As popular as the western once was, there will never be a full revival. 2016 has seen another splutter from the genre, with the remake of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and the lauded television update of Westworld (1973), but like previous attempts at a resurgence it’s just a blip on the Hollywood radar. The golden age of the western was born out of necessity; Hollywood during the first half of the twentieth century needed content and they needed it to be cheap. The only history America had to pull on was the Wild West and fortunately cowboy adventures were inexpensive. Wrangle some horses, round up cast, and head out in to Monument Valley. A naivety about the true nature of life in the old west helped drive narratives; cowboys were the good guys, Indians were the bad guys, damsels were usually in distress. As the sixties dawned audiences demanded more sophistication, both in the quality of effects and visuals, and the reality of cowboy life. An Italian shot in the arm via the spaghetti western kept the genre ticking along for a few more years, but eventually younger viewers grew tired of cattle rustlers and Comanches, realistically portrayed or not. Blockbuster trips to the stars and true life ‘proper’ dramas were de rigour, and would remain so from then on. The death of the genre did provide one upside for the western; when a filmmaker did decide to hit the dusty trails it was usually for a project of assured quality. Here are ten films on horseback that drank upstream from the herd.
- HIGH NOON (1952)
If you visited a cinema during the golden age of Hollywood there’s a good chance you’d be sat in front of the weathered plans of mid-west America. From the 1930’s onwards the widescreen vistas of director John Ford and the swagger of gunslinger John Wayne were in almost constant rotation. And while the cinematography was undoubtedly impressive, most of the heavy lifting was done by Mother Nature; it wasn’t hard to make a good looking western when the scenery was that stunning. Films that didn’t rely on cliché ridden scripts were few and far between though. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) bucked the trend before director Fred Zinnerman offered up the first masterpiece western with High Noon (1952). It was key that Zinnerman was a relative newcomer to the genre; in his words the film wasn’t a western, it was just a drama that happened to be set in the old west . Typical western fans were disappointed by the movies lack of gunfights and horseback chases upon the film’s initial release. But the story of Gary Cooper, as the town Marshall forced to take on a gang of killers single handed, relied more on naturalistic exchanges and moral dilemmas than the mainstays of the Wild West. The fact that Cooper as the traditional hero was rescued by Grace Kelly as heroine Amy in the films climax also didn’t sit well with fans, including John Wayne who dismissed the movies contradictory nature as a dig at his support of the Senator McCarthy-led blacklisting that was prevalent at the time.
Tasty Morsel – Floyd Crosby, the cinematographer on the film, is the father of David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame.
- THE SEARCHERS (1956)
Irritated by the success of High Noon after labelling the movie ‘un-American’ (the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gary Cooper) John Wayne largely moved away from westerns during the early fifties. The films he did star in though were panned, the likes of Blood Alley (1955) and The Conqueror (1956) derided by critics. Director John Ford had also taken a six year break from the western, but when Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the Alan Le May novel The Searchers they convinced Ford to take his camera back out west. Seeking the security of the genre he loved, Wayne agreed to dust off his Stetson to as the stories hero Ethan Edwards. Ironically, it was the films subtle digs at the less than upstanding methods Edwards employs tracking down his abducted niece that made the character the standout performance of The Duke’s career. You think western, you think John Wayne, and his most celebrated picture in the genre remains The Searchers (1956). Whether he realised he was playing a bit of a bastard at the time of shooting is unknown; given his political leanings he probably thought he was the out-and-out hero. Whatever the case, there was never a script better suited to his gruff grandstanding and he was never better photographed than by Ford in the quintessential western backdrops of Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
Tasty Morsel – As recognition of the part which produced his finest onscreen performance, John Wayne named his son Ethan after is role in The Searchers.
- THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
The golden age of the western came to an end with an entertaining blast courtesy of Rio Bravo (1959), an action packed riposte to the unconventional High Noon. The western showed no signs of slowing though as the sixties dawned. The decade kicked off with director John Sturges adding another entry to his own back catalogue of memorable westerns (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)) after actor Yul Brynner acquired the rights to remake Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and United Artists convinced Sturges to get back behind the camera. Whilst The Magnificent Seven (1960) didn’t improve on Kurosawa’s movie it did a fine job of lifting the character archetypes out of their eastern setting and plonking them in the middle of a Mexican village under siege from nefarious cowpokes. Sturges sensibly let the combined heft of his ensemble cast to carry the rest of the film, and the joy of seeing Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and the rest turn a fairly standard script in to gold is undeniable. Despite the fun though it’s not all laughs and bloodless gunfights, and the climactic battle bumps off a number of audience favourites; it’s a bittersweet finale “We lost. We always lose”. The film was a disappointment in America with only a modest box office take, but film fans in Europe were smitten and following a successful global haul a sequel was greenlit. Brynner was the only original participant to return for Return of the Seven (1966), but he bowed out for Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972), with George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef taking the Chris Adams character mantle. Another septet of charismatic players including Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington were pulled together for the surprisingly reasonable remake of the remake The Magnificent Seven (2016).
Tasty Morsel – McQueen went to the surprising length of staging a car accident to get out of his contract to film the television show Wanted Dead or Alive, using the recuperation time to shoot the film.
- THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)
The European made western wasn’t a new concept by the early fifties, but it had gone unrecognised in America, seen as an inferior product in comparison to the high sheen of Hollywood’s output. That all changed in 1964 when Italian director Sergio Leone released A Fistful of Dollars (1964), another western inspired by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, this time his Yojimbo (1961) picture. Leone shot the picture as a dig at the American western which he felt had grown soft and unrealistic during the fifties. Critics ignored its satirical humour, focusing instead on its low budget aesthetic, but audiences loved it, lapping up its shady characters and gritty setting. For A Few Dollar More (1965) continued the story, and a year later the ‘Man With No Name Trilogy’ was completed with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). By this stage Leone had fine-tuned his unique style of long-shots, lingering close-ups, and scenes with sparse dialogue, but this time the director had a tight script to shoot with an irresistible premise; a trio of gunslingers competing for a legendary buried stash of Confederate gold. Leone was further blessed with the best central threesome ever to grace the old west, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef. Under appreciated at the time of release, the film has since been reassessed was one of the greatest westerns ever made.
Tasty Morsel – Though Leone never discussed a sequel, screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni was approached to pen a follow-up set 20 years after the original and telling the story of Tuco (Wallach) pursuing Blondie’s (Eastwood) grandson for the eponymous gold.
- ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)
Such was the success of the ‘Dollars / Man With No Name’ trilogy Sergio Leone found himself directorially typecast. Leone was keen to move on though; it would take something extraordinary to lure him back to the old west. That something was the opportunity to work with his favourite actor Henry Fonda, which was exactly what Paramount offered him in 1968, along with a substantial filming budget. Roping in fellow filmmakers Bernado Bertolucci and Dario Argento, the trio hammered out a script telling the tale of the fictional town of Flagstone, the encroaching opportunity of the railroads, and one man’s life long quest for vengeance. The result was Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), Leone’s masterpiece and what many consider as the greatest western of all time. Like many westerns it took time for the appreciation to materialise, but eventually fellow filmmakers realised just what Leone had achieved. Ditching much of the tongue-in-cheek parody of his previous films, Leone told a slower story, building many scenes over extended, dialogue free shots. This added realism made the arrival of violence all the more visceral. Leone’s long-time collaborator Ennio Morricone also returned to provide one of the best soundtracks of his career, anchored by a number of specific themes for each of the central characters.
Tasty Morsel – The role of Harmonica was originally offered to Clint Eastwood. Eastwood turned down the role, so Leone offered the part to Charles Bronson who had turned down the part of Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy which eventually went to Eastwood.
- BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
Aware of the Butch Cassidy legend early on in his writing career, William Goldman didn’t put pen to paper on a script for the Cassidy story until he came across a famous quote by Scott Fitzgerald, ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. Butch and Sundance had that rarest of American commodities, a two act life story, having fled to South America to start afresh after a series of successful bank and train robberies. Goldman struggled to sell the script at first, with a number of studios seeing the lead pair as cowards for hot-footing it south of the border. 20th Century Fox eventually took a gamble, placed Georg Roy Hill in the director’s chair, and recruited one of most charismatic duos ever put on screen. The easy back and forth between Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the titular pair is eighty percent of what makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid work. The script itself isn’t particularly ground breaking, and the film is far from perfect, particularly the latter half which struggles to match the effortless flow of the first half. But Newman and Redford lead the viewer through right up to the timeless ending when Butch and Sundance make their tragic last stand. Fox couldn’t lure Newman and Redford back for the prequel Butch & Sundance: The Early Days (1979) instead casting William Katt and Tom Berenger. Their performance just highlighted further how essential the original duo were in creating the Butch and Sundance magic.
Tasty Morsel – The real Butch, Robert Leroy Parker, got his nickname from his time working in a butcher’s shop, and Sundance, Harry Longabaugh, after being arrested in the town of Sundance, Wyoming.
- WESTWORLD (1973)
By the end of the sixties the traditional western well had run dry. Tweaks to the formula, such as the upping of cowboy-on-cowboy violence in The Wild Bunch (1969) afforded a brief stay of execution but by the seventies there were no more stories left to tell. If spur sporting heroes were to continue to ride on the big screen they were need fresh ideas to carry them. One of the best concepts to date came from novelist Michael Crichton. Writing under the name John Lange, Crichton had amassed a solid reputation by 1973 following a successful movie adaptation of his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain. With half an eye on being a filmmaker himself, Crichton convinced MGM to let him direct his first film, based on his script Westworld. The film’s ingenious idea follows tourists in a future Earth visiting a theme park built to represent the old west. The park is inhabited by robots which the guests are free to interact with however they like, living out their own Wild West fantasies. Things inevitably go array when one of the robots, the black clad Gunslinger (Yul Brynner), forgoes its safety protocols and starts offing the guests. The situations that were once old hat in all the westerns to date could now be reinvented, underpinned by a raft of ethical issues and seething tension thanks to the central plot device. On top of that, Crichton expanded his canvas even further, showing Westworld to be just one of a range of available parks (Medieval World, Roman World, etc). The concept was a hit with critics and audiences, and with a tons of potential for a world expanding sequel MGM ordered Futureworld (1976). Crichton didn’t return though, already burnt by the studios penny pinching and script meddling the first time around. Futureworld, presaged by its terrible tagline “Is this you … or are YOU you?”, was a damp squib but it didn’t stop CBS ordering a television show based on the franchise in 1980; Beyond Westworld lasted just five episodes. Fortunately, J.J. Abrams and Jonathon Nolan restored Westworld’s reputation in 2016 with an excellent ten part TV reboot.
Tasty Morsel – Brynner’s expressionless, relentless Gunslinger android was the inspiration for both Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) and the T-800 in The Terminator (1984)
- BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
By the mid-seventies the many western tropes and clichés were long overdue some good natured ribbing. Whilst a small number of movies dabbled with the concept, Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) a full on spoof hadn’t been attempted. When director Mel Brooks got wind of an idea writer Andrew Bergman had called Tex-X, a western take on activist Malcolm X complete with ‘right-on’ modern dialogue, he saw an opportunity for his next comedy hit. Roping in some fellow comedy script merchants, a torturous script hammering session commenced. When the final script was nearing completion Brooks began casting, with an eye on Richard Pryor for his Sheriff Bart and John Wayne for the Waco Kid. Warner Bros. passed on Pryor due to his substance abuse issues and Wayne turned down the Waco role declaring the film ‘too blue’ for his apparently wholesome image. Part of the reason Blazing Saddles (1974) worked so well though was precisely because it didn’t pull its punches. Much like Brooks earlier comedy masterpiece The Producers (1967), it stared the racism and xenophobia of a time period in the eye and laughed at it; ‘Up yours nigger!’ declares a spry old lady to Sheriff Bart when he arrives in Rock Ridge. Things get more ridiculous from here on in, as standout scene follows standout scene, be it orchestras in the desert, flatulent cowboys, or climatic fourth-wall breaking fist-fights. What anchors the chaos though is the two central performances from Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. Not only does their earnestness keep the thin plot on the rails, it turns a large number of their lines in to comedy gold, ‘Little bastard shot me in the ass’. The animated movie Blazing Samurai to be released in 2017 aims to finally pay tribute to one of the finest comedies and most colourful westerns of all time.
