I love Westerns. My allegiance to the genre has long been known on the Snarkmatrix. (I refer you to the comment threads on Exhibit A or Exhibit B.) So I am excited that people are excited by Joel and Ethan Coen’s new Western, True Grit.
And jeez, I hope I get a few hours by myself in the next week or so to see this movie. Parenting is a serious drag on your ability to partake of the cinema, which is one reason I’ve become such a devotée of Netflix Watch Instantly. I didn’t even get to catch the restored Metropolis when it came to town, and I had only A) waited months for it and B) written a chapter of my dissertation about its director. So I don’t know if True Grit is as good as everyone says it is. What I do know, what I know the hell out of, are Westerns, and Netflix. If you don’t know Westerns, that’s fine. So long as you’ve got a Netflix subscription and streaming internet, I’ve got your back.
You probably know that True Grit (2010) is an adaptation of the same Charles Portis novel (True Grit) that was previously adapted into a movie [True Grit (1969)] that won John Wayne a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the eyepatched marshal Rooster Cogburn. It’s not a remake, you’ve heard entoned, it’s a more-faithful adaptation of the novel.
Fine. Who cares? At a certain point, remakes and adaptations stop being remakes and adaptations. Does anyone care that His Girl Friday was a gender-swapping adaptation of The Front Page, a terrific Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur play which had already been made into a movie in 1931, and which was made into a movie again in 1974 with Billy Wilder directing and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell roles?
Okay, I do. But besides me, not really. Because His Girl Friday obliterated The Front Page in our movie-watching conciousness, even though the latter is the prototype of every fast-talking newspaper comedy from, shit, His Girl Friday to the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s been over forty years since True Grit (1969). It’s a good movie, but if you haven’t seen it, don’t sweat it too much.
You should, however, be sweating the Western. Because not least among their virtues is that Joel and Ethan Coen care and care deeply about genre. Virtually all of their movies are a loving pastiche of one genre form or another, whether playful (like Hudsucker’s newspaper comedy or The Big Lebowski’s skewed take on the hardboiled detective), not so playful (No Country For Old Men) or both somehow at once (Miller’s Crossing, Fargo). And the Western is fickle. You’ve got to contend with books, movies, radio, and TV, all with their own assumptions, all alternating giddy hats-and-badges-and-guns-and-horses entertainment and stone-serious edge-of-civilization Greek-tragedy-meets-American-origin-stories primal rites.
I’ll save you some time, though, by giving you just twelve links, briefly annotated.
First, iconic cinema: three movies, all starring John Wayne, all directed by John Ford, all great, each adding a different wrinkle:
There’s both continuity and progression between these three. It sort of helps to think of each film as if it came from the decade after it appeared. Stagecoach is robust, GI American power; Fort Apache is 50s paranoia; The Searchers is the moral ambiguity and questioning of violence and racism that became more common in the 1960s. On one level, it plays like a totally classic Western, and on the other, it’s a dress rehearsal for Apocalypse Now. It ain’t just science fiction that dreams the next decade, kids.
Once you burn through John Ford and the Serious Western, where can you go? It’s important to remember that Westerns became popular as cheaply produced B-movies, easy adventure and entertainment shot on Hollywood’s back lots. Even the geography of classic Westerns — usually a small, flimsy town with mountains, plains, and deserts in easy reach — are a function of where and how the movies were shot.
There were also radio & TV serials, which alternated between kiddie staples like The Lone Ranger and stand-up, long-running classics like Gunsmoke. And Jesus, the music — even setting aside Rogers and Hammerstein’s landmark Oklahoma!, there’s a reason they used to call it “country and western.”
There are a whole bunch of Gene Autry movies on Netflix, but Back in the Saddle delivers the “singing cowboy” formula and a fistful of hits. Cat Ballou is a goofy musical spoof with Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, and Nat King Cole. Gunsmoke was like the Western Law & Order — it ran forever, had great writing, acting, and directing, terrific guest stars and character actors playing out against familiar backdrops, and was just danged good TV. This episode, “Ash,” guest-stars Adam West and is a kind of mini-movie about two side characters, Ben and Ash, with cartoonish violence drifting into real violence in an eyeblink.
Next up, a triad of modern Westerns — post-Ford, post-Hollywood, post-counterculture, post-French-New-Wave, post-Spaghetti-Western, post-everything.
The pickings here aren’t quite as choice. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is great, but it isn’t Bonnie and Clyde — another box office hit about outlaws with a death wish that showed photogenic actors + violence + fast cutting + humor => success with the young people Hollywood couldn’t figure out anymore. Cable Hogue is fine, but it’s no The Wild Bunch — Sam Peckinpah’s first Western combining Hemingway’s macho-in-the-face-of-certain-tragedy ethos with ballet-like choreographed gunplay. The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood, picks up that strange, original-Sin-tinged Southern Gothic allegory that plays out in his later Westerns from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven. These aren’t the best, but they’re not bad either.
File these three under genrefuck:
None of these three are Westerns, really, but God, they get it. There were plenty of Japanese samurai films before Akira Kurosawa came along, but he took Ford’s Westerns and drew the connection between the two genres, pulling out their shared themes of law and chaos, the precipice of civilization, heroes and antiheroes. In turn, his films with Toshiro Mifune became patterns for the Western, with Seven Samurai becoming The Magnificent Seven and (more significantly) Yojimbo becoming A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood’s first collaboration with Italian director Sergio Leone. You can’t imagine the modern Western without Kurosawa. You just can’t. And these samurai movies are Westerns.
Joss Whedon’s Firefly, too, is sometimes called a “space Western,” and it’s got plenty of the outward trappings of such, but if you watch the movies above and then watch Firefly, the Western themes (even the post-Civil War microhistories) jump out even more. It’s also just a treat to watch — not as big and brash as its contemporary Deadwood, but likewise hyperintelligent, inventive television.
If you want to round it out, there’s also the able made-for-TV Lonesome Dove mini-series. Twenty years out, it’s hard to place: is it neotraditional, modern, Gunsmoke for the 1980s? It’s a lot better than Wyatt Earp or Silverado, that’s for sure. Get along, now.