Five For Friday: Revisionist Westerns

The Western is the home base of cinema.  As the art form developed, filmmakers grew braver and livelier, dirtying up the genre with violence, sex, and historical accuracy (most notably, racism).  Here, FR, Western-lovers all, share their favorite of the “new crop” of Westerns, which began to roll out in earnest roughly around the 1950s.

Tyler: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller looks like it was shot through tattered cheesecloth, and sounds like it was recorded on a rejected Edison invention.  It is difficult to watch, not due to what happens, but due to those stylistic choices.  Dialogue gets buried, crucial dialogue.  (It is Altman, after all.)  The relationships between the characters is never quite clear, and the twist that rounds up the climax may well take reflection to trace backward (certainly did on my end).  No matter.  It’s clear from the first frame that this is not a film that will end well.  With that a given, it does end well, in that its final sequences are every bit as Earth-scorching as they intend to be.

Nathan: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

There are good reasons to believe that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the better of Robert Altman’s two revisionist Westerns. But the very fact that Buffalo Bill has Paul Newman playing the role of Buffalo Bill Cody means that this movie is essential viewing.

Travis: The Long Riders

Walter Hill directed this revisionist take on the Jesse James story. While it is most often mentioned because it cast four sets of real-life brothers as the principal siblings in the James-Younger gang (James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James, David, Keith and Robert Carradine as the Youngers, Dennis and Randy Quaid as the Millers, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords), it is good beyond that simple gimmick. Walter Hill knows his way around a genre picture, and the cast is solid all around. It also has a pretty great soundtrack by Ry Cooder.

Tyler: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Buried in limited release after a long process of distributor interference, Assassination (an abbreviation of that ludicrous title, not the Charles Bronson movie) nonetheless achieves everything it hopes to achieve.  Languid and morbid, it makes little room for the humor that leavens the bread of most Westerns, even the darkest.  It is stark and very long, its plot theoretically lacking in suspense due to the spoiler of a title (which we already knew was the ending anyway).  The Robert Ford of this film is not a coward, but conflicted, deeply.  He wants deeply to be the best, to be better than his idol and mentor Jesse, but he cannot be.  He’s just not that good.  The usual tropes aren’t often found here–aside from the strangely sumptuous cowboy food so regularly and gloriously displayed in Westerns–no fun nights out at the bar, no extended meanders into giddy camaraderie.  It is a challenging film, not for all, but ever-so-rewarding for those willing to take the plunge.

Plus, Mary-Louise Parker.  She barely says a word.  She doesn’t need to.  Meow.

Nathan: The Naked Spur

Having made a string of film noirs during the ’40s, Anthony Mann switched over with great success to the Western in the 50s. His Westerns, though, play more like displaced noirs. They’re bright and sunny with the pristine Colorado Rockies in eye-popping Technicolor for a backdrop – no long shadows here. Though all of the Mann Westerns are worth looking at, The Naked Spur is by far the best. It tells the tangled story of a outlaw who is picked up by a bounty hunter in the Colorado wilderness. He’s joined by a few others who would also like to lay claim to the reward for bringing him in. James Stewart is at his frustrated best.

Travis: High Plains Drifter

Clint Eastwood directed this take on his own Man With No Name persona, playing a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in a town seeking to defend itself from recently freed outlaws looking for revenge. His motivations remain hidden until the film’s brutal and artistically rendered end. It’s one of Eastwood’s best performances, and an early iconic moment behind the camera as well. Truly underrated.

Tyler: Unforgiven

Unforgiven could top my list if not for personal favorites.  It is impeccable.  Eastwood returned to the Western here and there as he began his move behind the camera, but Unforgiven is his masterpiece of the genre, and likely the masterwork of his career.  It thrives in utter brutality, striding the line of declaring whether a murderous, vengeful, ultraviolent soul can truly be saved, in the sense that Westerns define redemption.  I personally think its answer is “Yes,” but maybe that’s just me.