Tasty Morsel – In an attempt to hoister away the right to the Blazing Saddles franchise, Warner filmed a TV pilot of Bergman’s original script called Black Bart starring Louis Gossett Jnr. The pilot only aired once though and Brooks retained the rights to his picture.
- UNFORGIVEN (1992)
The biggest revival in the genre since the western rode off in to the sunset in the late sixties arrived thirty years later at the start of the nineties. The unlikely initiator was Kevin Costner who took on both side of the camera with Dances With Wolves (1991). The Academy were suitably impressed, and any script set in pre-1900 America was suddenly hot property in Hollywood. The once anti-hero of the old west, Clint Eastwood, decided to take a second look at a script that had come his way in the early eighties, tentatively titled The Cut Whore Killings. At the time Eastwood passed, more interested in testing himself in other projects. But by 1992 Eastwood was an old hand not just as an actor but also as a director, with fifteen films under his belt from the director’s chair. With the script retitled Unforgiven, Eastwood had a fairly sedate plot on his hands which needed a fine cast of actors to ensure the viewer remained interested right up to the stories bleak payoff; he was lucky to gather the finest ensemble cast put together for a western. Eastwood was Oscar nominated for Best Actor in the role of notorious outlaw William Munny, and Gene Hackman won Best Supporting Actor for the hardnosed sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggert, but the entire cast deserved acting gongs for their collective work. Even the most superfluous scene becomes mesmerising in the hands of Richard Harris, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett, Anna Thomson, Saul Rubinek and the rest of Eastwood’s cast. Each scene adds another small nugget of expectation, be it the de-arming of English Bob or Bill torturing the steadfast Ned, all building towards the best climax in western cinema, so wanted its pure cinematic relief when it finally arrives, ‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it’.
Tasty Morsel – The boots Eastwood wore for the part of William Munny were the same boots he wore on the television show Rawhide (1959), the footwear book-ending his career as a Wild West actor.
- TRUE GRIT (2010)
John Wayne had already lost two Best Actor Academy Awards by the time he made True Grit (1969). Even though he was up against Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight and their astonishing performances in Midnight Cowboy (1969) it was a foregone conclusion that the Duke would nab the Oscar for his eye-patch sporting Rooster Cogburn. Having won him gold Wayne returned to the role for Rooster Cogburn (1975) while a made-for-television sequel True Grit: A Further Adventure was released in 1978 with Warren Oates stepping in to Cogburn’s boots When talk of a True Grit remake began in 2008 a unexpected directorial pair approached the project, Joel and Ethan Coen. But rather than put their own Coen-esque spin on the original story, the brothers set about making a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ original novel. As with the book, the focus of the story becomes 14 year old Mattie and her quest to avenge her murdered father. Hailee Steinfeld, in her on screen debut was a revelation in the role, but was oddly only nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges, as Cogburn, were equally impressive but both came up empty handed when the Oscars were handed out. Perhaps most startling of all was the direction from the Coens; not only did they dial back their own idioms, they managed to create a movie as equally enthralling as any picture in their back catalogue to date.
Tasty Morsel – With ten nominations and no wins, True Grit remains the most Oscar nominated movie not to take home an Academy Award.