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Good Western Movies (1990-95): Wicked Towns & Bad Girls

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David Appleford itcherActor and Hollywood legend James Stewart once said he could tell what kind of movie he was being asked to make by the weight of the script received in the mail. If the script was heavy it meant lots of dialog; probably a drama. If it was medium weight, it was perhaps a comedy with some in-built pauses for laughter. If it was light he knew exactly what it was; a western. With westerns, he said, characters spoke either with their fists or with their guns. There wasn’t a lot to write about. ~ David Appleford

Western Films Reflecting Revisionist Changes

After a rough start in the eighties, by the end of the decade, things picked up for Hollywood and the western. By the nineties, even though production was never going to be the same as it was in the heyday, more stories of the Wild West found their way into the multiplexes. The studios experimented, especially when it came to women.  

Traditionally, women in westerns were easily defined. They were wives who swept the porch or made the biscuits, or the country school teachers who taught every child in town in the one classroom, or maybe they were the saloon gals or the feisty daughter of a wealthy landowner. Whatever role they played, when it came to cowboys and their conflicts, they usually kept out of the way. They were there, but they were the support. But new attitudes towards women in entertainments were changing, and several new revisionist style westerns were reflecting that change.

Kevin Costner’s character in ‘Dances with Wolves’ may have been the lead, but it was Mary McDonnell’s role as Stands With A Fist, the white woman who became a Sioux that gave the film its heart and center. Mary Steenburgen in ‘Back to the Future lll’ may have played the school teacher, but she’s modern with a feisty modern attitude.

The following five western recommendations reflect several of those revisionist changes, including the roles of women. Whether they all reflect a true look of the west is doubtful. Equality for women remains unfairly tough in certain quarters even today. Equality in the late nineteenth century in a lawless land where some pretty mean men made their own rules was unheard of. And if anyone thinks that killers like Liberty Valance, Judge Roy Bean or Cactus Jack were going to take a back seat to some darned, stubborn gal just because she had a loaded pistol – we’ll ignore mean Barbara Stanwyck in ’40 Guns’ – then think again.


Wild Western Movie Recommendations

‘The Ballad of Little Jo’ (Maggie Greenwald, 1993)

Why can’t we live as we are?

This is the best western you’ve never seen, or maybe never even heard of. When it comes to a realistic look at a woman living in the west, this is easily your best bet. Here’s why.

Suzy Amis in her best big screen role ever plays Josephine, an East Coast society woman from a good family. Her life is comfortable until she’s seduced by the family portrait photographer. She gives birth to a child out of wedlock. Rejected by both the society in which she grew and the family in which she was raised, Josephine leaves her newborn in the care of her sister and heads west.  

But she soon discovers the west is no place for a single woman. In order to survive, she purposely scars her face and is forced to disguise herself as a man. There’s just no other way. Josephine becomes Little Jo., and that’s how the local town knows her; the quiet young man who lives on the edge of town and prefers to be left alone.

It’s telling that the film was both written and directed by a woman, Maggie Greenwald, but here’s what’s really important. In case you’re thinking that this might be a simplistic feminist story angled towards a righteous woman just trying to survive while surrounded by simplistic caricatures of men portrayed as insensitive sexual predators, think again. It’s a true story.

‘Unforgiven’ (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

Funny thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s gonna have…

I know, ‘Unforgiven’ was a huge hit. To include it on this list is hardly an interesting discovery, but even though it won an Oscar for Best Picture, it’s also a western that rarely turns up, and what was great about it is now becoming forgotten. Depending on your age, it’s time to either discover it again or to savour it for the first time.

Eastwood had the script for years. It was called ‘The Cut-Whore Killings’ because of the story revolving around a prostitute whose face is badly disfigured by a customer. Eastwood liked the part of the ol’ killer hired for revenge but didn’t want to play the lead until he felt he was old enough.

Richard Harris guest stars as a character called English Bob. When Eastwood personally called Harris at his home to offer him the part, of all the cinematic coincidences, Harris was watching a western on TV. It was ‘High Plains Drifter’ with Clint Eastwood.

To complete the circle of movie life, many samurai movies were rewritten as westerns, the most famous being ‘The Magnificent Seven’ which was adapted from the 1954 Kurosawa film ‘Seven Samurai.’ ‘Unforgiven’ was such a well respected and well received western that it in 2013 it was remade into a samurai movie with Ken Watanabe. He played the lead, but not as a revenge seeking cowboy with a rifle but as a revenge seeking samurai with one mean looking sword.

‘Quigley Down Under’ (Simon Wincer, 1990)

Don’t worry, on a new job it’s quite common for things not to go well at first…

The west meets the other side of the world. ‘Quigley Down Under’ is an Australian western that was originally intended for Steve McQueen, but he became ill, then for Clint Eastwood, who because of timing couldn’t commit, then for Harrison Ford, who turned it down because he thought it was too close to his portrayal of Indiana Jones.