Nathan: Sergeant Rutledge 

This is where things start to get John Ford crazy on you, dear reader. This little gem of a movie isn’t often seen or cited, even by Ford enthusiasts, but it’s an awesome story of a Buffalo Soldier who is convicted of a horrible crime. Though it’s almost too intent in its stance race, it’s a highly entertaining movie throughout. Ford employs a variety of stylistic devices to tell the flashback story, and Woody Strode, that tree trunk of a man, is at his absolute best here. See this now.

Travis: The Proposition

I imagine that many people initially saw this movie because they were into Nick Cave (the Australian post-punk singer-songwriter and king of the Gothic troubadours wrote the script). Though I had liked what little I’d heard of Nick Cave’s music before I wound up seeing this harsh, dystopic, bloody take on the taming of the Outback, it was actually The Proposition that got me into Nick Cave, now one of my all-time favorites. His script is poetic and brutal, as are the visuals, and the performances from Guy Pearce (as an outlaw sent to stop his outlaw family, led by an equally game Danny Huston) and the film’s ostensible hero, Ray Winstone, match up. The score, by Cave and Bad Seeds/Dirty Three multi-instrumentalist and badass bearded Aussie is one for the ages as well. By any count, The Proposition is a tough watch—the violence, unlike most film violence, is actually shocking; to date, it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen where people got up and left the theater because of it, and one of the few in my adult life where I considered averting my own jaded eyes. But if you can handle onscreen brutality, this Aussie take on the revisionist western is well worth it.

Tyler: The Searchers

The Searchers is the basis for both Taxi Driver and Star Wars, and, as such, it’s also the blueprint for any number of films that imitated those two classics.  It is the movie where John Wayne got mean, belligerent, racist and all-too-keen to cuckold his brother (if he hasn’t already. We’ll never know).  Whether the film will have a tragic or comic ending is in question throughout.  And it is gorgeous.  Perhaps the apex of God-like auteur John Ford’s immense filmography, Searchers plays by the old rules so deftly that you don’t notice until afterward, or on repeat viewing, or via the instruction of film professors, how deep and dark and masterful it is.

And Ford makes room, as he must, for a serious coot.  The coot to end all coots, really.  “Ol’ Mose Harper!”

Nathan: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

For true blue revisionist Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the most direct and effective in using a didactic approach. The film seems to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the mythology of the west all in the span of about two hours. The struggle of the film is not between Valance and Ruben Stoddard, but between ideological forces of law, violence, and intimidation. James Stewart (in his last great role) is finally paired with John Wayne.

On its initial release, Pauline Kael complained that the movie didn’t have the vast landscapes that normally accompany a good Western film. What she seems to have missed is that the vast landscape was in the hearts and minds of its characters.

Travis: The Wild Bunch

Perhaps the film that truly kicked the revisionist western movement into high gear (that argument is really one I’m not knowledgeable enough to make), The Wild Bunch takes familiar tropes and turns them inside out, leaving them bloody and hopeless. Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece is a seminal film about the death of the myth of the American west.

Tyler: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid

Butch & Sundance is lovely, pastoral and beautiful.  It pauses on routine occasion to slide in light-hearted musical sequences, the most famous of which is scored by “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” but my own personal favorite of which is a devastating, emotional montage of daguerrotype photographs that document a particular journey late in the film.  The flick is shot to perfection.  It is calm, and builds suspense through silence.  It is also very possibly the manliest movie ever made.

Men who love danger.  Men who thrive on it.  Men who love women.  Men who love friends, and friendship, with all the intimacy that true brotherhood implies.  Butch, Paul Newman, talks over everyone, all charm, hilarious, brain forever churning, smart as the proverbial whip but far too impulsive for his own damn good.  Sundance, Robert Redford, his steadying partner, his muscle, contemplative and forever looking out while his impetuous buddy charms all the bartenders and whores he can manage, forever able to top that buddy with a single withering wiseass remark.  Both of them romantics, nervous and neurotic, they choose to work together because they’re so fabulously good together, because they adore the adventure, and because they wisely can’t imagine any other working existence.  They’re bank robbers, and they’re good at it.  But they don’t want to die.  They want to live, in every sense of the word.

