Westerns in March: Django (1966)

django poster

As the popularity of westerns began to wane in America, the Italians picked up the mantle and ran with it. A number of westerns had been produced in Europe before Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 but it was that film that is generally credited as the first Spaghetti Western. With its distinctive visual style, unusual score by Ennio Morricone, and iconic anti-hero played by Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars set the template for all the Spaghetti Westerns to follow.

It was a huge success and naturally, numerous films came out soon after, that aped its style and tried to cash in on its success. Perhaps the most successful, both financially and artistically, was Sergio Corbucci’s Django. It was also a big success. It launched the career of Franco Nero and spawned some 30 different sequels (most of them unofficial).

It begins with our hero, Django (Nero), a former Union soldier walking alone in the wilderness somewhere along the US/Mexican border, dragging a coffin behind him. It is a magnificent image to open a film on, one of the all-time great opening images in fact. The movie ends with another indelible image, one that I won’t spoil, but it, too, is an all-timer. The film that happens in between those fantastic moments is also quite good.

Django stumbles upon a prostitute (Loredana Nusciak) about to be literally crucified upon a burning cross by some racist Red Shirts. Django shoots the men and offers the woman protection.

The two walk to a nearby town, half-deserted save for a bartender named Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez) and a handful of prostitutes. Nathaniel tells them that the townspeople have mostly been killed off due to the feud between the Redshirts and some Mexican revolutionaries.

The plot, with Django working both sides of the fight, is very similar to A Fistful of Dollars (which itself was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest.)

But first, there is a lot of discussion as to just exactly what is in that coffin he’s been dragging around. Most seem to think it holds an actual body which produces a lot of signs of the cross. His enemies often joke that he’s just being helpful, bringing his own coffin along as they are about to kill him.

But friends, and this does count as a spoiler, that thing holds one big ass machine gun. When the Red Shirts come down he hauls it out and mows them down in glorious fashion.

He works with the Mexicans for a time, but he has no interest in their politics. Like Eastwood in those Leone films, Django is a man on his own. It is frequently violent, periodically hilarious, and always cool.

It isn’t quite as stylish as Leone’s Dollars Trilogy but it is still pretty darn great. Franco Nero is terrific as Django and the score from Luis Bacalov is fantastic. It makes a terrific way for me to end my Westerns in March series.

Westerns In March: The Wild Bunch & Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

butch cassidy movie posterthe wild bunch poster

While the western was a hugely popular genre (some figures have the genre comprising up to 1/5th of the total output from Hollywood through the 1950s – call it the MCU of the classic era) it declined sharply in the 1960s. About that time the Europeans, especially the Italians, picked up the western handle and made many more films in the genre – some were great like Sergio Leonne’s Man with No Name Trilogy, but many were pretty terrible.

But in America, the western pretty much died out. Oh here and there a new western would pop up, but they were no longer the preeminent genre and have never regained that title.

Somewhere between the peak of western popularity and the death of it, there began a new kind of western, call it revisionist western. Where classic westerns tended to side with the Europeans in things like Manifest Destiny and treated the natives with contempt – making them faceless, nameless hordes of blood-thirsty monsters – revisionist westerns saw things differently. They dealt in shades of gray instead black and white.

Last week I watched two revisionist westerns from 1969. While they both subvert the classic western tropes, they are vastly different in the stories they tell and the tone in which they take. Call them two sides of the same coin. I thought it would be fun to talk about them both in this post.

The Wild Bunch is a pessimistic, dark, and violent film. It begins with a group of children watching with glee some scorpions get devoured by a million ants. A little later they will set them all on fire. In between those moments, we watch The Wild Bunch (led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine) rob a bank. A posse (led by Robert Ryan) hired by the railroad to stop the Bunch opens fire as soon as they come out. They kill some of the gang, but a bunch of innocent citizens as well.

