The western movie is perhaps the most beloved all-American art form and one of the oldest genres in cinema. Now it is to get a post-modernist makeover in the shape of films from some of Hollywood’s most daringly experimental celebrities, seeking to turn long-standing conventions and themes on their heads.
In a genre where new films are relatively rare, several major westerns are on the horizon, but they appear to be far from the traditional fare of melancholy visions of the dying frontier or heroic tales of rough-edged cowboys, lantern-jawed sheriffs and outlaws on the run.
First up is iconoclastic director Quentin Tarantino, who last week released the first trailer for his latest film, Django Unchained. The movie, which features Jamie Foxx is full of familiar western signatures – a revenge-driven plot, bounty hunters and shootouts galore – but is clearly shot in the dialogue-driven, heavily pastiched and ironic style that is classic Tarantino.
Then next year comes The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski, and starring Johnny Depp as the Native American sidekick Tonto. Daringly the movie will not focus on the masked hero. Instead Depp’s Tonto is expected to take centre-stage in a sardonic look at one of the central figures in western movie-making. A poster image released for the film shows Depp – wearing huge amounts of tribal makeup and a dead crow on his head – giving the Lone Ranger a sceptical look teachers usually reserve for their most idiotic pupils.
The two films appear to be the latest attempt to breathe fresh life into a genre whose origins lie in the very beginnings of movies with 1903′s The Great Train Robbery. But recently most westerns, such as last year’s hit remake True Grit or 2007′s 3.10 to Yuma, have been realistic, intellectual explorations of the West.
Sarah Kozloff, a film professor at Vassar College, expressed some concern over what Tarantino – best known for his hyper-violent hit Reservoir Dogs – would do to the western genre. “I cannot believe he will respect the tropes of the traditional western, which is often a critique of savagery and a melancholy about the passing of the frontier. Tarantino believes violence is funny.”
The western’s traditional format does not seem suitable for radical experimentation. In a genre more than a century old, not much has changed. The good guys still battle bad guys and a familiar cast of characters play out the usual plot lines against a key ingredient: a dramatic landscape. That solidity and deeply rooted sense of geography and history has made the western movie perhaps the ultimate American art form, with a special place in the popular cultural storehouse. “Scholars say it is the proto-typical American myth,” said Kozloff.
But it has also been, many experts say, an art form in decline. For decades westerns dominated US movie screens and television alike, from the constant churning out of B movies in the 1920s and 1930s to TV series such as Stagecoach. But in recent decades output has slowed to a few notable films every few years, despite regular attempts at revival and the continued production of occasional classics such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and the critically acclaimed HBO series Deadwood. “It has been out of favour for years,” said Professor Scott Simmon, a film expert at the University of California, who believes the often macho militarism in westerns – best represented by John Wayne – did not sit well in post-Vietnam war America.
Nevertheless the twin Tarantino and Depp projects – and the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen directed last year’s True Grit – demonstrate that the western still has the ability to attract big names to high-profile projects. Supporters say its conventions and characters can display a high degree of flexibility when it comes to issues to explore. High art, they add, is no stranger to strapping on a six-shooter and getting on a horse. Often cited examples are Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which many saw as a regretful meditation on the ageing director’s own violent movie career, or Brad Pitt’s 2007 feature The Assassination of Jesse James, whose style and subject matter clearly took the western genre into the realm of art-house cinema. There is actually a long tradition of such attempts. The Lone Ranger is not even Depp’s first experiment. He was the star of Dead Man in 1995, a black-and-white western by auteur director Jim Jarmusch. “You are putting people on a wide-open landscape and they can tell whatever stories they want to. In many ways a western can be a blank slate,” said Simmon.
In fact, in a genre as old as the western even eccentrics such as Tarantino and Depp might have trouble doing something completely new. Even the controversy of using Depp – a white actor – to play a Native American character is not a novel one. Since the early days of westerns the casting of non-Native Americans to play “Red Indians” has sparked emotive debate. However, Depp has at least found a novel way to address the issue. Last month the actor was made an honorary member of the Comanche tribe and tribal member LaDonna Harris adopted the Hollywood A-lister as her son. Not even Tarantino would probably come up with a western twist as bizarre as that.
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