By Sayantan Mondal. Posted on April 27, 2016
Thanks to filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah & John Ford and their unforgettable western classics such as Once Upon In The West, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, the western movie genre has been recognised as one of the most loved movie genres that not only entertain us but also leave us in awe with its depiction of the 'Wild Wild West'. But what exactly makes this genre an unforgettable part of cinema?
Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and the soon to be released remake of The Magnificent Seven (interestingly the original was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai), clearly tells us that the Western genre continues to be immortal. It also is good a time to deconstruct the genre and understand why it continues to endear film buffs and filmmakers to this date.
The idea behind Westerns was to capture the trials and tribulations of an era long gone. This particular movie genre proved to be immensely popular, cementing its place within the American cultural canon and had a solid impact on the American social as well as political base. A western mainly concentrated on telling the story of the Great American Frontier or as it is known in the popular lingo The Wild Wild West, tales of both bravery as well as savagery, tales of heroism, tales of sacrifices and how America was created.
The idea of the frontier actually motivated as well as thrilled the Americans. The frontier itself was a political hotbed post the 1865 American civil war and storytellers got busy telling its stories that exposed the common man to this vast untamed territory.
Between 1930's and 60's Westerns became hugely popular in America and other parts of the world. And there was a strong reason for the same. As America entered the Second World War and as American troops went to different parts of the world, so did the movies as they became a popular source of entertainment for the soldiers. This ensured that Westerns didn't remain isolated and it influenced many a movie industries that chose Westerns as a popular narrative idea to entertain its audience.
Several directors made Westerns an important part of the cinematic canon that influenced many later directors and helped them in creating different innovations in terms of both stories and production values.
Later as Westerns progressed, it diversified and started spinning new tales, producing old wine in a brand new bottle that suited old and new audiences alike. It also included elements from other genres and thus creating a super-fusion of sorts with more investment in productions as well as story and the cinematography.
Westerns were part of a great American tradition and several directors like Howard Hawks, John Ford and Fred Zinnemann made some great movies that proved to be influential even beyond the genre. Actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and many others earned their superstardom by acting in such productions.
Movies like Red River, High Noon as well as Rio Bravo all brought together a change in the way these movies were perceived and handled. Both old and new school ideologies came in a conflict, when the political atmosphere made it impossible for creative minds to work, particularly during the McCarthy era as Westerns became a tool of making a political commentary.
Howard Hawks in Red River and Rio Bravo concocts a tale so outlandish, so outrageous that the aftershocks are often felt even today. While Red River was a magnificent tale that issued a warning of sorts that the normal tradition was now about to be vanquished, Rio Bravo was made to contrast Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon which in the opinion of John Wayne, was a communist propaganda.
Westerns were often fraught with ideologies with differentiated opinions because the very base of it was political, about the fabled frontier. Westerns can be considered as the most basic treatise on colonialism and imperialism and some of the directors working in this genre made it a point to give the westerns the political colour it deserved.
There was a time when westerns suffered a decline and many thought that the genre will slowly limp off the landscape just like the countless fallen heroes of their films. But they were wrong. Westerns came back stronger than ever, thanks to a number of visionaries. But the one we should be eternally thankful to is the Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa, whose samurais created a brotherhood of sorts with the cowboys.
Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from a lot of American directors and writers for his cinema. In return he influenced the likes of Sergio Leone and to some extent Sergio Corbucci to create their own westerns. Cowboys had much in common with the Samurai though the code of bushido was of course missing from the lives of cowboys.
Leone was a pioneer who brought back westerns from near extinction and also played a pivotal role in the rise of Clint Eastwood. Leone’s inspiration was Kurosawa and his Yojimbo that starred the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in the lead role became the source of A Fistful of Dollars.
Talking about A Fistful of Dollars, Leone substituted shogun-era of Japan with the frontier, lawless and decadent, filled with power-hungry people out to exploit the poor, helpless inhabitants. Another great work of Leone was Once Upon A Time in the West, that is considered as a classic of the Western genre and was known for its wide angles and close shots, with a soundtrack that served as a catalyst to the narratives, composed by the now legendary Ennio Morricone. The composer's later work in Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has now attained a hallowed status with the movie itself being a sort of study on filmmaking for people interested in direction.
Sergio Corbucci was another director whose body of work was vast and different from that of Sergio Leone and had much in common with the likes of Sam Peckinpah. His Django, The Great Silence and several other films can be best described as atmospheric with haunting violence. The ritualistic cinematography in his films made it a visual treat, as if drenched in a bloody golden colour. Both Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone were instrumental in setting up the Spaghetti Western genre as well as popularizing it.
Keoma, starring Franco Nero and directed by Enzo G. Castellari, can be considered as a quasi-spiritual western with Nero’s character a Christ like figure looking for redemption. The movie is known as one of the strangest Westerns ever made, a sort of a narrative that you generally didn't find in movies made during this era, which actually helped the genre to undertake a certain experimentation.