The movie, as directed by Sam Peckinpah, seems to announce, This is Not Your Daddy’s Western. Classic westerns were violent – there was plenty of gunplay and death – but they tended to not be particularly bloody. When a man was shot rarely do you see a bullet hole in his clothes, much less blood spurting out. I reckon half The Wild Bunch’s budget was spent on squibs and fake blood.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begins with a card game. Sundance (Robert Redford) is winning but is accused of cheating. Butch (Paul Newman) tries to tell him to just let it go, but Sundance can’t. The confrontation ends with Sundance literally shooting the pants (or the belt, rather) right off his accuser. It is a completely unrealistic maneuver (the bullet would easily go through the belt and into the man, but doesn’t) but it sets the playful, humorous tone of the entire film.

Butch and Sundance spend most of the film wisecracking and generally having fun being outlaws. The Wild Bunch often laughs, but it is a desperate laugh, the laugh of men headed toward their demise.

Not to spoil both films, albeit ones that are more than 50 years old and such a part of the cultural zeitgeist you likely know how they both end, but all of these characters are headed toward their demise. None of our heroes live out their lives in peace and prosperity. Part of what revisionist westerns often did, and these two films in particular definitely do, is recognize that life in the Old West was often short and very violent. They also act as codas of sorts to the western genre itself.

It is fascinating how these two films are saying similar things but in such different ways. The Wild Bunch is realistic, dark, and gritty. Butch and Sundance is a light, buoyant, and joyful. I love them both, but on any particular day I’m gonna reach for Butch Cassidy far more often than The Wild Bunch.

Westerns In March: Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

cheyenne autumn poster

John Ford made some of the greatest westerns ever made. From Stagecoach (1939) to My Darling Clementine (1946), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) to The Searchers (1956) Ford proved over and over again to be a master of his craft, and of telling stories about the wild west and the men (and women) who tamed it.

Unfortunately, like so many western filmmakers at the time his films were not always kind to the Indians. All too often the Native Americans in western movies were faceless savages bent on raping and killing the white man. They were rarely made into full characters and very little attention was paid to the fact that the white man was invading the Indian’s territory and homeland.

In later years Ford seemed to have recognized his flaws in this area and at least in some ways he tried to make amends. In The Searchers John Wayne plays a pretty repugnant racist and his quest to rescue his niece, who has been captured by some Comanche Indians, allows the film to raise questions about the inherent racism of Manifest Destiny and America’s unrelenting quest to capture the entire country.

With Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s last western and his penultimate film as a director, he depicts the historical event of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus in 1877 where a group of Indians decided to move from Oklahoma Territory back to their homeland in Wyoming. His depiction of the Indians is sympathetic and demonstrates just how awful the American government treated them.

Unfortunately, the film is overlong, rather dull, and still a bit racist. The two main Indian characters, Red Shirt and Little Wolf are played by Sal Mineo and Ricardo Montalban respectively – two very much not Indian actors (Mineo was of Italian descent and Montalban was Mexican born). The film’s focus likewise is on the white characters with the Indian characters playing second fiddle in their own story.

I could be more forgiving of most of this if the film was actually any good. Instead, it is slow, plodding, and contains one of the most unnecessary side stories I’ve ever witnessed.

The film begins with the Cheyenne on a reservation in Oklahoma. The land is arid and infertile. The people are sick and starving. Some delegates from Washington are supposed to meet them and discuss what can be done. But they don’t show and the Cheyenne decide to go home.

The trip is long and arduous. They must travel in desolate areas so as to not be seen by one of the many Army Forts along the way. Starving, some of them decide to turn themselves in at one of those forts. Though the Captain is sympathetic to their needs he has orders to turn them right around and send them home. Sickness, starvation and the brutal winter weather be damned.

There is some business about the press drumming up hysteria by printing falsehoods about the number of Cheyenne on the march and their ill intentions. Many of the soldiers on the ground (led by Richard Widmark) tend to be sympathetic to the plight of the Cheyenne but have their hands tied by forces in Washington.

