The Western is the great American cinematic form, a uniquely American genre. More than that, some have suggested that it stands alongside jazz as America’s great contribution to the arts. It is America’s equivalent of the Greek tragedy, where filmmakers replay and reimagine stories of America. The Western genre was at its height in Hollywood’s studio era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Its conventional storylines and reusable sets and props made it one of the backbone genres of the mass production machine that was studio era Hollywood. Before World War II, at a time when the major studios were churning out approximately 500 films a year, B-grade Westerns accounted for 15% of all Hollywood production. As well as these quick and cheap B-movies the studio era gave us great Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the greatest of them all, The Searchers (1956). But by the 1960s the classical Western was starting to grow tired, audiences were growing tired of it, and the genre went out of fashion in Hollywood for a while in the 1970s and 1980s. While the Western has never quite re-established itself as a prominent genre in post-classical Hollywood, there have been a number of notable and interesting films that have employed the Western form. Here are six of the best of them…
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a disarmingly likeable film, and possibly the greatest buddy movie ever. Butch and Sundance are part of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, but are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. With an unshakeable posse on their tail, they head for South America to start afresh as Bolivian bandits. Butch and Sundance are the perfect pairing. Butch is a charismatic, smooth-talking, sharp-minded leader. Sundance is cool, quiet and deadly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who would again team up with Hill in 1973 for The Sting) give the film genuine star power, while William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives it its charm, humour and intelligence. The final freeze frame is one of the iconic shots in American film.
In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 saw the release of another film about the Hole in the Wall Gang, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and they could hardly have been more different. The Wild Bunch is a key film in the history of screen violence. Changes to American film censorship regulations in 1968, with a move from the all-encompassing Production Code to a ratings system, allowed for greater representations of violence on screen and Peckinpah took full advantage. The film is a masterpiece of excess and spectacle, with approximately 90,000 rounds of blanks fired in the production. The film’s final shootout is truly something to behold. But rather than spectacle for spectacle’s sake, violence penetrates this film at a thematic level. The Wild Bunch is a film about violence, about the passing on of violence from one generation to the next, as demonstrated through the evolving roll of children throughout the narrative.
Little Big Man is a comic Western saga which continued director Arthur Penn’s engagement with the strong counter-culture movement of the time. It tells the life story of 121 year old Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Having been captured by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb spends his life jumping back and forth between living as a native American and as a frontiersman, and thus experiences both sides of a very transformative period in America’s history. Little Big Man provides a debunking of the classical Western myth, portraying the pacification of the West as an act of genocide. The Cheyenne people are shown to be a kind and peaceful people, and Penn’s dramatization of an attack on their camp by Custer’s Cavalry is an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War at a time before Hollywood films were ready to openly discuss the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the lowest point for the Western as a film genre, it was Clint Eastwood who almost single-handedly kept it alive. Unforgiven is both a love letter and farewell from actor-director Clint Eastwood to the genre that made him a star. Set in the 1880s, when the days of the frontier were fading and a new world was rising, William Munny is of the old world. A retired gunman and a widower with two children, he is coaxed to pick up his gun once more by his old friend Ned to go after a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey. Rather than a Wild West romp, Unforgiven is a dark and melancholy film. Where once Eastwood played a part in romanticising the West, here he shows it for its grim reality. Beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, and featuring a tremendous cast including Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning performance as sheriff Little Bill. Eastwood dedicated the film to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The second feature film from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western with an almost art-film sensibility. The film uses the story of the final chapter of the life of one of the American West’s most iconic characters to show us the active process of the mythologising of the West. The young Robert Ford has grown up on the tales of the legendary exploits of Jesse James, so when he has the opportunity to join the James gang for their last robbery he idolises James. Theirs is a strange relationship built on Ford’s intense devotion, which can really only end one way. While this slow-paced, contemplative film is probably a bit longer than it needs to be, it is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and features some very interesting performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the story of True Grit has a beautiful simplicity to it which has been missing from the Western in recent decades. Despite this old-fashioned quality, the direction of the Coen brothers and the beautiful cinematography, again from Roger Deakins, gives the film a modern feel and aesthetic. Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross, the young girl who sets out with a hired Marshall to catch her father’s murderer, is simply brilliant with the role being undoubtedly one of the great young female characters. When the story was previously brought to the screen in 1969, John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but rather than simply imitate Wayne’s performance, Jeff Bridges brings his own characterisation to the part.
It technically isn’t a movie so wasn’t included in the six but no conversation about the Western genre in recent years would be complete without…
Created by David Milch, for three 12 episode seasons HBO’s gritty series Deadwood was arguably the best show on television and the best single piece of work the Western genre had seen in decades. Set in the 1870s, the show followed the development of the town of Deadwood, annexed from the Dakota Territory, from a basic camp into a thriving, organised, but incredibly uncivilised and corrupt community. Marvellously written, the show’s dialogue was at the same time almost Shakespearean in its poetry and the most horrendously coarse thing you’ll ever hear. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and puppet-master over the citizens of Deadwood, was one of the great television characters of that decade. Tragically the show was cut short after three seasons, and while there was talk of two television movies being made to complete the story they never eventuated.
