What attracts an audience in 2018 to a western? Westerns as films are one of the most-identifiable and long-lasting genres in the medium, I would argue largely due to the iconography associated with them that is positively burned into the retinas of American (and at this point, international) consumers of pop culture.
The image of the low angle between the legs of a gunslinger, the hand over a holstered gun. The hats ‘n boots — can’t ferget those. There are things we see now and for many of us our mind will go cowboy hat → western → gunslinging, rootin’ tootin’, and all that jazz. What other genre of film has that sort of immediate recognition? If I see a gun or a case of money do I immediately jump to Pulp Fiction or The Godfather? Sci-fi nut that I am, even seeing a NASA report on the news wouldn’t necessarily summon images of xenomorphs and Ponda Baba (RIP) flailing about minus an arm. For many a chainsaw now makes us think of Leatherface, and horror films, but that’s a very specific link to a very specific thing, different, arguably, from glancing at a pair of boots and thinking of wide desert vistas and six-shooters, in themselves triggers for other thoughts!
Rambling aside, I think westerns, for as much as they’ve changed, capture imaginations because they can appear to be so familiar on the surface. The rules of chess never change, but the game is always different.
“What the hell is he talking about?” “What’s the point, nerd?” Well it’s come to my attention that many of you have been preoccupied this past month or so playing some game--Rude Dude’s Recession? Fred’s Bed Depression? Oh! You’re playing Red Dead Redemption! Rockstar’s little game! Got it.
A lot of players would probably say that the attraction to Red Dead is the freedom Rockstar grants with it. “Here’s a chunk of the rootin’ tootin’ west. Go forth and marvel at our physics engine!” And many of you did just that.
But Red Dead Redemption II has captured imaginations for telling a story, one gamers, as well as consumers of film and literature, have found engaging for its large, colorful cast, and their futile struggle against the world around them. People like drama--go figure!
Red Dead, as the little game that could, has not only told a sophisticated story, but for many it’s no doubt sparked an interest in experiencing more stories like this. Westerns, but also sweeping sagas of brotherhood and hopelessness. Good drama. So in an effort to share, and to totally tell you why Sam Peckinpah is the baddest dude around, I thought these films might be of interest on the comedown from sundown in Red Dead.
The Shooting (1966) Monte Hellman
“Weird west” is sort of a genre in itself. The allure of the seemingly-endless road of small towns, each with their own secrets, and vast plains of natural beauty will capture the attention of any would-be drifter, but with that freedom comes a creeping cost.
Just what the hell’s going on out there?
Almost like how science-fiction can inspire anxiety over the infinite unknown of the galaxy, westerns have the ability to overwhelm an audience with just how much damn space there is to cover. No airplanes to whisk us across the world, no GPS to tell you where the hotel is. The way Red Dead saddles you with long, lonesome journeys into the wilderness, The Shooting strings the audience along for a strange, existential journey. Oh and Jack Nicholson’s wearing black leather gloves and he just wants to shoot you.
American maverick filmmaker Monte Hellman made a string of low, low budget films, most-notably from the ‘60s to mid-’70s, often following his characters across the backroads of America. His films would find more-contemporary settings, but in the ‘60s with The Shooting, Hellman’s vision of an old gunfighter bullied and prodded along by a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) and her silent, violent companion (Nicholson) take Hellman’s wanderings back in time. The gunfighter, played by American treasure Warren Oates, is strung along across barren desert initially in aide of the strange woman, though her motivations become increasingly unclear, and her attitude towards her hired help more and more aggressive.
Rockstar’s massive western sandbox would be boring if it were filled with just… sand, right?Wrong! You’ve just not been shown how much fun it is to assemble a sandcastle, or make sand-angels. No that doesn’t sound nearly much fun. The sandbox demands distractions, and Rockstar has done a job at making their world feel dense within reason. You’re not bombarded by agility orbs to collect (spot the reference win a prize) or radio towers to overtake, because I don’t think they had radios in the Wild West. Rather, you’ll come across NPCs just trying to go about their binary-coded lives without you or some other sadistic piece of programming gunning them down, and its these passing moments with another character that make films like The Shooting interesting, perhaps, in its ambiguity. I love the sense of knowing there’s a story to be told by glimpsing at a minor character or location in a film, and Red Dead satisfies that longing by actually allowing you to veer off and follow those threads.
Now whether The Shooting pays off on its intrigue and oddness is up to you, but certainly it’s worth a look simply for being underseen, and featuring some terrific actors in a sort of what-the-hell, man Hellman film.
And hey, it’s only 82 minutes and you can watch it on YouTube.
Slow West (2015) John Maclean
“Sam you son of a bitch, what was that?” It was… art! I think?
Alright, something a little more recent. And this time it’s only two minutes longer! John Maclean’s Slow West carries the tradition of the spaghetti western, in many ways. Spaghetti western definition in a sentence or two: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Italian filmmakers, seeking to rake in money by emulating Hollywood success stories, produced hundreds of western films shot primarily across Southern Spain, as well as Central and Southern Italy for their rugged resemblance to the American Southwest. The films were notably more violent than American productions, and rougher around the edges, spurred by the inherent nature of outsiders dissecting American history without bias or proximity to the subject matter.
“So what the hell does lasagna have to do with anything here, van der Meer?” John Maclean, a Scotsman, directed Irishman Michael Fassbender as well as Aussies Kodi-Smit McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn across New Zealand locations meant to tell a story of another Scotsman traveling to the 19th century American West to find his lost love. Not a Yankee in sight!