Etc. and so on. Ford shot some of it in and around Monument Valley and Arches National Park and he gives the scenery his usual widescreen glory. But the story just never congeals into something interesting.

At one point, out of nowhere comes a scene with James Stewart playing Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kenney as Doc Holiday. It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film and is completely comic in tone (the rest of the film is utterly dramatic) and then it just ends and we never see them again.

Somewhere buried in there is a film that could have been great. The story of the Cheyenne’s exodus is a fascinating one and could make an excellent film. This is not that film and what we’re left with is the thought that Ford’s legacy left a whole lot of other films that are far greater than this one.

Westerns in March: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent seven poster

Seven Samurai (1954) is one of my all-time favorite films. It would easily make my Top 5 list. It is full of adventure and action, romance and comedy. It has some of the best camerawork of any film and its themes of loyalty and justice, honor and duty speak directly to me. Its plot – that of a poor farming village hiring a group of masterless samurai to protect them from thieving bandits – has been the template for countless other films.

Its Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, was greatly influenced by American cinema, especially the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks so it makes sense that an American, John Sturges, would turn the Seven Samurai into a western.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) turns the samurai into cowboys who are hired by poor Mexican farmers to protect them from some thieving bandits. It loses some of the thematic weight of Kurosawa’s film but it has a great cast (Including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson), a fantastic soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein and its a lot of fun to watch.

Hollywood seems to do nothing much anymore but make comic books movies and remake their own films and so naturally they remade The Magnificent Seven in 2016. If the original The Magnificent Seven is a pale imitation of Seven Samurai, then the remake is a paler imitation of the original.

It is kind of boring. No, that’s not the right word as there is a lot of action. It is forgettable. I watched it a week or so ago and I’d be hard-pressed to give you any detail about the film.

It follows the plot of the original, more or less. In this one, the bandits are robber barons, or rather robber baron (singular, played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his hired hands. The village is a frontier town and our villain isn’t raiding it for food, but has built a mine nearby and has more or less enslaved them as workers.

Denzel Washington leads the Seven. He’s good, as he is good in everything, but his character has none of the moral center that Yul Brynner’s version had. Brynner played it like a man who simply had to defend the village, but Washington’s character is in it for revenge.

Chris Pratt plays the Steve McQueen part. I’ve liked Pratt in other things but here he only proves that there will only ever be one Steve McQueen. The rest of the cast (including Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio) are fine, but mostly not that interesting (it took me a minute to realize D’Onofrio was even in the film he looks so different than he usually does, but his character is probably my favorite.)

It isn’t that this film is bad, it is that it is so completely unnecessary. If you want to watch a great film with a similar plot go watch Seven Samurai. If you want to watch a really enjoyable version of this film then watch the original. There is no reason to waste your time on this one.

Westerns in March: Young Guns (1988)

young guns movie poster

I was 12 or 13 when I first watched Young Guns. I can’t remember now if that first watch was in the theater or when it came out on VHS tape. Wherever it was, I loved it. I watched it many times after that first viewing as a young teen and even into my college years. It was probably the first western I ever watched. Me and my friends endlessly quoted it.

I remember my uncle, who was a huge western fan (he used to always tell us that we liked westerns too – because Star Wars was just a western in space) did not like Young Guns. He didn’t like it because it wasn’t historically accurate and it portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero and he was really an outlaw and a vicious killer.

At some point, I stopped watching it. Never intentionally, I don’t think, just one of those things. I bought it and the sequel on DVD but let it gather dust on my shelves. Somewhere in my cinephile film snob years I did rewatch them both and decided they were bad, that they were not good movies.

But this being Westerns in March month I decided to dust it off and give it another try. On a technical level, it isn’t great, but it is still a pretty fun ride.

My uncle was wrong. It is surprisingly historically accurate. At least on a plot level. Billy the Kid was taken in by John Tunstall and his regulators. Tunstall was murdered by the Murphy gang and this did cause a war between the two factions. The regulators were deputized for a time and then became outlaws. I’m not a historian and I’m sure there are any number of embellishments, but from what I’ve read it gets the basic story right.