Ironically, the man who was meant to be the original Indiana Jones before Ford but couldn’t commit because of a certain popular TV series was actor Tom Selleck, and he became the lead. Selleck plays Quigley, an American cowboy sharpshooter lured away to Australia to work for mean landowner Alan Rickman.

Quigley thinks he’s there to shoot some pesky dingoes, but soon finds he’s there to shoot native Aborigines. Refusing to shoot anyone, the landowner turns on Quigley. With the help of a woman called Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo), Quigley spends the rest of the film trying to survive in the outback while bad guy Rickman spends all of his time trying to kill Quigley.

The film is well framed and nicely shot throughout. It broke even at the box-office, meaning that just enough people saw it without the film losing money, but it didn’t make much either, and now it’s all but forgotten. The film did have one major impact. The rifle used by the title character was a Sharps Buffalo Rifle. The rifle, still available today, is referred to as a “Quigley Gun.” Plus, when you watch the movie, pay attention to the scene where Quigley and Cora have to eat Grub Worms. Some viewers objected of the treatment of animals after seeing the film. The worms were actually blobs of dough.

‘Bad Girls’ (Jonathan Kaplan, 1994)

She picked a fine time to have a fit. If it were she in trouble, Lily would be the first one to help her…

This is one of those revisionist type Hollywood westerns where the west is portrayed not so much as it was or could ever have been, but how some studio bosses might like to fantasize about it, especially when the four lead bad girls of the title look like Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore and Andie MacDowell. But it wasn’t meant to be like that.

The original script was very much a more realistic feminist point-of-view affair of the west, but after a few weeks into filming, the guys at the studio didn’t like the look of things. They shut down production, fired directed Tamra Davis and replaced her with Jonathan Kaplan. They then re-wrote the script almost entirely, made cast changes, and within a few weeks, resumed filming, but not before scrapping everything that was filmed before.

What might have had a semblance of reality was now turned into something more appealing… for men. In other words it was four of the most attractive women in Hollywood who with their model good looks and fancy cowboy duds got to look mean, ride horses and shoot. The New York Times called it ‘Cowpoke Barbie.’

Drew Barrymore described the experience as being ‘the pits.’ To be fair, there’s some fun to be had with the women looking tough in the west, and the players do their best to appear earnest and treat the subject seriously, even though it’s clearly absurd. And that’s why ‘Bad Girls’ is on the list. Any film this odd when its original intentions were so good should be seen.

‘Tombstone’ (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

I spent my whole life not knowing what I want out of it, just chasing my tail. Now for the first time I know exactly what I want and who… that’s the damnable misery of it…

Considering what the film was up against, it’s not only a wonder that it turned at to be as good as it was, it’s a wonder it was ever filmed in the first place.

‘Tombstone’ is one of several films that depicted the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but where most of those earlier productions portrayed the shoot ‘em up as an epic battle incorporating runaway wagon trains, fires and all kinds of duck and hide shenanigans, the real gunfight was played out at point blank range and lasted seconds. While ‘Tombstone’ made the gunfight admittedly cinematic, it’s close in tone to the actual fight than most other films.

The problems with production began when writer and director Kevin Jarre was fired. Actor Kurt Russell, who was playing Wyatt Earp, galvanized cast and crew to continue filming without an official director. By the time George P. Cosmatos was hired, Russell had done much of the work. In an interview, the actor stated that in the end, Cosmatos was on hand merely to make things runs smoothly and tidy it all up.

There was also the issue of Willem Dafoe. The actor was supposed to be Doc Holliday, but Disney distributors Buena Vista stated they would never release the film if Dafoe was cast due to the negative publicity surrounding ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’ Val Kilmer was cast instead and was a terrific Doc Holliday.

To complete another circle of movie life where Hollywood meets the real thing, at the end of the film we learn what happened when the real Wyatt Earp passed away. His funeral was as recent as 1929. At the time, one of the biggest stars of the western screen was a silent movie box-office attraction called Tom Mix. The Hollywood cowboy attended the funeral of the real life cowboy. They say Tom Mix cried.


Upstream From The Heard

Considering how well the decade began for Kevin Costner with the release of ‘Dances with Wolves,’ it’s surprising that his second western four years later, ‘Wyatt Earp,’ turned out to be such an epic snooze. Costner was actually involved with ‘Tombstone’ in its early stages, but pulled out due to conflicts with the script and director Kevin Jarre. Jarre, as we’ve already established, was fired, but Costner had already walked.  

Instead he used his clout to make ‘Wyatt Earp’ while convincing most of the major Hollywood studios to refuse a distribution for the competing Kurt Russell version, but it hardly mattered. Once they were both eventually released it was ‘Tombstone’ that proved to be the better film. When it comes to a Costner western, always run with the wolves. When it comes to the O.K. Corral, stick with ‘Tombstone.’

It’s true, ‘Wyatt Earp’ may have won a couple of awards but they were Razzies, including a Worst Remake or Sequel award and a Worst Actor award for Kevin Costner. That pretty much says it all.

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