By Duncan McLean
Bright and early on 16th of January the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, was joined by actor Chris Hemsworth to announce the nominations for the 86th Academy Award to be held on 2nd March. A full list of the nominees can be found here. While there was plenty that we saw coming, as usual the Academy did throw us a few curve balls. This year has been heralded as quite a good year for Hollywood in a critical sense. While some years you would struggle to find five worthy nominees in each category, this year there seemed to be an abundance. As a result most of the surprises have come in the form of omissions rather than inclusions. Here are my picks for the five biggest…
1) The near complete shutout of Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers have become Academy favourites in recent years and their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, has been a critical darling and was expected to be a serious contender. As such, it was a surprise to see it miss out on a Best Picture nomination. This is made all the more significant by the fact the Academy chose only to nominate nine films when there are ten spots available. So it didn’t miss out in favour of something else. It was simply not chosen. Not only did it miss out on a spot in the main category, it was almost completely frozen out, missing out on nominations in the directing, screenwriting and lead acting categories where it would have been considered a chance. In only receiving two nominations (for cinematography and sound editing) Inside Llewyn Davis probably trumped Saving Mr. Banks as the big loser out of the nomination announcements.
2) No Best Actor nod for Tom Hanks
Probably the biggest individual surprise omission was Tom Hanks missing out on a nomination for his performance in the title role of Captain Phillips. A two-time Best Actor winner, Hanks’ was considered by many to be the frontrunner in this category. A win would have put him alongside Daniel Day Lewis as the only men to win three Best Actor Oscars. But as it is that will have to wait for another year.
3) No Best Actor nod for Robert Redford
Robert Redford is a bone fide Hollywood legend but has never won the coveted gold statue. His performance in JC Chandor’s All is Lost, where he played the sole character in the picture, was simply remarkable and left many thinking it put him in the mix for Best Actor – in situations like this the Academy has been known to give someone an award almost as a pseudo-lifetime achievement award. But Redford failed to receive a nomination, with the suggestion being that the film’s distribution company, Roadside Attractions, didn’t campaign as hard as they could have.
4) Blackfish misses out on a Best Documentary nod
Surprises don’t tend to get noticed as much in the documentary categories simply because not as many people have seen them. But in this case, plenty of people have seen Blackfish. The doco exposing the unacceptable living conditions and treatment of the performing Orcas living in Seaworld parks was well received critically and commercially and would have been expecting a nomination.
5) David O. Russell does it again
I don’t know if you can really call this a surprise, but it is definitely historically notable. For the second consecutive year a David O. Russell film has managed to score nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay and all four acting categories. It has only happened 13 times in 86 Oscars ceremonies, so to do it twice, let alone in consecutive years, is impressive to say the least. It seems if you want to get nominated for an Oscar your best bet is to get yourself in a David O. Russell film.
By Duncan McLean
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
It was once said that all a film needs for drama is two people having a conversation. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) seeks to prove that one of those people is redundant in his second feature, All is Lost, the tale of an ageing man alone at sea.
Our man is on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean when his yacht collides with a shipping container that has fallen off a cargo ship. With his communications and navigational equipment ruined and his vessel taking on water, the resourceful man finds himself fighting to survive and at the mercy of the ocean.
All is Lost is a minimalist film. There is no fat on it. The film starts at the moment that the Virginia Jean starts to take on water and it finishes at the moment that we discover his final fate. It is a film unburdened by context and backstory. We know very little about this character outside of his immediate circumstances. We don’t know why he is out there. We don’t know if he has a family or not. We don’t know if he is a good person or a bad person. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he is a human being and he is fighting for his life. And you know what? That is enough. That is all we actually require to care about this man and become invested in his situation. In a time where every reality television contestant comes complete with a tragic backstory of a hurdle they’ve overcome, a relative with terminal illness or a child they’re hoping to inspire, all designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience and cynically tug at their heart strings, it is refreshing to see the way that Chandor trusts his audience. He trusts his audience to care without needing to over-emotionalise the situation.
As the film’s lone character – credited simply as ‘Our Man’ – Robert Redford is compelling to watch. With no other characters to talk to, he hardly speaks a word in the film. Chandor’s faith in the audience to work things out for themselves means he doesn’t resort to having the character talk to himself. Nor does he include a narration to explain what he is thinking and feeling. Instead it is up to Redford’s face and his actions to do the talking. Where a more insecure actor may have given into the temptation to overact, Redford maintains an incredible subtlety. Our man is stoic and unemotive, which makes those moments when his resolve does break all the more powerful. But despite this stoicism we can always see that his mind is working, that he has a plan. It is a masterful performance from a Hollywood legend which should see him in the mix come award season.
All is Lost screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, with Redford receiving a standing ovation for his performance. It is the type of film that is more likely to make its presence felt at film festivals than at the box office. The nature of Chandor’s film means that it is a less commercially attractive prospect than last year’s lost at sea film – the equally brilliant Life of Pi – but it is a powerful piece of filmmaking which really sticks in your mind.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean