Way-Out Westerns

Way-Out Westerns

Jun 14, 2010

Tired of the usual cattlemen, outlaws, schoolmarms and showdowns of the classic Western? This week’s Jonah Hex, starring Josh Brolin as the titular gunslinging bounty hunter, is anything but: after escaping certain death, the supernatural Western’s protagonist ends up with one foot in the earthly world, and one foot on the other side. Here we give you eight other films that put a twist on the venerable American movie formula.

Zachariah Hippies in the early ’70s already liked wearing blue jeans and suede vests and cowboy hats, so it was only natural that someone would come up with “The First Electric Western,” as the posters called it. John Rubenstein and Don Johnson star in this offbeat tale of two friends who decide to take on gunfighting as a trade before eventually winding up being bitter rivals. Members of the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre wrote this as a loose and trippy Western adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, so it’s an odd movie, to say the least. Fans of Woodstock-era rock will dig the presence of Country Joe and the Fish—as an inept band of bank robbers known as The Crackers—and the James Gang. (Country Joe would later call Zachariah “crappy," but the film has its defenders.)

Outland Who says a Western has to be set in the Old West? Or even the West? Outland takes the classic High Noonsetup—lawman must stand alone against hired killers, with no one in town daring to stand by his side—and transplants it to Io, one of the moons of Saturn. That’s where Sean Connery’s Marshal O’Niel is investigating a string of violent, mysterious deaths among the miners working on the moon in the not-too-distant future. When he realizes the victims have been taking a drug that makes them more productive workers before it finally (literally) burns them out, the cop takes on the drug cartel, even though the bad guys are operating with full permission from the evil corporate overlords. In space, nobody can hear you draw.

Posse Seizing on the notion that the American West provided as much opportunity for African-Americans—who had only recently been released from the bondage of slavery after the end of the Civil War in 1865—as for white men, Mario Van Peebles’ action-packed oater combines a cast of screen legends (Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Woody Strode), early-’90s up-and-comers (Blair Underwood, Billy Zane, Stephen Baldwin) and hip-hop stars (Tone Loc, Big Daddy Kane) to tell this story of Spanish-American war vets—Buffalo Soldiers, of course—traveling with a load of gold and a burning desire to get revenge on the man who lynched the father of their leader. Director-star Van Peebles has fun with the basic elements of the Western—there are corrupt sheriffs and the prospect of the railroad coming through—but subverts them as well; at one point, Van Peebles’ character disguises himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan to bust his pals out of jail. Posse marks an interesting spot on the map where Monogram Pictures and New Jack City intersect.

Brokeback Mountain As that memorable montage screened by Jon Stewart at the Oscars that year reminded us, homoeroticism in Westerns wasn’t exactly unknown before this breakout hit came along. (Just watch Montgomery Clift and John Ireland handle each other’s guns in Red River (1948).) Still, much of what went unspoken about the tender friendships of men out on the open plain moved from subtext to front and center in this powerful adaptation of the E. Annie Proulx novella. All sheepherders Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) want is to be able to love each other, but they’re in the wrong country in the wrong century and, arguably, the wrong genre. And knowing that nothing is stopping that love except for societal pressure is what makes this movie such an exquisite heartbreaker for audiences.

Blazing Saddles The posters proclaimed, “Never give a saga an even break,” and writer-director Mel Brooks proceeded to brilliantly pick apart and parody the venerable Western genre until there was almost nothing left to take with a straight face. The conniving Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) wants the citizens of Rock Ridge to abandon their town, so he installs a black sheriff (Cleavon Little). To Lamarr’s surprise, the sheriff unites the town to fight for their land, even if they find it difficult to stop referring to him as the N-word. (Brooks walked a tightrope of political incorrectness in 1974 that no filmmaker before or since would have been allowed to get away with.) Look, Alex Karras punches a horse in this movie. What else could you possibly want?

Bad Girls The success of the Young Guns “teen Western” franchise in the late ’80s opened the door for all kinds of variations on the classic formula, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that someone thought the “hot babe Western” would be a natural follow-up. Bad Girls apparently drew some inspiration from 1991’s Thelma & Louise as well: Drew Barrymore, Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson and Andie MacDowell star as a quartet of prostitutes on the run from the law after one of them commits a murder in self-defense. They make it to Oregon but then find themselves chasing after a bandit who has made off with their life savings. For all its familiarity, though, Bad Girls winds up being a hoot, anyway—how many other movies are ever going to feature Barrymore rushing after a runaway wagon on horseback and then leaping onto the speeding vehicle, reining in its spooked horses?

Johnny Guitar Here’s a Western that’s so deliciously overripe and jam-packed with strangeness that, 55 years after it first hit the screen, it’s still being parsed by fans and academics. Whether you want to explore the movie’s treatment of gender roles—the final gunfight takes place between two women, scenery-chewers Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge—or look at it as a metaphor for McCarthy-era blacklisting—McCambridge runs a campaign of terror against “outsiders” when she’s really looking after her own self-interest—this deliciously baroque Nicholas Ray epic turns the Western on its head while remaining true to the genre’s narrative strengths. (Trivia note: Johnny Guitar is the movie that Carmen Maura’s character in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is dubbing into Spanish.)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller Director Robert Altman stripped all the glamour and glory out of the Western for this bleak but riveting look at a pioneer town that inevitably gets taken over by corporate interests. Warren Beatty gives one of his best performances as a gambler who opens up a saloon and whorehouse in the Pacific Northwest, and Julie Christie is more than his match as the no-nonsense madam who helps him run his business. Altman makes the landscape cold, unforgiving and dimly lit, resulting in what’s probably one of the most true-to-life Westerns ever. (Altman returned to the cowboy age for his underrated satire Buffalo Bill and the Indians, a tale about the crossover between genocide and show business.)

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