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Good Western Movies (1985-90): Singing Cowboys & Pale Riders

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David Appleford itcherTo call John Wayne a true Hollywood legend is no exaggeration. Even though his range was admittedly limited no one did John Wayne as well as he could; he was the number one box-office draw for years. With a career of over 200 hundred films, Wayne played the lead in almost all of them. That’s a record, and what’s really important is the genre in which he achieved that. Most of his films were westerns. ~ David Appleford

Displaying Violence in a New Way

It’s not unusual to hear that when John Wayne passed away so did the western. It’s not actually true, but there’s a kernel of something in that statement. What passed away was an acceptance of a certain kind of western. During the heyday of movie rustlers and horse riding villains, when a cowboy was shot he usually felt for his stomach, dropped his gun, fell, then died. No bullet hole and almost always no blood. But even before the Wayne style of wholesome good guy/bad guy westerns were fading, a couple of films had already begun to change the landscape.

Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic western ‘The Wild Bunch’ presented the cowboy as mean, crude and a survivalist at any cost, plus it displayed violence in a new way. The action film was already turning into violent action, but Peckinpah took the style even further. He presented graphic violent action. Bodies weren’t only shot to pieces, they were shot in slow motion with exploding bullet holes.

Then came Ralph Nelson’s 1970 western ‘Soldier Blue’ where the massacre of an innocent Cheyenne village at the hands of the Cavalry was displayed in such an explicit manner, it was as if the director had reached out, pulled our heads into the screen and rubbed our faces in the carnage. When it came to action in a western, after those two films, there was no looking back.

Bodies weren’t only shot to pieces, they were shot in slow motion with exploding bullet holes…

The first half of the eighties attempted to put the western in different settings with only a modicum of success. The second half was different. Hollywood still had western adventures to tell. In ’85, Lawrence Kasdan directed ‘Silverado,’ and even though it was cut considerably from the director’s original vision, it was still a hit. It was inevitable that more would soon be on our screens. Check the following five recommendations and you’ll see a genuine cross section of western styles, but they all have one thing in common; they’re all in traditional western settings.


Blazing Western Movie Recommendations

‘Pale Rider’ (Clint Eastwood, 1985)

Well, if you’re waitin’ for a woman to make up her mind, you may have a long wait…

This was right up Clint Eastwood’s alley. He produced, directed, and played the lead, and just like his Italian western character known only as the man with no name, in ‘Pale Rider’ his character has no name. He’s an avenging ghost who rides into town, rescues the good guys, deals with the bad guys, has a shave, then rides out again. The title is a biblical reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Eastwood plays Death on a horse.

Considering that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ tanked so badly and practically caused the death of the western, it’s remarkable when you think that just five years later, the decade’s biggest financial box-office hit was ‘Pale Rider.’ Eastwood hadn’t ridden the saddle for several years, and even though you could say it was because of the lack of public interest in watching westerns, there was another reason. Eastwood developed a mid-life allergy to horses and had to limit his time around them. That might explain the time spent as ‘Dirty Harry’ and the less than satisfactory sequels.

Speaking of horses, remember the actor Richard Kiel? He was the towering plank of wood most famous for playing the villain Jaws with the deadly steel teeth in the Bond opus ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’  Kiel stood more than seven feet and was a physical giant in every sense of the word. The first horse assigned to his character actually collapsed under the actor’s weight. The studio had to ship in a second, much stronger one. And look closely at the train station used. It was built specifically for the film, but the set was never torn down. In 1990 it was seen again. It’s the one Marty McFly traveled in time to use in ‘Back to the Future lll.’

‘Lust in the Dust’ (Paul Bartel, 1985)

You think you can just breeze into town and dig it up, huh? Buena suerte. Some of us have been looking for it for *years*…

It’s a genuine oddity, that’s certainly true, plus it might be a good idea to watch this on your own; not everyone is going to get it. Starring drag queen Divine, one-time heart throb Tab Hunter, the Joker from TV’s ‘Batman,’ Cesar Romero and Lainie Kazan, ‘Lust in the Dust’ is the closest to a John Waters film that John Waters never directed. In fact, Waters was asked to direct, but he turned it down citing that he only directs what he writes.

