After watching The Homesman (2014) last year and hearing writer, director, star Tommy Lee Jones declare that it isn’t a Western has got me thinking about the genre. Simon Mayo asked the question “is it the best western since Unforgiven (1992)?” Mark Kermode suggested that honour goes to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a choice I’m not totally sure I agree with but equally find it hard to argue with.
With Unforgiven, did Clint Eastwood reinvent, rejuvenate, or kill the Western? Winner of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars just two years after Kevin Costner had achieved the same with Dances with Wolves (1990). Unforgiven is dedicated to “Sergio and Don.” Sergio Leone and Don Siegal, the men who created the persona and legend that Eastwood had become. By the time he made the Unforgiven, he had sat on the script for over fifteen years until he felt ready to direct and old enough to star. One of the men responsible for creating Eastwood’s image, Don Siegel also directed The Shootist (1976) the final film of the genre’s other legend John Wayne. In that instance star and director came to blows, keen to preserve his image insisted a scene be reedited: “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” an interesting stance considering that Wayne had shot people in the back in several movies including one of his best, The Searchers(1956). Directing and staring at the height of his career, Eastwood isn’t concerned and gives us a darker and grittier film with a “hero” in William Munny who is “a killer of women and children.”
So what has this meant for the genre. have we had two decades of classic westerns or did it indeed kill the genre? There have been a few really good conventional westerns: Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), Ride with the Devil (1999) (possibly Ang Lee’s best western), The Missing (2003), Open Range (2003), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) (remaking a classic into an action adventure) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) (too poetic and dreamy to be truly considered a conventional western), Appaloosa (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), True Grit (2010).
It is when you step away from the conventions and cliché’s of the genre that you get the most memorable movies. Films that are most definitely westerns but not just westerns: Maverick (1994), a comedy western that reworked a TV show to great effect. Dead Man (1995), Jim Jarmusch’s fever dream of a western starring Johnny Depp before he believe his own press. The Quick and the Dead (1995), Sam Raimi’s high concept B western with a great cast. Lone Star (1996) great modern day western from John Sayles set in a Texas border town. The Claim (2000), Michael Winterbottom relocates Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to the California Gold Rush. The Proposition (2005), brutal but brilliant Australian western directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), classy Texas set modern day western written and directed by as well as starring Tommy Lee Jones. Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee’s better known western has great performances from all four leads. There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson’s western set against the backdrop of the early days of the oil industry. Django Unchained (2012) Quentin Tarantino re-imagines Sergio Corbucci’s ultraviolent western with devastating effect.
My favourite western since Unforgiven is No Country for Old Men (2007), one of, if not my favourite movie from Joel and Ethan Coen came after two of their weakest films (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers). Set in 1980’s Texas and based on the Cormac McCarthy of the same name. The film is violent and often melancholic, but it is also poetic and deeply, darkly funny. The thing you don’t expect from the Coen’s, it just feels so real. When I did my top ten movies of the decade five years ago, it didn’t make the list. If I were to redo the list today it probably would. The Pair returned to the genre in 2010 with True Grit.
The truth probably that cinema has moved on and westerns are out of fashion, but once in a while a great one comes around to make us nostalgic for Ford, Peckinpah, Hawks or Leone.