Everybody, to some degree, loves Westerns. I love Westerns, which may also have to do with the fact that, having never seen one first hand, I'm obsessed with deserts. But Westerns are often easy stories to understand. The good guys and the bad guys are clear cut—sometimes even down to their costumes—and everything usually works out in the end. Hi-yo Silver and such. They capture the very American spirit of freedom, of exploration, and of making your way in the world on your own terms. They often feature unlikely heroes overcoming hardships and obstacles in an unforgiving climate, and speak to the indomitable character that we all want to be. We can all relate to the time when everything looked bleak, symbolized visually in the films by the dry, empty landscapes and the wary townsfolk.
There’s also the sense of a lawless world where people are not bound by the confines of established society, where you can do what you want. That might sound good at first, but in a land where everyone is doing whatever they want, things get tricky—and dangerous. While many Westerns have themes of heroism, of taming the wild and bringing order, there is an equal sense of the precariousness of human order and of human life itself. The characters are very small compared to the wide expanses of land. Law and order is often fickle and easily corrupted. Everyone is vulnerable. Out in the wild, you can be whatever you want—if you can survive. So Westerns are easy parables of everyday life, even for those of us whose biggest daily undertaking is navigating rush hour traffic.
Westerns and their themes also cross cultural divides. Some well-known Westerns, for example, were inspired by Japanese cinema; Yojimbo became Fistful of Dollars and Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. The Japanese counterparts tell similar stories, of men not beholden to any order who make their own ways.
At the same time, many Westerns, particularly those made earlier in the century, are rather inconsiderate to non-white members of the population, particularly Native Americans and Mexicans, though later films (as well as some earlier ones) make a point of showing the injustices and prejudices inflicted upon these populations. Westerns ride (no pun intended) the narrow line of celebrating those who settled in what is now the western half of the US while still recognizing the less-than-heroic acts against the indigenous peoples.
The Westerns we’ll be looking at are not your typical Westerns. These films take the basics of the genre and turn them into psychological and social studies of the people who at the very limits of society.
- Dead Man. Jim Jarmusch. 1995. This was the movie that inspired the phrase “acid Western,” which is used to describe a Western that gets, well, trippy, and often twists the conventions of the genre. Dead Man tells the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant who takes the train out to Machine, a mythical town at the end of the railroad line in the hopes of finding a job. Instead, he finds himself with a bullet lodged in his chest, too deep to be removed, rendering his life limited, and a trio of bounty hunters (one of them a cannibal) hot on his trail. He travels through the West with Nobody, a Native American who, due to his mixed heritage, has no home. The journey, which started out as one to a new life, becomes one leading further into death. The film becomes a metaphor for life, death and the human psyche. Shot in black and white, the visuals are stunning, as is the soundtrack by Neil Young. And it retains its Jarmuschian dry sense of humor, no matter how dark the events get.
- The Shooting. Monte Hellman. 1966. I would argue that this, in fact, is the first acid Western. It’s a bleak and fatalistic movie full of jarring shots, wide sweeps of desert, and a general feeling of unease. The plot, which is sparse, is that a mysterious woman hires a man and his friend to accompany her to a location across a treacherous desert. She is a rather unpleasant person, and the trio is soon joined by a gunman. But the plot almost isn’t the point. The point is the harshness of the land, the mistrust of the characters towards one another, the ultimate futility of their attempt to get something done. The Shooting features a young Jack Nicholson as the gunman, and he also co-produced the film. This is also one of the few Westerns I’ve seen that has a female character at its center, who makes things happen and calls the shots (sometimes literally), rather than being simply a love interest or victim.
- For a Few Dollars More. Sergio Leone. 1965. This film is the underappreciated middle child of Leone’s Dollar Trilogy, flanked by Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The film follows “the man with no name,” played by Clint Eastwood, and his apprehensive team-up with Colonel Douglas Mortimer, played by Lee van Cleef (who also played “The Bad” in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Mortimer is the seeming antithesis of Clint. Where Clint is rugged but clearly the hero of the film, Mortimer is calculating and cold, dressed in black. The two men are equals with their guns, and though they start off as rivals, Mortimer convinces Clint to help him in a revenge quest against a known bandit called Indio. The movie has plenty of gunplay and excitement, but what I really like about it is the relationship between the two men, and the examination of how two different people with, it’s implied, two very different backgrounds confront the dangers of the wilderness. Their relationship, though marked by violence and based on mercenary convenience, is actually kind of sweet; by the end of the film, it’s clear they respect, and maybe even like one another.
- Duck, You Sucker!. Sergio Leone. 1971. Also known as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon A Time…The Revolution, this is another middle movie in a Leone trilogy. In full disclosure, I haven’t seen the other two, so I can’t compare them and I’m sure I’m missing something because of it. Set in 1913, this is the story of Juan Miranda, an amoral bandit who likes robbing stagecoaches with his gang, which is mainly composed of his own children. Chance leads him to meet Sean Mallory, an explosives expert and Irish revolutionary on the run from the British. Fun fact: Juan and Sean are the Spanish and Irish, respectively, versions of the name “John,” so the characters effectively have the same name. Juan convinces Sean to help him rob a bank, but they discover that the bank is not full of money, but rather of political prisoners of the Mexican Revolution. From there, Juan becomes part of the revolution, and the film explores themes of political affiliation, loyalty, and morality. This Western, though Leone stated that it was not the intention, touches on the greater implications of the actions of a few, and the way that countries and cultures are ultimately shaped.
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. John Huston. 1948. While it involves some gunslinging and a few bandits, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is more of a morality fable than anything else. It tells the story of two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico who decide to follow an older prospector into the Sierra Madre mountains to search for gold. The old man warns them that gold can make men do strange things, but the two insist that this will not happen to them. And, of course, it does—at least to one of them. Humphrey Bogart, who I often find to be kind of one-note in the acting department, does an excellent job of portraying one man’s descent into paranoia and ultimately villainy, and turns from a sympathetic character into a reviled one.