Monday, 17 February 2014

Why I Love Westerns

I've been saying a lot of negative things lately and doing a few hateful reviews, so I decided for this one to do something a bit more positive and look at something I like. As you may have already figured out I'm quite fond of the science fiction genre, but I've decided here to look at another area in which I have a certain appreciation for. That area is the Western.

It's hard to say just what it is about the Western that I enjoy. It's a genre that can be simultaneously formulaic and unpredictable. Usually you have some idea what you're getting into. You know there's probably going to be a showdown of some sort, though you can't be sure if it's going to be a one-on-one shootout between the hero and the villain (as in For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Blazing Saddles, and Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead), a three-way Mexican stand-off (the famous climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, helped by the incredible music of Ennio Morricone), a survival course past numerous outlaws in order to get to the station before your train arrives (both versions of 3:10 to Yuma) a tense fight that goes on to include most if not all of the main cast (the shootout near the end of Rio Bravo), our heroes are going to be hopelessly outgunned but go out in a blaze of glory (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) or they're going to subvert your expeditions and skip any kind of showdown all together (as in No Country for Old Men and Red River, although both by very different means).

One of the most memorable showdowns in any Western.

Despite being a very formulaic genre, the Western does also seem to lend itself to a variety of memorable and lovable characters. From Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" to John Wayne as Chance in Rio Bravo to Bart in Blazing Saddles and his best friend Jim (most people call him... Jim) to the mysterious heroine of Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, not to mention Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in both versions of True Grit.

How could we discuss Westerns without bringing up Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name"?

John Wayne in Red River memorably shifts back and forth between hero, anti-hero, and villain.

The Dude in an eye patch. What's not to love?

It's not just the heroes either. For every good Western you need not just a great hero but also a great villain to stand in their way. There's plenty of those to go around: Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (a role cast specifically to surprise audiences expecting him to play the hero), Harvey Korman as Hedy Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles, and John Wayne as Tom Dunson in Red River.

The interactions between Hedley Lamarr and his right hand man Taggart are a source of comedic gold in Blazing Saddles.

I can't understand a word this guy says, but dang it his rousing speech in Authentic Frontier Gibberish is just so inspiring.

Then of course we've often got the impressive landscapes to enjoy. They vary between movies but usually in a Western you can expect to see plenty of desert, which allows for some excellent scenery. 

The very first shot of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly we get an impressive landscape shot only for some outlaw to shove his ugly mug in front of the camera.

Even a modern Western like No Country For Old Men can't avoid the incredible desert landscapes.

Perhaps the interesting thing about Westerns is the fact that they play a significant role in film history. After all, one of the most significant early motion pictures was Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the first motion picture to tell a story (that area had already been explored by Georges Méliès, most famously in A Trip to the Moon a year earlier). However, it was significant in being one of the first to explore then-revolutionary editing techniques such as crosscutting.

This scene might not look like much now, but when audiences first saw it 1903 they thought they were actually about to get shot.

Of course naturally it should hardly be a surprise that some of the biggest directors have made Westerns at some point. John Ford's name became synonymous with the Western, Howard Hawks is know to have done at least two great ones (Red River and Rio Bravo). Even one of my all-time favorite directors, Sergio Leone made a career primarily of making Spaghetti Westerns. In the present day we have people like The Coen Brothers (most memorably No Country for Old Men and True Grit, with some Western influence clearly present in The Big Lebowski). Another of my favorite directors, John Carpenter, even made his 1998 film Vampires because the script seemed to resemble a Western and you can certainly see that in the film's frequent use of desert landscapes and ghost towns.

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