10 Great Revisionist Westerns
First of all, congratulations to everyone involved in the making of Coda for winning Best Picture at last month’s Oscars. After so many years of big-name, able-bodied actors playing people with disabilities, it’s so refreshing to see a film about deaf people starring predominantly deaf actors. Out of the excellent cast, Troy Kotsur was a good pick for Best Supporting Actor, joining Marlee Matlin (Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God) as the only other deaf actor to win an Oscar in the Award’s history.
Other than Chris Rock receiving a slap in the kisser from Will Smith, another major talking point was the under performance of the year’s frontrunner, The Power of the Dog. It’s not unusual for an early favourite to rack up a daunting amount of nominations but lose out on the big night; just ask Steven Spielberg whose The Color Purple was nominated for 11 awards, including Best Picture, but went home empty handed.
The Power of the Dog, the highly impressive revisionist western from Kiwi director Jane Campion was one of the favourites for this year’s Best Picture award almost from the moment it dropped on Netflix. It wasn’t a total surprise to see it lose out though, as we’ve seen a few plucky outsiders pip the favourite to the post in recent years. Spotlight quietly reeled in another revisionist western, The Revenant, while Moonlight gathered enough goodwill to overtake the nominations juggernaut that was La La Land.
The Power of the Dog’s single win on the night was a deserved prize for Campion, who brought a masterful sense of control to the film and viewed this most American of genres from such a distinctive outsider’s perspective. It was also another belated sign that the Oscars are catching up with the times and becoming more equal. Campion became only the third woman to win Best Director in over 90 years, after Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Chloe Zhao (Nomadland).
The revisionist western has been around far longer than the genre it was revising in the first place. In the early days of Hollywood, westerns were often simple crowd-pleasers with straightforward white hats vs black hats or cowboys vs Indians narratives. They didn’t spend too much time examining the Old West with any kind of nuance and were often ethically dubious by today’s standards. Stars of these old-fashioned horse operas became huge celebrities and the most famous, John Wayne, remains a legend of the silver screen.
Post-war cinema saw the emergence of more complex and realistic approaches to the genre. There were still plenty of adventures, chases, and shootouts, but directors also saw the western as a way of exploring the mythmaking of the era, interrogate the old American belief in manifest destiny and its inherent violence and genocide; and explore many other themes within the classic iconography of the genre.
Here are ten of the most interesting revisionist westerns…
High Noon (1952)
With screenwriter Carl Foreman pulled up by the House Un-American Activities Committee at the beginning of the Red Scare and John Wayne labelling it the most Un-American thing he’d seen in his life, High Noon was one of the first revisionist westerns.
Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of Will Kane, an ageing marshall faced with a choice between running scared or facing almost certain death when a gang of vicious outlaws return on the noon train seeking revenge. While Kane is a standup character, I was struck on a recent rewatch by how unheroic the whole thing is; he faces the gang only because he has little other choice, rather than any macho posturing. The rest of the community leave him facing the badasses alone instead of rallying around the man who cleaned up their town in the first place, leaving such a bitter note when he eventually triumphs.
Daringly for the time, High Noon also flips the usual heroic macho narrative by leaving it to Kane’s new wife, played by Grace Kelly, to save his bacon by taking out the main bad guy.
High Noon is still great, such a tight and impressive piece of filmmaking. Director Fred Zinneman cranks up the suspense by running events almost in real time as Kane desperately tries to rustle up a posse, with the insistent rhythm of the theme tune really adding to the tension.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Nicholas Ray was one of the great American directors of his era, influencing everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Martin Scorsese. He was most prolific in the ‘50s, where he scored with movies like In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. In between these two classics came Johnny Guitar, one of the strangest westerns ever made.
With Sterling Hayden’s title character more or less a bystander, the film follows the murderous relationship between saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) and the bitterly jealous Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who just wants to run her hated rival out of town.
Johnny Guitar stands alone in the genre, perhaps because it isn’t really a western. It is more like a Technicolour gothic melodrama that just happens to be set in the Old West. Unusually for a genre mostly dominated by the fellas, two towering female characters are front and centre.
Crawford and McCambridge give two incredible performances. Crawford was infamous for feuding with various people around Hollywood, so it is no surprise that she and McCambridge had a real-life beef that powers their onscreen relationship. There is something unnervingly realistic about the look of wild, orgasmic delight on Emma’s face as she watches Vienna’s saloon burn late in the movie.
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Sergio Leone wasn’t the only Italian director making cheap westerns in the ‘60s; just ask Tarantino, who is a big fan of Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci’s insanely violent Django influenced QT’s first take on the western, Django Unchained.