Coming to Hollywood, a number of directors re-worked the genre and created a new mythology with the additon of brutality and violence. Sam Peckinpah was a pariah of sorts in Hollywood. A genius, his movies changed Hollywood and it was his movies that started the custom of ultraviolence in America cinema that was never seen before and he made it possible through his western epic The Wild Bunch, that was Django in soul and Seven Samurai in spirit.
Critics raved about the movie, but it was bloody, grim and the unrelenting violence shocked a many but paved the way for more innovation and new techniques in cinematography, especially the ones we see in the movies of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and other contemporary directors like Jeremy Saulnier. Peckinpah’s other western movies, namely The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were violent yet engaging.
Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid considered by many as the ultimate bromance movie, came out during this exhilarating period and these films are considered to be among the finest movies ever made.
The 90's saw Clint Eastwood deliver Unforgiven, a film that tried to deconstruct the genre, bellying several myths attached to it in the process. Unforgiven showed that there were men there in the frontier who worked without honour and more importantly the attack itself was on the sort of the vigilantism that Westerns promoted.
Another important movie to come out during this period was Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The film was a surrealistic take on the genre, starring Johnny Depp as an accountant turned reluctant gunman trying to save his own life from killers, guided by a smart native Indian. Shot in black and white, Dead Man has achieved cult status over the years.
A number of movies like No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, True Grit. 3:10 to Yuma as well as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford all brought back Westerns into reckoning again.
The idea of Neo-Westerns is to create hybrid movies, where the frontier is explored in a more contemporary way. No Country for Old Men had 'noir'ish elements added to it and it can be considered a western thriller. While The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada or True Grit all re-orchestrated the idea of revenge, putting in more political overtones in these turbulent times.
More recently, the genre was seen flourishing in Europe as well, though these movies can’t be called Neo-Westerns in strictest of terms. It is an amalgamation of elements from both old school and new school. The Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Eva Green was a revenge-western that turned out to be an old school type drama. But the Danish production makes it not only a regular tale of revenge but also talks about immigration and settlement and the problems the settlers faced. When Mads Mikkelsen’s wife and son are killed, he goes on a revenge spree making friends and enemies on the way.
Another important that came out recently was The Dark Valley. This Austrian movie once again enforced the fact that Westerns will never die, but it will remould itself with the rigours of time. In The Salvation it was Mads Mikkelsen’s quest for revenge, while in The Dark Valley (which was Austria’s official nomination for the Oscars) it was about a family having secrets and a stranger who upsets the quaint lifestyle of the villagers.
The influence of westerns was felt world-wide and even nations that had nothing to do with Westerns took up the cause to propagate them with varying degrees of success. Japan, one of the strongest influences behind likes of Sergio Leone and many more, made a series of Westerns, which included the Ken Takakura starrer The Drifting Avenger.
The Red Sun which was a cowboy-samurai mash up having some well known stars from all across the world like Alan Deloin, Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune , or even the recent Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, saw the Hong Kong film industry and Hollywood joining hands. It also showed that Westerns was not a mere monolith but gave everyone a chance to contribute to it.
But one has to also consider Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, that even had Quentin Tarantino in a cameo, which ultimately led to Tarantino himself making his version that was Django Unchained, continuing with the efforts of Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino extended his homage by getting Franco Nero, the original Django, in a cameo.
Another movie that we have to speak about is Tears Of The Black Tiger, a Thai production, which was acclaimed for its use of vibrant colour and texture and the soundtrack which impressed even Quentin Tarantino.
Westerns in India have not achieved much popularity though some of the greatest movies made in India belong to the Western genre. This mainly happened due to people's non-acquaintance with the genre. Sholay, arguably one of Bollywood's best movies, was a curry western, as the genre came to be known as in India.
Khote Sikkey was another notable addition with Kala Sona, another Feroze Khan starrer that had shades of the Western genre with countless other movies occupying the same template for their narratives.
The southern movie industry too didn't lag behind. Bharathan, the renowned Malayalam director is often credited with creating the most unique Western in the history of Indian cinema -Thazhvaram. The film starring Mohanlal and the then relatively unknown Salim Ghouse, became a major milestone not only for Bharathan but also for Indian cinema.
The last scene which comprised of a fight between Mohanlal and Salim Ghouse is known for its excellent cinematography apart from the stylized action scenes.
Apart from Japan, Chinese as well as Korean directors too have made Westerns and the results are much impressive. One such film is The Good, the Bad And The Weird made by the South Korean director Kim Jee-woon who is now known in the west for directing The Last Stand, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and other cult movies.
The Good, The Bad And The Weird was of course inspired by the Sergio Leone flicks, but the director chose to give it a twist and present a different scenario, filled with dead-pan humour and some iconic action scenes.
The Chinese director Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land is often considered a game changer as it manipulates the premise of Westerns and fuses it with noir elements to present a hybrid movie that went down really well with the critics and audiences. A story about a lawyer getting trapped in the Gobi Desert pursued by poachers made it a very engaging watch.
Westerns are not bound by one particular territory and they have now spread all across the world with different directors making westerns according to their own sensibilities, filling it with political overtones and hence enriching the genre itself.
So what are your views on the Western genre and which western do you like the most and why? We would love to know more about it.