Borrowing heavily from truly weird westerns like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (check it out for a pre-Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp), Slow West uses its Pacific plains to great effect, creating a vibrant natural landscape we’re told is America, but one that always bears a sense of the uncanny. Folkloric flourishes and dry humor (someone somewhere no doubt said “it’s like the Coen Brothers!” but I will not be that someone, sir) undermine the action and violence, of which there’s quite a bit in Slow West to keep your eyes forward over the course of the film’s journey.
Revisionist theory in films seems to me to be well-suited to teaching through the western; there’s something clear-cut about going from Native Americans gunned down as savages in Stagecoach to seeing one exact vengeance later in a film like Navajo Joe. So while I don’t think Slow West was necessarily on the minds of Dan Houser and the other writers on Redemption II, the “alternative take” on the Wild West is certainly a factor. The characters of Red Dead eschew stereotypes, while using caricature as a means of satire or commentary. Look no further than the bloated American excess of the Grand Theft Auto games to get an inkling of Rockstar’s eye for parody. I think it’s interesting to watch a film like Slow West or classic spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and know they were created by people who were removed from the subject matter.
“Obviously, van der Meer, these are cowboys we’re talking about.”
Yeah I know… but you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down! Whether Rockstar succeeds at offering a new take on the western mythos is to be seen, but certainly the attempt is there if not just in allowing a player to explore a time past, in a highly-interactive simulation. Whereas films gave us the window to the Wild West, Rockstar gave us the door. Yes I did just type that, and I’m sorry.
While not epic westerns akin to the ambitions of Red Dead, Slow West and The Shooting, I think, provide the sort of strange encounters and feelings of loneliness (at times anxiety-inducing, others tranquil) one might stumble upon while wandering Rockstar’s American canvas, taking in the sights and roleplaying Arthur Morgan’s weary existence. Or ticking boxes off of a guide so you can just get the damn trophy and be done with it.
The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah
So this is an easy one, this is a go-to. But if you somehow aren’t familiar with Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 bulletfest, good god, please acquaint yourself!
Pushed along in production by Warner Bros to meet their rivals 20th Century Fox (who were releasing a little film called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which you should also see because it’s got more charm than a bracelet), The Wild Bunch is hailed to this day as one of cinema’s greatest westerns, and director Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus. The film tells the story of an outlaw gang in 1913, hunted by a posse of across the American Southwest following a robbery that doesn’t quite go the way it was planned (you almost wonder if they should plan for things to go wrong initially, and then the plan won’t go according to plan, and things end up working out just fine). The titular bunch are chased down into Mexico, embroiling themselves in the violence and turbulent politics of the Mexican Revolution, in full swing by 1913. Parallel to the country’s upheaval and rebirth, their own plight as men out of time puts them on a collision course with the times ahead.
Though Bunch’s time period resembles the second Red Dead (never forget Red Dead Revolver!) more than Redemption II, the story of furiously fighting against inevitability seems fit for discussing Rockstar’s latest. And reader, I implore you--watch The Wild Bunch. Shocking mothers across the country in 1969, Peckinpah’s film was both praised and condemned for its bloody violence and grit, which ties into the New Hollywood movement of the late-’60s. American films were distancing themselves from content-censoring production codes in effect since the ‘30s, allowing filmmakers to show and do more. You get films like The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde, which would introduce gut-punching violence and raw content American audiences would have found only in arthouse theaters screening European and Asian films.
So we’d all sort of learn something by watching The Wild Bunch, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
(It’s also an utterly compelling buddy adventure film full of beautiful Mexican locations and action-packed violence. And Warren Oates is in this one too!)
The Wild Bunch‘s influence on film has been recounted time and time again for tenderizing audiences in preparation for cinematic bloodshed across later American films, but Peckinpah’s dusty band of outlaws seem to have been the clear influence on Rockstar’s own band of van der Linde vandals, down to Dutch sharing a name with Ernest Borgnine’s boisterous bandit. Though perhaps it’s the original Redemption that The Wild Bunch influenced most.
Back then (or is it “next up?”; prequel/sequel time paradox incoming) we were playing as John Marston, strong-armed into tracking down his old gang by the feds. Robert Ryan plays Deke Thornton, a former member of the titular Bunch, now working with a band of hired guns to take the gang down. Marston’s former outlawry in the first Redemption gave Rockstar some leeway with his character, instilling enough bad in the man to justify players’ own moral compass. Not that you needed narrative justification to have gunned down innocent piano players for kicks you savages.
Westerns have been a large part of my own cinematic upbringing, so to see something like Red Dead in the wild, even though I’ve yet to play it, is really a testament to the genre’s continued strength. They’re like the Terminator of film genres; you think they’re dead, you think you’ve left them behind them--BAM! Revisionists swoop in and tell you otherwise!
And because three films hardly cover a genre more than 100 years old, there’s a plethora of favorites that have gone unmentioned, so a tamed list of wild westerns--
Red River (1948) Howard Hawks
The Gunfighter (1950) Henry King
Terror in a Texas Town (1958) Joseph H Lewis
One-Eyed Jacks (1961) Marlon Brando
Navajo Joe (1966) Sergio Corbucci
Duck, You Sucker! (1971) Sergio Leone
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1972) Sam Peckinpah
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Clint Eastwood
Tom Horn (1980) William Wiard