“Can I move? … I’m better when I move.”

Nathan: The Searchers 

Officially, The Searchers is not a revisionist Western. It doesn’t have the posturing that comes along with an official re-visioning. My litmus test for “revisionist” classification is if the film works to directly challenge, correct, or confuse the mythology that surrounded the Western expansion. It’s easier to identify a movie that challenges or corrects, but harder to see those that seek to confuse it. John Ford’s film pushes the myth to the brink without ever truly killing it.

The Searchers can be seen in a number of different ways, which is exactly what makes it one of the greatest movies ever made; you can watch it as a rip-roaring traditional action Western (which is how the back of the BD box tells you to see it), a family drama, and Odyssean journey, or (on its most complex level) a nearly total examination of the expansion mindset that both confirms and debunks the myths of the West. Perhaps no other film so fully captures America than The Searchers; it bores deep into the heart of everything that we have ever been and will ever be as a nation.

The power of The Searchers was not apparent to me at first, but it kept bouncing around in my brain, beckoning me to see it again and again. If I had to list the three or four most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, it would be the 35mm screening that I saw at Doc Films in Chicago in the Winter of 2010 and a screening of the film on a DVD projector at Monument Valley, UT, where much of the film was shot.

Travis: Unforgiven

When this film came out, it seemed it might put the nail in the coffin of the Western genre for once and for all. As William Munny, a killer-for-hire called out of retirement to hunt down those responsible for mutilating a prostitute, Clint Eastwood (who, once again, also directed) removed all glamour from the role of a Wild West gunslinger. Gene Hackman is also great as Little Bill, the sheriff who stands in Munny’s way. Unforgiven won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (for Hackman). It deserved every one of them.


9 thoughts on “Five For Friday: Revisionist Westerns

  1. Nathan, I was lucky enough to see The Searchers on the big screen, both in college and in Pittsburgh in 2006. Just a necessary experience for anyone who loves film.

    Either of you guys consider Rio Bravo? I did, and I love it, but I don’t think there’s anything that revisionist about it.

  2. Rio Bravo embraces the mythology of the West in the most entertaining of ways. I love it to death, but it doesn’t even come close to being “revisionist”.

    I thought a little bit about Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, John Ford’s Fort Apache, and Meek’s Cutoff.

  3. I enjoy every movie on this list that I’ve seen. I have not seen Sergeant Rutledge or Altman’s Buffalo Bill.

    I’d also say that Rio Bravo wasn’t “revisionist,” but a lot of the ones on the Wikipedia list weren’t ones I would have considered revisionist on first look either. It almost just seemed like a list of “good” westerns.

    If I had to pick an extremely niche-y favorite film genre, it would probably be this. So much so that I even enjoy “gritty neo-westerns” like this:

    I also considered putting Deadwood in here. I think it ranks with just about anything in recent memory as far as westerns go, but definitely needs sprawl of a serial TV show, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare with a film.

  4. Just for the record, I haven’t seen The Long Riders or High Plaines Drifter. Now that they’ve been listed on an edition of 5/Fri, they are going way up on the viewing priority list.

  5. High Plains Drifter is incredibly fucked up. I’ve never seen Straw Dogs and, really, have no interest, but I’m pretty sure the rape scene in Drifter puts The Famous Dogs Scene to shame what with it’s “Hey, this is a heroic act” attitude. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. Repugnant, but the movie is so fuckin’ good.

  6. Oh yeah. The same professor that introduced me to The Searchers introduced a later class I was in to Fort Apache. THAT one required some explanation at the time.

  7. Travis, y’know, you make a point. I’ve only seen Deadwood here and there–what with my absurd TV habits–but I’m almost certain it deserves a place on here.

  8. Pingback: Travis’s NFL Picks – Week 1: Fine Alley « Fully Reconditioned

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