When it comes to classical Hollywood tent poles, at the top would have to be comedy, romance, musicals, and Westerns. To me, nothing defines excitement and cinematic power than the Wild West. The sights and sounds on the big screen have continued to enthral audiences throughout the 20th century, and it is a genre that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. This is my Genre Tribute to the great American Western.
First up, let’s go back twenty-one years. Unforgiven has gone down as one of the best, if not the best depiction of the Wild West since the films of Sergio Leone. It attempts to deconstruct the aesthetic nature of previous Westerns – there are no inherently good or evil characters, just human beings reacting to the situation. Clint Eastwood’s character makes passing references to his past, where he drank too much and killed too many people. The Gene Hackman character is not a villain per say, but his obsessive nature for ‘peace’ and ‘order’ has terrible repercussion at the film’s climax.
The film is brimming with fantastic photography. Set in Wyoming, it’s a completely different Old West, utilising mountain ranges and grasslands – further removing itself from the genre convention of deserts and cacti. The major town, Big Whiskey, also lacks the lawless merrymaking we’ve come to expect, instead focusing on a ‘used’ feel.
One major theme in Unforgiven is the murder, and how it affects people. Gunfights in Westerns go without saying, and the images of stuntmen falling off Saloons into barrels are a classic cinematic image. In Eastwood’s film however, people are killed sparingly and when it does happen we explore how it makes the characters feel. The Schofield Kid is quick to boast of his many kills, but when he kills someone in the film, he breaks down – renouncing the gunfighter life. Unforgiven is a film without any Wilhelm screams.
Unforgiven is a fantastic Western: relevant, brooding, and philosophical.
From the revisionist mindset of Unforgiven, to the great homage that is Tombstone. An adaptation of the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the life of notorious peace officer Wyatt Earp, Tombstone never fails to impress.
With an excellent cast led by Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot, Tombstone is a love-letter to earlier classic Westerns – gunslingers, beautiful women, saloons, gangs, redemption and horses. However, it also cleverly drifts into Unforgiven territory with some exponential questions, and observations on Wild West justice. Tombstone is an engaging experience that won’t let you forget it. A man film.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 1966
Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western is almost synchronous with the Hollywood Western despite being very removed from it. Filmed in Europe with a monumental score by Ennio Morricone, the image of Eastwood in a poncho with a cigar has become a pop-culture mainstay.
The film itself is perfectly paced and, if you’ve seen the first two instalments of Leone’s ‘Dollars trilogy’, then TGTBATU is a brilliant final piece. Compared to A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, TGTBATU is a more introspective and tempered piece of film-making.
The three hour running time allows the drama to play out at a revered pace, introducing elements into the sequences slowly and meticulously. The sequence where Eastwood’s character “Blondie (the good) is forced to walk through the desert by Tuco (The ugly played by Eli Wallach) as he slowly succumbs to dehydration and the sun is full of nerve-racking anticipation. It also creates a sense that Blondie is just as susceptible to the harsh realities of life as any other character and he is not by any means a ‘inherently Good invincible superhero’.
Arguably, the film’s iconic set piece is the final ‘Mexican standoff between the three title characters where the Bad, a bounty hunter (played by a cool Lee Van Cleef) has followed Blondie and Tuco to an old cemetery, the resting place of a stolen cache of Confederate gold.
Morricone’s pounding Ecstasy of Gold breaks into full pace, as Leone’s camera focuses on the eyes of the three men, hands twitching of their guns, tensions rise and then it’s all over. One of them lies dead; the other is forced to pay for past dues. It’s satisfying cinematic glory and a prime of example of how the values of the Wild West have a wide reaching appeal.
The Searchers 1956
John Wayne and Westerns go hand in hand like beer and salted peanuts. Of the 142 individual films he appeared in, it will be the Wild West where he is forever associated. As such, it could be difficult to say which his best outing is. Could it be Rio Bravo? The Sons of Katy Elder? Stagecoach? True Grit? The list goes on, but for me there is only one film which truly encompasses Wayne as a leading man – The Searchers.
Directed by genre master John Ford, The Searchers is an entirely simple story told extremely well. Wayne is Ethan Edwards the Civil war veteran returning home to visit the only family he has – his brother, his brother’s wife, his nephew and his two nieces. Tensions are high and film critics have forever analysed the idea that Ethan was in love with Martha (his brother’s wife) and that this may explain why Ethan is so stoic around them – he cannot bring himself to betray his family for the woman he loves. It is unknown if the feeling is mutual, and the love is unspoken, but evident.
A Comanche raid brings death to Ethan’s family, and his two nieces are abducted. Ethan and his adoptive nephew, Martian Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) form an uneasy partnership as they scour the wilderness hoping to find some sort of absolution.
The cinematography and the scenery are just awe-inspiring. Ford’s cinematic addiction for Monument Valley in Utah has never been used more effectively than it is here.
The iconic image of Wayne silhouetted in the doorway of a cabin as he walks into the distance at the end of the film is so evocative of the character’s psychological makeup and the wider elements of the West it stands true as a cinematic image that has been used over and over again.
The Searchers is a requirement for any cinephile, and a great piece of film-making for casual viewers too.