Guest Blogger: Mike Discusses Westerns Re-Imagined

Recently, probably after watching the new 3:10 to Yuma, I became kinda/sorta obsessed with Westerns.  As a kid I found them long and boring, and my tolerance for older looking movies was even lower than it is now.  But now that I'm older, I find I appreciate the slower pace and the greater importance of character in the story.  In a Western, nearly EVERYTHING is character driven--which is really cool after the last few years of big budget special effect juggernaut movies.

In the last couple of months, I've broadened my experience with Westerns, and I've realized something I never really knew: I've always loved Westerns. Some of my favorite movies, books, comics, and even the odd video game or two, are Westerns.  They’ve just been disguised so well you would never know.  

The Western isn't dead--it has adapted. The "Old West" doesn't exist anymore, so the Western now looks either back or forward.  And forward, especially in post-apocalyptic settings, is where the ground is most fertile. 

Here are five movies you might never suspect of being Westerns:

Serenity:  Based on Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Serenity was written and shot as a Western in space.  One can be distracted by the very prevalent sci-fi elements.   Despite these elements, Serenity would not be a very different movie if you removed them completely. 

Many of the Western staples are there: the ruthless man for hire, the out-of-place big city doctor, and the spiritually disillusioned Civil War veteran (who served on the losing side, of course).  The costumes are VERY Western as is the choice of weaponry: bullet-shooting guns (charmingly reminiscent of the Old West) instead of blasters or lasers.  The television series went out of its way to create Western scenery and situations with set design and costumes so accurate, if you watch a few minutes at a time, you’d have no idea there was a spaceship parked out back.

Serenity, however, did put the sci-fi first, bringing together all the action and adventure that such a movie can offer. But that didn’t stop the crew of Serenity starting the movie with an old-fashioned bank heist. The theme of the movie itself also works on both the Western and sci-fi levels: Freedom. Freedom to live, to work, to exist without being controlled, or monitored, which was the point of the Old West after all. 

Kill Bill Vol. 2: The second and final part of what is in reality a four hour movie, Vol. 2 shares a little more backstory of the Bride, revealing her training, her name, the moment her friends betrayed her, and her final confrontation with Bill. 

While the first movie is a bloody, violent homage to samurai movies, Vol. 2 is a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, even sporting music reminiscent of the “Dollars Trilogy.”  Most of the dialog and plot of the bigger story is contained in this second part, helping to create a slower-paced, more character-driven story. 

The Bride is your classic “man with no name” character, back seemingly from the dead to have her revenge.  She must hunt down and kill each member of her old crew, and each confrontation is memorable and wonderfully paid off.  The movie even moves the action to Western locales with the Bride visiting El Paso and Mexico. The musical moments, I think, are the biggest element stolen from Spaghetti Westerns:  the long pause in action and dialog as two characters stare one another down with the music delivering the lines of word and emotion.  Powerful stuff.   Add to that David Carradine playing Bill, and well, you’ve got an amazing movie.

Harry Brown: Starring the wonderful Michael Caine, Harry Brown is the story of a retired veteran living in a gang-controlled neighborhood.  When his best friend is killed senselessly, Harry decides that someone has to make a stand. The tension in this movie gets so thick at times, you can barely see the screen.  As Harry slowly begins to bring justice to the streets, you see a man acting out of desperation.  The authorities can’t, or won’t, help, so Harry must do it himself.

A dangerous man out for justice may seem obvious for a Western but put him into a British slum, and you’ll understand why people might not catch on at first.

Book of Eli:  A post-apocalyptic road film, Eli stars Denzel Washington as an enigmatic traveller with a mission and a sacred book.  When he ventures into a small town run by the ego-maniacal Gary Oldman, Eli’s book makes him a hunted man.

The setting of this movie--the stark, barren desert of a war-torn country--creates a tone and atmosphere that SCREAMS Western.  The main characters are all takes on classic Westerns motifs, and Eli’s mission and the focus on faith all work as Western themes.   Not only a great movie, Book of Eli is a great Western. It’s even got a shoot out!

Water World: The most expensive movie ever made, until Titanic that is, Waterworld is about another post-apocalyptic world, this time covered in, well, water.  The hero, played by Kevin Costner, is again nameless.  Happily living on his own, the trouble starts when the hero ventures into a small town.  Soon he’s on a quest to find the last piece of dry land on the planet, all the while fighting hungry scavengers for the key to finding it: a tattooed little girl.

Waterworld again explores Western ideas in a sci-fi setting:  the wickedness of civilization, the fear of people living on the frontier, and one very pissed off and dangerous hero working to save his friend.   

I think I love Westerns because the main character is so vital to the story.  All of the movies above feature a very strong, silent hero that must fight the world to make a difference.  While the hero's moral standing might be a little ambiguous, the hero fights for what he feels is right, even if the law doesn’t agree.  Sparks fly when the hero faces a villain who also believes he is right: that’s the main draw Westerns have for me.


Kate Woodbury said...

One of my favorite tributes to Westerns is the ST: Next Gen episode "A Fistful of Datas" where Data shows up in Alexander's holographic program of the "Ancient" West, playing EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER, including the floozy from the local bar. It's a great episode which ends with the Enterprise "riding" off into the sun(set). And of course, Brent Spiner is great at both the Cowboy walk and drawl!

Mike Cherniske said...

as I've been exploring the "Post apocalyptic" western Idea, I've rewatched The mad max movies, and decided discovered that not only is Mad Max 2 certainly a western, but it's the movie that started the trend!

Joe said...

Slightly preceding Road Warrior by months is Outland with Sean Connery.

Silverado is also highly recommended.

Mike Cherniske said...

I Agree that outland is absolutely a western, in fact it almost made the list. It's actually considered a remake of "High Noon"! I would credit Road warrior with the post apocalyptic western, and Outland with the sci-fi western (splitting hairs, I know).