During last week’s podcast on True Grit(s), we talked about our favorite Classic Westerns. (Mostly they were John Ford movies or anything shot in Monument Valley.) However, as we noted the Classic Western has basically disappeared. The scholar Richard Slotkin has identified what he sees as the four ways an otherwise-dead genre is resurrected: historicism, homage, pastiche, and parody. To those categories, I would add the revisionist mode, that movie which seeks to examine the tenets of the genre, unlike homage, which only replicates them. In these five ways, the Western is very much alive, so let’s take a look at how it’s changed. (Hint: sometimes it hasn’t changed for the better.)
Historicism: Legends Of The Fall (1994) – For some reason, the 1990’s especially seem to have been a time of revival in the Western genre, but that doesn’t mean all of these films were good. (I don’t care how many Oscars “Dances With Wolves” won, that film was made earlier and better by John Ford.) However, they weren’t all bad either. This is a perfectly serviceable Western that spans the early turn of the century through the first World War. In time period and location it’s a Western, but the film’s focus is on historical romance and Brad Pitt’s hair. You’d never see John Wayne with those golden locks.
Homage: Django Unchained (2012) – Tarantino is probably the master of genre homage and pastiche. Every one of his films is packed so tightly with pop culture references that it can seem like a film geek’s wet dream. However, one of the defining features of an homage is that it accepts the rules of a genre without question. And despite casting a black man as the hero and setting the film in Antebellum South, this film still trots faithfully in the shoes of his beloved Spaghetti Westerns (except with a lot more blood). It’s a problematic film, as those pieces of the genre Tarantino chooses to overturn mostly pertain to race, and his handling of it is shallow at best.
Pastiche: Serenity (2005) – The Space Western has to be my single favorite example of genre pastiche. Creator Joss Whedon (of ” The Avengers” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) took Star Trek’s assertion that space is the final frontier literally. He created “Firefly,” a short-lived TV series about a motley crew of rough necks at the end of the ‘verse carving out individual justice. In 2005, he turned it into a movie that was part Battlestar Gallactica, part High Noon, part anime, and part Magnificent Seven. All that genre-mashing adds up to a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. Shiny!
Parody: Blazing Saddles (1974) – This is probably the greatest parody film of all time. It’s difficult to point to the one thing that makes it so good: is it the Yiddish-speaking Native Americans? Bart’s kidnapping of himself? The Waco kid’s drinking problem? Mongo? No, it’s probably Madeline Kahn. But even without her, it’s an absolutely brilliant example of how broad-comedy parody writing can be intelligent and crass at the same time. (It also says more about race in westerns than “Django Unchained” can.)
Revisionist: Dead Man (1995) – Made during that brief period of time when Johnny Depp’s career was wild and under-the-radar, Dead Man takes the typical Western plot “hunted man searches for justice” and turns it into the story of an innocent man named William Blake thrown into the cruel world of the West with only a Native American named “Nobody” to guide him. Blake stumbles from awful situation to awful situation, slowly dying from a gunshot wound (too slowly; the movie is two hours long). As an intellectual exercise in the deconstruction of the genre, it makes for an interesting film, but I’d much prefer to re-watch the brawl at the end “Blazing Saddles” if I want to poke holes in generic conventions.
So there are five new Westerns; some great, some bad, and some just kind of “eh.” Got a favorite Western? Post in the comments section below!