The film is best described as a comedy western, but how much you’ll laugh depends on how low your humor likes to go. Divine, whose real name was Harris Milstead, was described as the Drag Queen of the Century, and true to form, he’s in drag the whole film.

In truth, the film is a lot of fun and is intended to be a spoof of westerns, particularly the spaghetti ones. Tab Hunter’s cowboy is a send up of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Fistful of Dollars’ character; he speaks little and has no name. Perhaps the best joke is the movie’s promotional tag line. When referring to the pairing of Tab Hunter with drag queen Divine, it was promoted as being the film where “He rode the west. She rode the rest.”

‘Stagecoach’ (Ted Post, 1986)

Yes, sir. My wife cleans them and loads them for me. Now, a lot of men get fried chicken…

The story was covered three times. The first is the classic John Wayne film of 1939. Then there was a sixties remake with Bing Crosby in 1966, and then twenty years later came this third version, and what was interesting about the casting of number three was that all the male leads were country singers.

The ’86 production starred Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, plus two female country singers, Jessi Colter and June Carter Cash. And just to keep the singing theme going, there was also English singer Anthony Newley who went along for the ride. And just in case you were wondering, the answer is, no, it wasn’t a musical.

Watch the film as a companion piece to the original and skip the middle one. While it’s no classic, it is shoot ‘em up fun, and I’m guessing those lead actors must have had fun working together. In fact, singers Nelson, Cash, Kristofferson and Jennings must have enjoyed each others’ company so much that they kept the working projects going. They recorded a series of country albums together right up until ’95 and called themselves The Highwaymen.

‘Rustler’s Rhapsody’ (Hugh Wilson, 1985)

The way a person dresses is nobody’s business but his or her own…

Ever heard of the singing cowboy B-movies of the thirties and forties? They were the low-budget supports where a clean cut cowboy sat around the campfire and sang with his guitar on the trail. It was a whole sub-genre of the western and hugely popular in its day.

‘Rustler’s Rhapsody’ is a comedy western based on those old movies. At the beginning, there’s a black and white recreation of an old singing cowboy film. A voice-over asks us, “I wonder what one of those movies would look like today?” The film changes to color, and we’re off with singing cowboy Rex O’Herlihan (Tom Berenger) and his trusty sidekick, not to mention his guitar, as he saves the day from the bad guys in each town he visits, all while strumming a few songs.

The film gets the details of the costumes and the look of the horses as they appeared in those earlier features just right. Director Hugh Wilson was the man behind the TV series ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ and it was while filming the TV show on the old lot that used to belong to Republic Pictures, the studio that made most of those singing cowboy films, that Wilson got the idea of the spoof. He’s even in the film in an uncredited role called Complaining John. And look out for Patrick Wayne. He may not be as famous as his legendary dad, but having a John Wayne family member in the film adds to its authentic western credentials.

‘Billy the Kid’ (William A. Graham, 1989)

This is good.  Based on Gore Vidal’s novel, ‘Billy the Kid’ is a genuinely terrific and authentic looking western praised by western fans as being the ultimate Billy the Kid movie. A lot of that praise went to its leading player Val Kilmer who is said to have captured not only the physical resemblance to the outlaw but also his mannerisms and personality as described in historical documents.

Sadly, for a western that captures the spirit of the old west so well, it remains largely unknown except by true western aficionados who evidently have kept the secret for themselves. Gore Vidal wrote the original draft to Paul Newman’s 1958 western ‘The Left Handed Gun,’ but was never happy with how his work was cut to pieces for the big screen, so he returned to the subject for a book and wrote the story from a more historically accurate position.

In addition to Kilmer, there are some other familiar faces, including Wilford Brimley and Ned Vaughn, and if you catch the shot of an uncredited character called simply Preacher, take a closer look: it’s Gore Vidal.


Dry as Dust

There were other westerns during this period that could have been included in the list, such as the Chevy Chase ’86 comedy ‘¡Three Amigos!’ but you’re probably already aware of it.  

However, here’s a tip. Watch ‘Rustler’s Rhapsody’ first, become acquainted with the whole notion of what the singing cowboy movies were all about, then go back to ‘¡Three Amigos!’ The scene where Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin sing around the campfire was always funny, but once you get the reference and understand its Hollywood history, the scene becomes even funnier.

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