Leone quickly became the bigger name internationally, and his spaghetti westerns changed the face of cinema. His vision of the West was far more morally ambiguous than the early Hollywood westerns. There were few clearly defined good guys and bad guys. As a result, everyone wears hats of dark shades between the classic white and black. Gone too are the clean-shaven cowboys of old; Leone just loved his ultra close-ups on craggy, sweaty, crooked, unshaven, and sometimes just plain ugly faces.
His most famous spaghetti westerns are the Dollars Trilogy, for which Leone plucked TV actor Clint Eastwood to play his laconic antihero. Going from Rawhide to the Man With No Name made him a huge star.
While the first film, A Fistful of Dollars, was ground-breaking and the third, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, is often regarded as Leone’s masterpiece, my favourite is the unloved middle child of the trilogy, For a Few Dollars More.
For me, it has far more heart than the other two. Lee Van Cleef is excellent as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, an ageing former army man trying to recover a stolen pocket watch that belonged to his sister, who was murdered by El Indio, a psychopathic bandit played with such enigmatic intensity by Gian Maria Volonte.
Eastwood’s character is also on El Indio’s trail, but he soon teams up with Mortimer to take down the villain and his gang of sweaty desperados. The film is a symphony of showdowns as Leone is clearly warming up to his operatic style, which finds its muse in Ennio Morricone’s incredible score.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
“If they move, kill ‘em.” William Holden’s tired old outlaw Pike Bishop instructs his unreliable gang during an opening robbery, and that line serves as a thesis for the whole film.
When someone got shot in an old western, they usually just clutched their chest and fell over. With the Vietnam war at its peak and beamed into the living rooms of the entire nation every night on TV, maverick Sam Peckinpah wanted to show audiences the ugly nature of true violence. He was here to say gunfights aren’t just fun and games, and wanted viewers to leave the cinema feeling purged.
Instead, many of them just felt sickened and alienated, and Peckinpah later regretted his decision to make The Wild Bunch so traumatic for paying cinema goers. It’s a tough watch even today, and not just because of the two bloodbaths that bookend the film. It’s a brutal elegy for the Old West as the era passes into modernity, following a group of desperate men who are out of options and out of time. By the time one of the bloodiest shootouts in western history arrives, death almost can’t come soon enough for Pike and his men.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
After the false start of The Delinquents, Robert Altman didn’t enter his most celebrated phase as a director until he was well into his forties. He announced his arrival as a major voice of New Hollywood with M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud in 1970 before making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of his handful of masterpieces and one of the definitive revisionist westerns.
Set in a muddy, chilly frontier down, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie play against type as a shady, mumbling gambler and a wily brothel madam. These two dislocated souls find one another for a fleeting moment against a backdrop of unforgiving nature, hard liquor, gambling, prostitution, and violence.
The gritty, melancholy atmosphere is beautifully enhanced by Leonard Cohen’s mournful songs and Vilmos Zsigmund’s incredible cinematography. He used a technique called flashing - purposely exposing the negative to light - to give the film its dreamy, underexposed look and make it look like old photos.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brook’s crude spoof of westerns has a lot more going on than just farting cowboys, a farce that is both dated and ahead of its time. Cleavon Little plays Bart, the bright-eyed new sheriff of Rock Ridge, who receives a hostile welcome from the townsfolk on account of being black. Undaunted, he teams up with an alcoholic gunslinger called the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) to overcome the dastardly attorney general who wants to take over the town.
The plot is throwaway, to the point that the characters literally bust out of the picture in the final act, and little more than a clothes line for Brooks to pin his gags and wordplay. The insistent use of racial slurs will make a modern audience wince, but then Brooks was ruthlessly using the film to send up and point the finger at intolerance and bigotry. Although he uses buffoonery to lighten the tone, Brooks has the guts to show simple folk of the frontier thinking and talking as they would have done, especially when confronted with the prospect of a black sheriff. Depressingly, over a century later, certain parts of America still talk and think that way.
Blazing Saddles also shows that the conquest of the West wasn’t just an all-white endeavour, with the Chinese immigrants doing much of the backbreaking work of connecting the coasts with railways. On top of all this, Wilder is a delight as he sends up the heroic gunslinger trope, playing a dead shot with a bad case of the shakes who enjoys a spliff with his new pal Bart.
Eastwood forged his career playing western antiheroes from the Man With No Name to the High Plains Drifter, men often driven by greed and revenge. With Unforgiven, he tore all that down.