The movie mostly comes from Billy’s point of view which naturally makes us root for him, and Emilio Estevez is too charming an actor to make him a villain. But it doesn’t shy away from his ruthlessness. When Billy and the regulators become deputies and are supposed to arrest the men responsible for Tunstall’s murder, Billy gets his revenge in blood. At one point he shoots a man at point-blank range and the camera moves in close to Charlie Sheen’s face (he plays Billy’s compatriot) as the dead man’s blood splatters all over it. Billy often seems unhinged and takes great glee in violence (his friends periodically note that he seems quite crazy).

As a teenager, I overlooked these things and will admit to finding him heroic. But watching the movie now I recognize the film doesn’t look away from his violent tendencies.

It is avery 1980s western. Some call it the Brat Pack western as it stars the aforementioned Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, plus Lou Diamond Phillips, Keifer Sutherland, and Dermot Mulroney. The soundtrack is filled with synthesizers and big guitars, and there are some bright filters used in the credit sequence. All of this feels quite dated and the writing doesn’t do it any favors (though it is quite quotable.)

So I guess I’ve come full circle on it. I loved it as a teenager, hated it as a younger adult and now I can recognize its flaws but also appreciate it as an enjoyable entertainment.

Westerns in March: Major Dundee (1965)

major dundee poster

Made between his more traditional western Ride the High Country (1962) and his revisionist one The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee works as a kind of bridge between the two styles.

It stars Charlton Heston as Major Dundee a Union officer who is relieved of his command and transferred to run a prisoner-of-war camp in New Mexico territory. When an Apache war chief slaughters a family of ranchers and steals their children Dundee gathers a rag-tag group of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, thieves, drunks, and a small group of black soldiers to hunt him down.

They say Peckinpah was drunk for most of the shooting causing all sorts of difficulties with the studio and with Heston (rumors have it Heston once threatened the director with a saber). His original cut was over 4 hours long, the studio took control of the film after that and knocked it down to just over two hours. Some of that has since been restored but the bulk of the “director’s cut” is now lost to history.

What’s left is a bit of a mess, but there is enough there to make it worth watching.

The film is less interested in what normally would be the main story – that of these men going after the Apache – and more interested in the rivalry between Dundee and Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) an Englishman turned Confederate officer. The two have a history together and Dundee can’t understand why Tyreen would betray his country in this war, and Tyreen can’t fathom how Dundee would raise up arms against people he knows, his friends and family members.

Tyreen regularly tells Dundee that once they’ve captured or killed the Apache he’s gonna turn his sights onto him. Dundee says he’ll be ready for it and the two square off throughout the film while maintaining an uneasy alliance.

There is a version of this film in which Dundee is a megalomaniac in the vein of Captain Ahab, hell-bent on his mission all other considerations be damned. From what I’ve read that is exactly what Peckinpah was reaching for. But Heston is too likable an actor to make that come across. His version of Major Dundee comes across as a decent officer, trying to make the best of a difficult command.

In the end, the film never quite satisfies. Oh, it is watchable enough. Peckinpah is too good a filmmaker not to make things unwatchable, even when he is half in the bag. Heston does some of his best work here, too. But it never coheres into something truly good. One wonders what that 4 hours version would have been like. If Peckinpah’s original film was an epic masterpiece or an incoherent mess.

We’ll probably never know. What we’re left with feels like an interesting transitional film for the director. One where he’s leaving behind the influences of classic western auteurs like John Ford and Howard Hawks and creating something new and modern. But he’s not quite there yet.

Westerns In March: The Big Trail (1930)

the big trail poster

John Wayne started his movie career as a prop boy. He was given numerous roles as an extra, mostly by John Ford, before landing his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail. The film was a box office flop and Wayne would fritter away for the next decade making poverty row westerns until John Ford put him in Stagecoach (1940) and made him a star.

