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Good Western Movies (1980-85): Head ‘Em off At The Pass

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David Appleford itcherThe film generally considered to be the first American film that told a story was released in 1903. It had a budget of approximately $150 and ran for 11 minutes. It was called ‘The Great Train Robbery’ and the plot was in the title; outlaws rob a train but find there’s a posse right behind them. What’s important is realizing that the first film with a plot was a western, a genre that would dominate box-office for more than half a century then faded in the seventies. But it wasn’t over. ~ David Appleford

Killing the Genre

When it comes to the eighties, the western looked to be in dire straits. In fact, there aren’t that many, not in the traditional sense. The sixties changed the genre once Clint Eastwood’s Italian made Man with No Name character became popular. Action turned to violent action and the villains appeared more psychotic and trigger happy than ever. When a man was beaten in an Italian horse opera he looked beaten. That wholesome family entertainment style, that was traditionally the template for the American west on film, changed. It had to; the competition from overseas was too much.

…Hollywood was never going to look back…

The change of style for American studios was awkward. Eastwood was lured away from the spaghetti westerns in ’68 to make ‘Hang ‘Em High,’ an American western that looked like an Italian. The slow moving, slow talking, violent revenge actioner was a box-office hit, which meant Hollywood was never going to look back. John Wayne, who was still a western action hero draw, was never happy with the new direction. He often bemoaned the new in-your-face violent style plus he really disliked the use of realistic looking squibs on bodies used to make blood explode and splatter when an actor pretended to be shot.   

Throughout the seventies, Italian westerns slowly disappeared and American box-office returns dipped. What was once a major player in cinemas was fast becoming a historic footnote, not to mention that in ’79 John Wayne passed away, a symbol of the loss of the genre. But Hollywood wasn’t giving in. There were still western stories to tell, but maybe the setting should change. The following early eighties recommendations reflect that difference of setting: there’s an outback western, a modern western, a space western, a Canadian western and finally a traditional American western, one that practically killed the genre and almost ruined a studio.


Blazing Western Movie Recommendations

‘The Grey Fox’ (Phillip Borsos, 1982)

You ain’t worth killin’, but if you come at me again I’ll put a window through your head so help me.

It’s appropriate we should start with ‘The Grey Fox,’ even though it’s a Canadian film. The lead character is an American stagecoach robber played by Richard Farnsworth. He’s caught, escorted to jail then sent to prison for 33 years. When he’s finally released, everything has changed. Among the first things he does is go to the movies where he sees the very first Hollywood film ever made with a plot, ‘The Great Train Robbery’. Thinking he’s found a new career, he follows the plot of the silent film, robs a train and hides away up in British Columbia.

Harry Dean Stanton was supposed to play the lead, but pulled out and made way for Richard Farnsworth, which turned out to be an astonishing turning point in the elderly actor’s career. It lead to several other roles for the relatively unknown character actor. It’s a wonderfully touching performance and anchors the emotional center of the film. It even earned Farnsworth a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. Not bad for a role he almost never had.

It also did well at various Canadian award celebrations earning seven Canadian Genie Awards, plus it was preserved as an official masterwork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. And if you still need convincing, it was hailed in both ’84 and ’93 as Canada’s Top Ten Films of all time.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ (Michael Cimino, 1980)

It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.

There is so much to talk about when it comes to Michael Cimino’s grand scale western of land barons feuding with European immigrants. Everything about it was epic – it was epic in scale, epic in budget and ultimately epic in failure, but it’s an important western to include for several reasons, not the least because it almost killed audience interest in the genre and made a studio consider filing for bankruptcy. It’s only because United Artists had James Bond’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’ ready to go that the studio was saved.

First, the positive. It looks great. This is one of the most stunningly beautiful westerns ever made. Plus, the shorter the version you come across, the better it is. The original finished film was over five hours, then it was cut to 219 minutes, followed by a further edit that lasted 149 minutes. The problem was director Cimino. He was such a perfectionist that by the fifth day of filming he was already behind schedule by four days. Fifty takes for one shot was not uncommon. If you put all the raw footage back to back it would take nine days of continuous viewing to see it all. The final battle sequence screened for studio execs was said to have been as long as any full-length film.  

The original budget was set for $7.5 million but ended up $44 million. It destroyed director’s Cimino’s career and relegated the film to be known as the most expensive epic that no one saw. But you can see it on DVD and now that the negative publicity that surrounded its release in 1980 is behind it, you can judge for yourself without all of the bad luck baggage it carried. Actor Jeff Bridges certainly prospered from it. Director Cimino was famous for pulling down and destroying all the authentic sets built for the film. There was a certain log cabin used. Bridges salvaged it before anyone could tear it down, shipped it away and now uses it as the family vacation home in rural Montana.

