I saw Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy years ago, it was Alex Cox who got me interested to revisit them. He introduced Italian westerns on Moviedrome and wrote a book on the subject called 10,000 Ways to Die which written in 1978, but was not published until 2009 by which time Cox has revised some of his theoretical framework. My friend Matt loves westerns, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on The Man with No Name trilogy. It was he who really made me re-evaluate westerns. There’s that great sub-genre of the western, revisionist. Which I think means that it takes the conventions of a western and laces it with deep and dark themes with some charismatic humour thrown in. Italian westerns are a great example of this and so is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo. From John Ford I’ve only seen The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; they weren’t charismatic enough for me. You notice that the last three films I mentioned star John Wayne who appeared in a whopping 88 westerns according to Letterboxd.
I’ll start with Clint Eastwood, Eastwood’s characters in westerns are often lone wolfs; the preacher in Pale Rider, Josey Wales, The man with no name. Then comes The Beguiled, Eastwood plays a wounded soldier during the civil war in 1800s; he is taken in by a group of women at a boarding school. He seduces each of them with tragic results. It is filled with desire, a sense of baroque and an editing style which brings to mind Nic Roeg. The boarding school is a hell on earth, Eastwood’s anguish is overplayed but that’s the point, his character cannot believe where the film takes us.
Eastwood’s Italian westerns with Leone; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and The Ugly are often regarded as the best westerns ever made. A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yjimbo which is turn was remade as Django in 1966. For a Few Dollars More has a great robbery sequence and features Klaus Kinski as a villain. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best of Leone’s westerns, mainly because of the depth of its script and Eli Wallach’s comic contribution. Ennio Morricone’s music blasts through the eardrum giving the films even more inventive texture.
Sergio Corbucci is often compared with Leone as a master of Italian westerns. Corbucci made Django in 1966 followed by The Big Silence, a western in the snow filled with lyrical poetry by Morricone’s music and featuring strong performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant (who has no dialogue) Klaus Kinski and Voletta McGee. The film’s ending shocked many; an alternative ending was shown in some countries. Another film which was considered shocking was Django Kill… (If You Live, Shoot!) with its violence and unusual editing style. The women in these films think for themselves, it’s one of the reasons why they are considered revisionist westerns, think of Johnny Guitar or The Homesman.
Neo westerns spring to mind four in particular; the first is Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it was seen to be Peckinpah’s most personal film. It’s about a bar room pianist (Warren Oates) who is in fact the best gunman in the west. He goes to Mexico to dig up the corpse of his friend Alfredo Garcia to receive a reward from a local gangster whose daughter had been impregnated by Garcia. Alex Cox sees the film as a metaphor for Peckinpah as a burnt out director slaving for Hollywood, Peckinpah said that Garcia was the only the film there the final edit was exactly as he intended. I struggled with the film’s narrative but was fascinated by Oates’ lack of interest in the money, the question of his actions just sit there.
Lone Star (Sayles, 1996) like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about the class conflict between Mexicans and Americans. Lone Star goes further though to consider the African community in a Texas small town, both films contain buried secrets. As ever John Sayles’ motto ‘put lives on screen that have not been seen before’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the individual scenes between his characters that make Sayles’ films so moving. Just now Sayles is in development for Django Lives! starring Franco Nero from the 1966 original. This time Django is a creative consultant/extra on the set of Birth of a Nation in 1915! We’ll have to wait and see…
A History of Violence is not commonly referred to a western but I think it is. It’s about a small town diner owner living a peaceful family life in Millbrook, Indiana who it turns out was previously a ruthless hit man for the mob in Philadelphia. He’s the gunslinger forced out of retirement, the oldest western story in the book but it has as open an ending as Lone Star and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, these films are filled with intrigue and texture over the smallest of details. One which I think is present in all three films, that of the protagonist reflecting whilst looking down at a river, their lives like ours are passing by faster than we care to mention.