The Big Trail is epic in every conceivable way (which makes it all the more astounding they were willing to put the unknown Wayne in as the lead). It was shot on a new 70mm film process called Grandeur. Filming took place over four months in seven different states. He hired over 700 Indians from five different tribes and used some 185 wagons, 1,800 cows, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalos, and 700 chickens, pigs, and dogs in the production.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have seen it on the big screen in glorious 70mm. Most people can’t because it was only shown that way in a few theaters. For proper viewing, theaters needed to upgrade their screens and most were unwilling to do so having just spent a small fortune upgrading for sound. The 70mm print was nearly lost to time, but the original negative was lovingly restored in the 1980s.

Watching it on the small screen is still a sight to behold. Walsh makes every use out of the grand scale. The plot, about a caravan of settlers crossing the Oregon Trail, allows for great use of the widescreen format. We see hundreds of settlers on horses, oxen and in wagons rolling across the land, the camera shooting from far off allowing us to see the American west in all of its glory.

There is a scene in which the settlers must cross a river. The rapids rage and horses and pushed downriver like little plastic toys. Wagons lose their footing and are rushed downstream while men desperately try to rescue the women and children on board.

Another scene has the settlers lowering themselves, their cattle, and their wagons by rope down a steep cliff. Once again the camera sits back showing us the massive scope of this endeavor.

But even in smaller scenes, Walsh makes use of this new format. The film begins on the banks of the Mississippi River. A scene will involve a few people talking in the foreground, but behind them, the camera shows a mass of humans, animals, buildings, and ships going about their business. Interior scenes leave a door or window open allowing a steady stream of traffic to mingle about just outside. There must have been a dozen people hired just to handle all the extras.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t quite live up to the filmmaking. The main story, that of the settlers traveling west is good. It really demonstrates just how harrowing and difficult that trip must have been.

But the b-stories are not particularly interesting. Wayne plays Breck Coleman who is hired on as a scout for the caravan. He agrees to the trip because he believes that the man hired to lead the caravan, Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.), and his companion Lopez (Charles Stevens) murdered his friend and stole his wolf furs. But this story never creates any real tension. Power is enjoyable in the role, but I was never really interested in the outcome of their battle. Marguerite Churchill is the love interest, but the two fail to sizzle.

Wayne is good. And young. And surprisingly beautiful. He has the walk and some of the talk, but the swagger isn’t quite there. He’s a young man looking for fame and glory, not the older man I’m used to seeing who already has it.

Ultimately, the film is an odd mix of a sometimes rather dull plot mixed with some remarkable filmmaking and stunning visuals. The latter absolutely make the former worth sitting through.

Westerns In March: The Naked Spur (1953)

the naked spur poster

Westerns in the 1950s began to change. The days of heroes dressed in white and villains clad in black were not entirely gone, but they were slowly being replaced by westerns with more nuance. Films brimming with anxiety, that were concerned with the consequences of violence and the psychology of those who lived on the edges of society (and you don’t get farther onto the edge than the old west) began filling up the movie screens.

Perhaps no other director better exemplifies the psychological western than Anthony Mann. He made numerous westerns in his career, half a dozen of them starred James Stewart. These films are filled with men seeking revenge or otherwise revealing the old west as a dark, dirty place full of violence and greed.

The Naked Spur is possibly their darkest collaboration, and one of their best. Stewart plays Howard Kemp who has been tracking Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), a wanted killer, across the country.

In the Rocky Mountains Kemp enlists the help of an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to help track Ben down. They locate him and his companion Lina (Janet Leigh) at the top of a ridge. Their shots draw the help of an ex-solider, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker).

Once they’ve captured Ben, Kemp tries to send the others on their way, but Ben stops them noting that there is a large reward coming to those who bring him in. He does this not out of some sense of altruism, but knowing that if he can set the three against each other he has a shot at getting away.

