Monday, August 20, 2012

The Blahblahblah Family DVD Guide: Part 3 Westerns

Quite a few of you good readers may be new to this feature as the third installment of my guide to DVD's has been sitting on the shelf for a while, ignored until brought up in conversation in the blahs recently. So finally the second longest series of posts I've had planned has been added to by Chapter 19: Westerns.

For a bit of background in to what this is please see the blahblahblah DVD guide page and for those who missed it, Chapter 1: Science Fiction is found here and Chapter 2: Horror here.

Westerns, the one true American genre of movie making that gave rise to the storytelling trope of the Black Hat. Of all the genres of film this is one that I've never really taken a shine to, I think part of it has to be that I'm not American, the other part is that the classical western epitomised by the work of John Wayne is riddled with cliche from the earliest days of movie making.

Recently I've been reading some western/noir crossover pieces of fiction and seen a few films so it seemed like as good a time as any to discuss the better films of the genre.

From a little bit of research it seems as though this genre is as wide as noir in terms of sub-genres and off-shoots, some so fascinating that I feel the need to impart this wisdom to you. For example did you know that in Soviet Russia the propaganda machine created the Red Western and the Ostern in response to Western Propaganda? Some were set in America and others using the genre tropes to tell stories of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The American Acid Western came about in the 60s with a series of films that "express a counterculture sensibility to critique and replace capitalism with alternative forms of exchange." And these sat alongside the Revisionist Western in which audiences were encouraged to question the simple black white/white hat dualism and the morality of using violence to test one's character or to prove oneself right.

Of course the most famous of all genre evolutions would probably be the Spaghetti Westerns that made Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood famous.

In more modern cinema you could look at Serenity, No Country For Old Me and Brokeback Mountain as being shining beacons of what can be done with the genre. The more art film conscious amongst you might even bring up the feminist western Meek's Cutoff for inclusion in this discussion but I haven't seen it so I can only apologise.

The few rules I have placed on this feature:
1. Movies that have become a part of the public consciousness will not be included. If you need a guide to tell you whether to watch these movies then you've been living under a rock.
2. Movies that are primarily another genre such as comedy or romance will not be included. If you flip to this section chances are you aren't looking for a comedy or a romance.
3. Must have been released at the cinema longer than 2 years ago, otherwise you'd just hit up the new release section of your local video store. I shall use 1 June 2009 as the cutoff date.
4. Animation and films not in English will be discounted for pretty much the same reason as other genre. And they have their own chapter.
5. Anything with less than a 4 star rating isn't good enough to be in a guide to the best movies available and will be cut.

For this chapter those rules make things a little difficult. Three pages are given over to seven movies as follows:
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid *****
High Noon *****
My Darling Clementine ****
Open Range 2003 ****
Shane *****
The Alamo 2004 ***1/2
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre *****

Now this chapter also has a sub-section 10 More Great Westerns! which should allow me to actually make some recommendations for this chapter. Rob Lowings ten quick picks are:
Dances With Wolves
Devil In The Sun
Fistful of Dollars
Gunfight at the OK Corral
Jeremiah Johnson
The Big Country
The Magnificent Seven
The Searchers
The Wild Bunch

I think you're already noticing that Rob Lowing has left out some big names in an attempt to mix things up a bit with this list and I'll probably have to do the same. I think I will replace The Alamo on the grounds that it only got 3.5 stars and therefore isn't worth the space in the book, completely ignore the fact that Stagecoach and a few others should have been an automatic inclusion in the original seven and then get as close to ten quick picks as possible with my limited nowledge of the genre.

Movies that are currently part of the collective consciousness and therefore not open to consideration for conclusion should be few and far between thanks to the way the genre has died in terms of popularity. No Country For Old Men is the first one that I think of as being that popular, alongside that I shall place the entire Eastwood/Leone Dollars Trilogy and Unforgiven. I'm not sure how much people remember Unforgiven but if ever a western from the 90s was to be remembered it would be that one.

I want to say where the hell is Rio Bravo in that original list Mr Lowing? Do you not realise that it is one of Tarantino's favourite films and therefore automatically brilliant? How about The Sons of Katie Elder that was remade starring Mark Wahlberg as Four Brothers? Too obscure for your audience perhaps?

City Slickers is a comedy western right? and Three Amigos! was supposed to be funny yeah? Any movie that involves Kevin Costner automatically gets discounted due to the fact that I don't like the guy. Anyway out of those who object to that statement who wouldn't say oh hey it's Kevin Costner this western must be worth watching? Heaven's Gate is actually worth watching, and not just for the infamy of it all but I couldn't possibly put it in this book because it's so long it could be a mini-series.

My eleven picks for the western chapter, based on my own personal tastes as at the date of posting are perhaps the most obvious and thefore most accessible to the general public. Getting Eastwood out of the way first we start with High Plains Drifter from 1973, the tale of a gunfighter hired to protect a town from a group of bandits, damned by John Wayne for being too violent and portraying the heroes of Wayne's movies in a bad light this was directed by Eastwood and is his first great film. The original 1957 Glenn Ford adaptation of the Elmore Leonard story 3:10 To Yuma is also guaranteed a place because of it's more authentic approach towards adapting the master storytellers short.