‘Outland’ (Peter Hyams, 1981)

Nelson, we’re talking about nuclear detonators here. You don’t just “lose” them and then “find” them.

There are many movie enthusiasts who would argue whether this is a western or not. It’s a science fiction thriller, but it’s also referred to as a space western. In fact, the original film was supposed to have been a traditional western, but because of the success of ‘Alien,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ and several other smaller sci-fi pictures of the time, Warner Brothers became interested in it being developed into a space opera, which is what happened. Its inspiration was the classic Gary Cooper film ‘High Noon’, and you can see all the western trademarks throughout.

Sean Connery is a Federal Marshal keeping the law on a mining post on one of Jupiter’s moons. When odd things keep happening to the miners, the Marshall investigates and finds corruption within mining company policy. To keep him permanently quiet and to ensure that production never stops, the company sends in gunmen on the next flight. The countdown to high noon begins as the Marshall awaits his fate.

It’s a genuine edge-of-your-seat thriller that tends to be overlooked. It did well for further establishing Sean Connery as a bankable star outside of his Bond days, even though he lost a major part in ‘Chariots of Fire’ due to ‘Outland’ running over schedule. Plus, there was a title change. Once it became sci-fi movie, the title was to be the name of the Jupiter planet where everything took place. That was ‘Io.’  But the studio changed it. Research showed that most people thought it was called the number ’10,’ and there was already a certain Dudley Moore comedy that possessed that moniker.

‘The Man from Snowy River’ (George T. Miller, 1982)

There are a dozen good brood mares in that mob. I’ll be back for them… and for whatever else is mine.

It’s a western and it stars western actor Kirk Douglas in dual roles but it takes place in Australia. It’s an outback western and was so successful on its home turf that there was even a sequel plus a TV series. But the one that counts is this first theatrical production, and it is one handsome package.

The plot revolves around young Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) who has always lived on his father’s farm until a family death occurs. It forces Jim to leave what he has always known in order to earn enough money to get that family farm back. Actor Burlinson didn’t know how to ride a horse before making the film, though he took to it from day one. He not only performed all of his own horse stunts, in a key scene where he has to take his horse over the side of a cliff and run at full gallop down the cliff face, that was the actor and he did it one take.

Before Kirk Douglas was signed to play the dual roles of two brothers, Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum were also in line, but in the end the Australian studio went for Douglas alone. Fortunately there weren’t a lot of special effects required to make it look as though the actor was in the same scene conversing with himself; the two characters didn’t talk to each other.

‘Urban Cowboy’ (James Bridges, 1980)

All cowboys ain’t dumb. Some of ’em got smarts real good, like me.

This is the film that studios were convinced would update the western by placing it solidly in modern times and casting one of the biggest box-office draws of the day as its lead, John Travolta. After ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease,’ it was thought that Travolta could do no wrong, though someone wasn’t taking notice of a certain ’78 flop called ‘Moment by Moment.’

Bud (Travolta) is from the country, but heads to Houston for a job at the oil refinery. Once in the city he dons a cowboy hat, puts on his boots and lives up to the title of the film; he becomes an urban cowboy, and his local saloon is called Gilley’s – a real life bar at the time – and he rides not a horse but a mechanical bull.  

There were some casting changes early. Travolta’s love interest was to be played by Sissy Spacek, but there was a falling out between the two actors and Debra Winger came on board. At first, the studio didn’t want the unknown Winger, but director James Bridges threatened to walk if she wasn’t cast. The threat worked. They caved, Winger was signed, and the director stayed on.

Unfortunately, while a second look at the film years away from its release shows how good it really was, audiences weren’t showing up when it opened. Some marketing research was quickly done to find out why it was that something considered a sure thing with a major star was not attracting the crowds. The reason is startling. The majority of those questioned admitted to not knowing what the word ‘urban’ meant so they stayed away. If the title didn’t make sense, they thought, why bother going?


Dry as Dust

There was good news for fans of westerns in the 80s. Unlike the first half, the latter half began to return to more traditional settings. Hollywood still toyed with different flavors, but most productions were where followers of the genre wanted it to be – in the American west before the turn of the last century.  

Perhaps we should thank James Bond. If ‘For Your Eyes Only’ had not become a hit, United Artists would have folded after the massive loss on ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ Hollywood studios not only follow the successful leads of other studios, they also take note of the flops.  

The western had almost died, but oncoming productions just around the corner like ‘Young Guns,’ the remake of ‘Stagecoach’ and ‘Pale Rider’ proved there was life. You could say it was Bond that kept the path open. Well done, 007. Mission accomplished.

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