Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).

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