What I think about after peeling back through all those years of the Western movie, it’s the western now. As in, why was all the cool stuff back when? Is the myth of the Old West not as vital anymore? Are we telling ourselves different stories today? And how has the Western movie changed? Did Rustler’s Rhapsody effectively redirect the whole genre?
Not saying I can answer all or even any of that, necessarily. But, what I do notice is that, where in the old old Westerns, the Indians were usually pretty disposable, in the now-Westerns, we’re just kind of invisible/erased/not dealt with all that much. Which I think is supposed to be a step forward. And, much as I can see how being invisible’s not just all that different from being shot dead off the back of a horse, still, they are kind of more easy to watch. And, no, I’m not forgetting Chavez y Chavez, of course. Who ever could:
We (“we,” yeah) even kept him alive for Young Guns II, which I consider that rare sequel that lives up to the original—the narrative frame was beautiful (never mind that Chavez is kind of Pocahontas’d at the end of it). There was no version of him in Tombstone, however. But still. Christmas 1993, I was in a packed theater in Midland, Texas, and Tombstone flat blew me away. When Wyatt Earp goes on his screamyfaced revenge sequence? Man:
However, I think something had happened between Young Guns and Tombstone, something more than City Slickers (which I love as much as any of these), something I think we’re still feeling in today’s Western: the fast draw stopped being such a big deal. I mean, sure, Doc and Johnny Ringo are definitely a subplot—who’s faster?—but that feels more like tropic carryover than the spine of the story. Billy in Young Guns, he was fast, and deadly-true. Wyatt in Tombstone, he just wades right out into the river, guns blazing. Like Bill Munny said in Unforgiven the year before, it’s really about who can keep their head when the lead’s flying.
But I don’t mean to go Western-by-Western all the way up to now. A few stand out, sure. The Claim had that burning horse. The Proposition had a guy’s head blow up in a way I hadn’t seen since Savini. The 3:10 to Yuma remake was solid, and the True Grit re-imagining was cool as well. Dead Man was some wonderful-fun commentary/undercutting. Appaloosa was cool and thirsty. I remember seeing The Missing at the theater, but can’t remember much about it. The Assassination of Jesse James was pretty but slow. Django Unchained was pretty but long. Wyatt Earp wasn’t Tombstone and Open Range wasn’t Lonesome Dove. Bone Tomahawk did have one scene I had to look away from—which I appreciate. There Will Be Blood took me a lot of times to finally get through, and I now remember zero of it, except that it had a very promising title. My favorite of them all’s probably a somewhat contemporary-set one: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. And of course we’re all waiting for and dreading-the-someday-adaptation-of Blood Meridian.
And, none of this is actually what I was meaning to get to. All I was meaning to get to, it was that there’s some cool, non-fast-draw stuff going on right now. Is the Western happening again? I don’t know. Probably I’m just renting them all still. They’ve maybe never gone away. But, if these three are any indicator, then the Western, it’s in a very good place right now:
Seriously, these are three of the best Westerns I’ve seen. And they’re all less than a year old, I think. And, in none of them is it crucial, how fast anybody can clear leather. And, in all of them, there’s an emotional core, and just some very solid storytelling. Also? As near as I can tell, none of them got wide theatrical release. I found them all at Redbox and on Netflix, I mean—did they need better titles, maybe? Did the heydey of the Western use up all the good titles?
Granted, they’re all non-Indian stories, but that’s of course the story America wants to tell itself.
More and more I’m thinking I need to see what’s involved with telling a different one. Painting that town red, as it were.
So tempting to blow that flute-y whistle, then cut to Lee Van Cleef’s eyes.
Stay tuned to this channel. Maybe someday.