Hombre means man! Paul Newman is Hombre! is one of my more favourite taglines from recent memory, beating out Hud in the Paul Newman stakes by the fact that it is another Elmore Leonard movie and I've actually seen it, 1967s Hombre is another revisionist western with a strong female character and a powerful yet subtle performance from Newman. Also adapted from a piece of literature, this time from E.L. Doctorow, Welcome To Hard Times came out the same year as Hombre and is still receiving mixed reviews. It's dark and bleak and from the point of view of that most un-western hero, the coward.
The rest of my selections are all pretty modern, if you're looking for some insight in to the golden period or classic westerns this is not the DVD guide for you. However if you're looking for interesting, powerful and most importantly well made American cinema I'm your man. To varying degrees these next three picks are some of the finest films made in America in any genre in the past ten years. There Will Be Blood is the film that made me pay attention to Paul Thomas Anderson, the opening sequence is one of the most mesmerising I ever remember witnessing, it puts David Lean to shame in terms of scope of vision and grand execution. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford probably suffered with being released the same year as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men but was still a haunting study of the weaknesses of man and the terrors of frontier era America. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the only feature film directed by Tommy Lee Jones and is a modern telling of a traditional western story in a contemporary Texan setting and is sadly a relatively unknown movie. Why he hasn't directed further movies is beyond me.
Two of the finest young directors of the 90s working in very different styles both made two very very good westerns. The idiosyncratic minimalist director Jim Jarmusch made an Acid Western thirty years after El Topo and in Dead Man he gives us a violent and surreal western that portrays the traditional "red injuns" in a sympathetic light. The debut feature that brought Rebel Without A Crew director Robert Rodriguez to the attention of cinephiles was the Mexican language western El Mariachi, this led to what was essentially an American remake with a much larger budget, Desperado.
The final two picks are both revisionist pieces but are worlds apart in terms of style and visuals. Nick Cave wrote the screenplay for the Australian western The Proposition, it's bloody and brutal and was included by Rob Lowing under the horror category for some unfathomable reason. Great cast, great performances, looks amazing thanks to the Australian desert locations and quite unforgettable. McCabe and Mrs Miller on the other hand represented a further string in the bow of auteur Robert Altman after the incredibly funny "war" movie M*A*S*H he deconstructed the western before moving on to noir. One of many amazing performances from Warren Beatty from that period of cinema history enhances what is without doubt my favourite western ever made.

So that gives me 11 picks to add to the six left from Rob and whilst seventeen movies from the entire history of the western genre means there's an awful lot of gaps I think I've established that westerns are a lot more than black hat vs white hat with these. Perhaps readers will be encouraged to explore the misunderstood genre further?

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (*****)
High Noon (*****)
My Darling Clementine (****)
Open Range (****)
Shane (*****)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (*****)
High Plains Drifter (*****)
3:10 To Yuma 1957(****)
Hombre (*****)
Welcome To Hard Times (****)
There Will Be Blood (*****)
The Assassination Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (****)
The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada (****)
Dead Man (****)
Desperado (****)
The Proposition 2005 (****)
McCabe & Mrs Miller (*****)

Agree or disagree with the choices I've made? Which of the original seven would you get rid of? How many of the ten quick picks would you have kept? Leave me a comment, let me know. I'd prefer to cut Open Range because of Kevin Costners involvement and some others until I've seen them but that would go against the rules. It's especially tough when I look at all those films that I had to leave out.


  1. You picks are infinitely better (Alamo, Open Range?). Love to see the McCabe and Mrs. Miller and THe Proposition love. Have not seen the original 3:10 to Yuma or all the Peckinpah will have to check some of these out seeing as I love a good western,

    1. I havn't seen Open Range but it has Kevin Costner in it so I probably won't. And yeah Peckinpah is sort of essential when it comes to the second/third generations of western movies if you're a fan of the genre.

  2. Great post. I love the ones you mentioned that I've seen. Rio Bravo is awaiting a rewatch, as it's been years since I last watched it. Heaven's Gate, Dead Man, Three Burials, 3:10 to Yuma, and Hombre are on my watchlist.

    As beautiful as The Assassination of Jesse James… is, I prefer The Proposition. So glad you included it.

    1. Heaven's Gate. For so long it was the butt of jokes but I think it deserves a lot more respect than it gets and with the DVD release I think it started to happen. That being said, any praise it gets would mean Michael Cimino might get to work again and from what I've read it's probably best that he doesn't.

      TAOJJBTCRF (even the acronym is long) is a beautiful film and a completely different kettle of fish (where the hell does that saying come from?) to The Proposition, which is beautiful in its own way and from the place that I call home.

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  4. Hah, love that Hombre tagline as well. Still need to see quite a few of these. I've got Dead Man queued up soon as part of my project, and I would like to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the near future. I just saw (and loved) Bonnie & Clyde, so it will be fun to catch another one of Beatty's biggest films.

    1. I have a thing for Warren Beatty I guess, I have his biography by Peter Biskind. It sounds fascinating but it's massive. I wanted it from the moment it was released (Biskind writing about Beatty in Easy Riders Raging Bulls was some of the most interesting parts of the book) but only found it at an acceptable price a month or so ago.
      If you haven't seen Reds yet it's well worth the time.