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard and Mary-Louise Parker who all add significant heft to this mesmerising character study.
The breath-taking cinematography of Roger Deakins combined with a delicate score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, only serves to further confirm the film’s status as a modern classic.
The ones that nearly made it:
My Darling Clementine – John Ford (1946)
Shane – George Stevens (1953)
The Searchers – John Ford (1956)
Heaven’s Gate – Michael Cimino (1980)
Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood (1992)
Open Range – Kevin Costner (2003)
No Country For Old Men – The Coen Brothers (2007)