For the rest of the film, Kemp continually finds ways to set his captors against each other. Each man has their own dark secrets. Stewart, playing against type, is a man who lost his farm to a girl. He gave her the deed when he went away to war and she sold it out from underneath him. He’s now desperate to buy it back but needs all the reward money to do so. He might just be willing to do the others harm in order to collect it.

Shot on location the scenery is gorgeous which makes it a nice contrast to all the dark, evil deeds brewing in the men’s hearts. But while there are some nice vistas Mann keeps things pretty tight, focusing on the faces of his characters as they all try to figure out to get the best of one another.

It ends with some of the nastiest scenes ever seen in a classic western. I won’t spoil it, but it is a one-two punch that really must be seen.

Westerns In March: The Cariboo Trail (1950)

cariboo trail poster

I’ve mentioned a few times in these pages how much I love Randolph Scott. Truth be told I don’t think he was that great of an actor, but he was one of those guys who figured out the type of character he could play well and he stuck to that. While he acted in many types of films, he mostly stuck to westerns and was almost always the hero.

He was also the sort of actor who seems like he would star in any movie the studios asked him to. He made over 100 films, both good and bad, well made and quickly shot b-films. I’ve been trying to watch as many of his movies as I can, and that means sometimes I get one that is not so good.

In The Cariboo Trail, he stars as Jim Redford who, along with his friend Mike Evans (Billy Williams) heads to Canada along the Cariboo Trail. They are looking for gold. For Jim the gold is a means to an end, it will finance his dreams of becoming a rancher, but for Mike the gold is the goal.

The two almost immediately find trouble. There is a short bridge over a small river. The builders of the bridge try to make them pay an expensive toll to cross, but our heroes are having none of that. They run their cattle over the bridge, wrecking it in the process, and making an enemy out of the man who owns the bridge. He owns a lot of the nearby town too.

Mike gets injured after a cattle stampede which was likely started by the men at the bridge. This makes him angry and bitter and he ultimately teams up with the enemy. Jim travels farther north and finds an untouched patch of land that will be just perfect for a cattle ranch.

He also finds Grizzly (Gabby Haynes in his final role) and an old prospector. The two team together to try to find some gold. There’s also a love interest. Actually, there are two, for every woman who comes in contact with Jim seems to fall immediately in love with him. But he has no interest in women, or anything other than finding gold and getting his ranch.

The film was clearly made on the cheap and most of its ideas don’t feel fully developed. My guess is either the writers didn’t have time to finish the story or the budget didn’t have enough money to film them. Either way the film feels a little disjointed.

Scotts is always enjoyable and Gabby Haynes is a lot of fun. This is mostly skippable unless you are a fan of Randolph Scott and even then I’d probably hold off on it until you’ve seen his classics.

Westerns In March

Westerns were massively popular from the 1940s up until about 1960. As their popularity waned in the United States European studios began making them on the cheap. These so-called Spaghetti Westerns amped up the sex and violence and often eschewed the traditional conventions of the genre. By the end of the 1970s, the genre was entirely out of favor pretty much everywhere.

Much like the Hollywood musical, a good western pops up every few years, generates some buzz that maybe the genre is back, and then it disappears again.

I grew up in the 1980s, came of age in the 1990s. Westerns had mostly passed me by. I do remember Young Guns and The Three Amigos, Tombstone, and The Unforgiven. I liked those movies, but the western was still something foreign to me. It wasn’t something I would seek out. At least not for many years anyhow.

Oh, I’d watch some of the classics, films like True Grit and Rio Bravo, but mostly I stuck to other genres. But over the last few years I’ve started to really enjoy westerns and have begun digging deeper into its large well.

So I thought I’d make the theme for my March movie-watching westerns. I started to make a Letterboxd list of westerns I wanted to watch this month, but it was taking me too long to get it together so instead, I’ll just wing it. Most streaming services have a Westerns category and I’m sure to find others in various ways.

I couldn’t think of a catchy title for this theme so it’s just gonna be Westerns in March. But I look forward to watching lots of cowboys and gunfights, horses and the wise open plains. I hope you will too.