Will 'True Grit' be the film to finally resurrect the Western?
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Is there a way back for the cinematic Old West...?
A huge hit at the US box-office and nominated for numerous awards, True Grit is one of the major success stories of the year so far. Despite its acclaimed direction and a superb cast, what most amazes about the film is its genre. The Coens may have courted the Western in their Oscar-winning crime-thriller No Country for Old Men, but here we see them tackle the genre head-on; and so far it’s looking good. Could this mean that after years in the wilderness, the Western is finally making a comeback?
In honour of True Grit’s release I recently staged a ‘Westerns’ Round as part of a quiz with members of my university’s cinema society. Upon announcing the theme I was met by a groan of disapproval from the assembled group. ‘Is the Western really this unpopular?’ I thought. ‘This is the genre that gave us such classics as Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…’
Why is the Western so unpopular with audiences today?
Perhaps it was the sheer saturation of the market during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with the films growing increasingly camp, clichéd or self-referential. Now, a Sunday afternoon hardly seems complete without a re-run of an old Western that looks the same as the previous week’s, where cowboys in brightly-coloured clothes sit around camp fires on an unconvincing studio-set, discussing the ‘injuns’, bandits and cattle prices. Or perhaps the conversation is livened-up by the unmistakable drawl of the grand old Duke himself, John Wayne. Part of the problem for younger audiences today is that from the huge back-catalogue of Westerns, knowing which are really worth watching is sometimes tricky, and contact with many sub-par efforts can be off-putting.
However, when you find a classic Western, these cinematic gems truly shine. I can’t see a poncho-clad Clint Eastwood emerge from a mirage, accompanied by an iconic Ennio Morricone score, without breaking into a huge smile, or stop a shiver of excitement whenever the haunting harmonica introduces Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in a West. From Steve McQueen joining Yul Brynner to ‘ride shotgun’, to Butch and Sundance’s river jump, these films are filled with memorable scenes that capture film at its finest.
For those who prefer their cinema more violent or edgy, especially fans of Vietnam War films, there are a number of great Westerns made during the late 1960s and early 1970s that capture the violence and despondency the country faced during that difficult period. Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, and the films of Sam Peckinpah, such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, use the genre as an allegorical vehicle to reflect powerful anti-war messages.
The Western eventually fell from favour, especially during the 1980s, with the exception of the action-adventure ensemble movie Young Guns. However, the genre enjoyed a brief revival in the 1990s thanks to Kevin Costner’s epic lupine lindy-hopping. Dances with Wolves was Costner’s homage to the films he grew up watching; a nostalgic inspiration which affected a number of Hollywood figures during the 1990s, resulting in films such as Saving Private Ryan, Titanic and Braveheart. It was nostalgia, too, that led Clint Eastwood to make one of his finest Westerns, Unforgiven; a parting kiss to the genre that made him a star. Others were more experimental; Jim Jarmusch offered a nightmarish take on the genre with Johnny Depp as protagonist in Dead Man. Set to an unconventional score by Neil Young, the film is a fascinating piece of filmmaking that has to be seen to be believed.
By the end of the 1990s the affectionate feeling of nostalgia seemed to have passed, and aside from various alternate interpretations of the Western (Last Man Standing) or mixing it with other genres (Wild, Wild West anyone? No, thought not…), the traditional Western seemed to fade from audiences' minds and cinema screens alike. In the age of effects-laden blockbusters and comic book superheroes, it appeared it was again time for the lone gunslinger to hang up his gun and spurs and retire. While a powerful, critically acclaimed emotional drama, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain seemed to be a final nail in the coffin for old-fashioned Westerns and the cowboy image (something that arguably began with Midnight Cowboy in 1969).
Over the past few years a few directors and stars have tried to breathe new life, complete with a tough-guy image, back into the Western. TV flirted with the genre, with HBO’s Deadwood winning over some fans, but the series only lasted three seasons; and the recent Jonah Hex, which mixed Western and comic book styles, was a critical and commercial disaster. 2006’s Seraphim Falls, on the other hand, was a poetic film that brilliantly balanced its beauty with a tense chase-thriller plot as Liam Neeson hunted Pierce Brosnan through the wilderness. A much underrated film, it only falls at the final hurdle with an oddly surrealistic finale (don’t worry, Pierce doesn’t launch into Abba’s greatest hits).
More successful was the remake of 3.10 to Yuma, which saw crippled war-veteran Christian Bale fight the odds to get Russell Crowe’s self-assured outlaw to the eponymous train on time in order to win the respect of his son and peers. Helmed by Walk the Line director James Mangold and with a fantastic performance by Bale, the film was an enjoyable adventure with a great climax.
Two oft-forgotten films from this period are the outback western Ned Kelly, which has good moments but is largely unremarkable, and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa. The latter film was a passion project for star/director/producer/co-script writer Ed Harris, who teamed up with Viggo Mortensen (who had previously been in Young Guns II in his pre-‘Rings days), Rene Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons for a well made, surprisingly witty film that starts strong but sadly doesn’t uphold its first-half promise.
Special mention, however, has to go to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which like There Will Be Blood (itself a Western, although not as we might always picture one), is undoubtedly one of the finest films of the decade. Great direction and sensational cinematography by True Grit’s Roger Deakins shape a film that is breathtaking in its haunting beauty. Complete with mesmerising performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and strong support by Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner, the film is a masterful meditation on death and the obsession with ‘celebrity’. It was a well-deserved recipient of BBC film critic Mark Kermode’s ‘Film of the Year’ for 2007, and remains one of the finest Westerns ever made, though sadly little-seen or appreciated by audiences. Maybe it was just that mouthful of a title...
Are things about to change? True Grit, an adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than a remake of the John Wayne original, has so far been an immense success with both critics and audiences. The Coens have their own cult fan-base; with swelled ranks following their Oscar glory with No Country for Old Men (also with cinematographer Deakins). True Grit, as noted in the advertising, appears closest to this film from the duo’s back-catalogue, and their use of a similar tone and appearance will obviously attract fans of the award-winning crime-thriller. Furthermore, the film carries a dream cast, with Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges enticing audiences along with the promise of action and drama (something The Assassination…’s trailer failed to relate). True Grit would appear to have a winning formula, and if the success of Gladiator and its subsequent imitators are anything to go by, we should see a few more Westerns in the years to come. Whether audiences take to these will have to be seen, but I for one hope Westerns make a triumphal return.
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