Eastwood, who also produced and directed, plays Will Munny, a repentant former bounty killer who now scrabbles around in the mud trying to make an honest living after his wife passes away. After two low life cowboys cut up a prostitute’s face and the local sheriff, Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), lets them off with a fine, the woman’s colleagues whip together and place a bounty on their heads. Ageing, poor, and worried about raising his two kids properly, Munny has little choice but to accept.
Unforgiven is a tightly focused inversion of the classic western tropes and Eastwood’s screen persona. Munny is haunted by his past when he was indiscriminate about murdering men, women, and children for money, but when it comes to taking lives he can’t suppress the stone cold killer inside him.
It’s a powerful and unflinching statement from Eastwood, for which he would win Best Picture and Best Director. He would later try a similar trick with his Dirty Harry persona in Gran Torino, which was unfathomably snubbed altogether by the Academy.
Dead Man (1995)
The films of Jim Jarmusch are an acquired taste; even the ones I like best are rambling, achingly hip, and filled with flaky allusions and obscure references. A lot of the time they resemble extended smug in-jokes for Jarmusch fans. The cult director’s doodlings at least feel like they have some purpose in Dead Man, his meandering acid western that takes a spiritual look at white settlers and their relationship with the land and the indigenous people of America.
Beautifully shot in stark black and white by Robbie Muller, the film certainly makes the most of Johnny Depp at his most soulful and photogenic. Coming at the end of the early ‘90s hot streak that made him one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars, Depp is unusually restrained as William Blake, a buttoned-down accountant travelling across the country for a job that is no longer available. After he is shot and wounded, Blake falls in with a Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who serves as his guide towards the spirit world.
Without any wacky makeup or character quirks, Depp does most of his acting with just his eyes here; this was the period of his career when he could do that and convey so much (see also: Edward Scissorhands). Like many Jarmusch joints, there is also a feast of cameos to enjoy including Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, Billy Bob Thornton, and, of course, Iggy Pop.
Django Unchained (2012)
After using his imagination to reap revenge on the Nazis, Tarantino thought he’d do the same for slave traders. Jamie Foxx plays Django, a former slave made a free man by Dr. King Schulz (Christopher Waltz), a bounty hunter posing as a travelling dentist. Django wants to find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda, and their trail leads to the plantation of the cruel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a filthy rich dandy who enjoys arranging “Mandingo” fights, where slaves are forced to fight each other to the death.
With its indulgent length and uneven pacing, Django Unchained is not as successful as Inglourious Basterds, but not without its strong points. Tarantino has courted controversy throughout his career for his love of using the n-word, and here he seems to relish the opportunity to even the score a little for the horrors suffered by African-Americans in the past. Whether it is his place to do so, and whether his historical revenge fantasies actually accomplish anything, will always remain a topic for lively debate.
Tarantino takes his cue from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci, borrowing the title and theme tune from the Italian director’s 1966 mud-and-bloodbath, Django. Despite this influence the violence is fairly restrained, perhaps because the most shocking moments - the Mandingo fight, a slave torn to pieces by a dog - are directed at black victims.
His fondness for wordplay remains, rolling around in the mouths of the excellent Waltz and DiCaprio, whose enjoyably vile performance inspired a million memes. Samuel L. Jackson also aces his part as Warren, Candie’s butler who is as vehemently racist as his boss.
The glaringly worst performance in the movie comes from Tarantino, who once again can’t resist finding a role for himself. This time he adopts a horrible Aussie accent in a scene that could have been cut altogether.
The Rider (2017)
There are far more dangers to being a cowboy than Indians shooting arrows into your hat, as Chloe Zhao explores in her warm-up for her Oscar-winning triumph, Nomadland. Non-professional actor and former rodeo star Brady Jandreau plays a slightly fictionalised version of himself, a young man recovering from a life-threatening injury that left him with brain damage.
His doctor warns him that riding again could make his condition worse, or even kill him. But he lives for horses and has few prospects otherwise, taking a job as a shelf stacker to help make ends meet. Will he get back in the saddle?
The Rider is a tender and poignant portrait of a lifestyle unknown to many, beautifully shot and possessing an acute sense of place, people, and dialect. It is set up like a classic underdog story, making us both fearful of what might happen if he does ride the bronco again while also hoping he can fulfil his dream with one last shot at glory. Instead, the story takes us in a triumphantly unexpected direction, closing on an exquisite note of friendship and shared reminiscence.
So there you have it, some of my favourite revisionist westerns. What are your picks? Let us know!