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Good Western Movies (1995-00): Sittin’ in the Saddle with Devils

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David Appleford itcherThere was a famous American singer/songwriter called Gene Autry. Even if you’ve never heard of him you’ll know two of his songs; ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’ He was also a movie actor and made 97 films. In all those films he played a character named after himself; Gene Autry. He was a canny businessman and made the kind of movies he knew would draw the biggest crowds and give him maximum audience exposure. Every film he ever made, all 97 of them, were westerns. ~ David Appleford

Over Are the Times of Riding Side-Saddle

Even though neither the output nor the audience would ever be as it was, the nineties proved to be a major decade for the comeback of westerns. There were several. The first half toyed with women no longer riding side-saddle but taking over the reins. The second half toyed with sub-genres.

There were plenty of ideas for movie gunslingers floating around Hollywood, but the concern was this: no modern audience would go for the traditional. At least, that’s what they thought. Obviously someone had yet to see ‘Tombstone.’ If a writer had an idea for a western, the request was to stage it in a setting different from the norm. For example, a Sergio Leone Italian western was a sub-genre; it was a spaghetti western. Mel Brooks’ ‘Blazing Saddles’ was a sub-genre. It was a comedy western.  

The following five films are examples of the kind of sub-genre westerns that emerged out of Hollywood during the latter half of the nineties. There’s a contemporary-western, a revisionist-western, a horror-western, a sub spaghetti-western – I admit, that’s a bit weird – and something called an outlaw-western, though considering almost every western has an outlaw, that particular sub-genre sounds a little suspect. Read on.


Eclectic Western Movie Recommendations

‘Ride with the Devil’ (Ang Lee, 1999)

Allegiance to either side was dangerous. But it was more dangerous still to find oneself caught in the middle…

This is the revisionist-western, so called not so much because it revises history but because it takes place during the onset of the American Civil War, away from the traditional time and setting of a regular American western. Most westerns take place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. ‘Ride with the Devil’ takes place almost thirty years earlier.

Tobey Maguire plays a down and dirty militiaman from the south who joins a gang known as the Bushwhackers. They were marauders who burned cities and even attacked neighbors. Whether they were legal or not, even in a time of civil war, continues to be debated.

The film opened to good reviews but poor box-office with restricted distribution, which is perhaps why you’ve never heard of it, but it’s a good film, an excellent western and should not be forgotten. Both Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio passed on the script making room for Maguire to take the lead, and Maguire plays poor white trash really well.

Singer Jewel Kilcher, more popularly known as simply Jewel, was also cast, but curiously director Ang Lee said that he cast the singer not so much because she could act but because of her teeth. If you’re familiar with Jewel you’ll know she’s famous for a prominent crooked side tooth which I’m assuming she could have had fixed by now, but as far as I can tell, it’s still on her to-do list. Director Lee thought her teeth looked like those a poor woman of the civil war would have, so he offered her the part. Sometimes not going to the dentist can pay off.

‘Lone Star’ (John Sayles, 1996)

No telling yet if there’s been a crime, but this country’s seen a fair amount of disagreements over the years…

This is a contemporary-western and it’s nothing short of outstanding. Director John Sayles is a true independent film director who has done it all, from writing and editing, to acting, and even to novelist. He was also the one who wrote the early draft to Spielberg’s ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.’

In ‘Lone Star,’ Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself embroiled in a Texas border murder mystery. The hidden bones of a one-time corrupt local sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) are discovered, but there’s a problem. Investigating further may only bring trouble, particularly when one lose end in the story involves Deeds’ deceased father, the popular Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper).

The film was critically acclaimed, and deservingly so. The slow, deliberate pacing pulls you in from the beginning with an atmosphere so thick you can practically taste the dust floating around in the hot desert air. The film is usually overlooked, but if you enjoy discovering something of quality that makes you wonder how it ever slipped by you in the first place, this is the one.

‘Ravenous’ (Antonia Bird, 1999)

You know, if you die first, I am definitely going to eat you. The question is, if I die first, what are you going to do?

This is a horror-western and it tells of cannibalism in California during the 1840s, inspired partially by the real-life Donner Party of 1847, pioneers who took to cannibalism to survive. The gruesomely bloody story has its fair share of dark humor, but make no mistake, that doesn’t lighten things; it just makes everything seem more horrifying.

Filming got off to a bad start. The original director complained that the studio was micromanaging everything and generally getting in the way of his vision, including casting actors without his approval. Even on what was supposed to be the first day of shooting, the arguments continued, slowing production. Within three weeks, the director was fired. Under the recommendation of lead actor Robert Carlyle, a new director was hired. Antonia Bird, the English director whose career began with TV’s ‘Eastenders,’ came on board, though even she complained of bad management and having to film under demanding circumstances.  

And if you’re wondering, how bloody is this film? Consider this. The big fight at the end between Carlyle and co-star Guy Pearce became so violent with both characters basically pummeling each other to death, production had to be halted – they ran out of fake blood and couldn’t continue until they made a fresh batch.

‘Dollar for the Dead’ (Gene Quintano, 1998)

You’re a hell of a shot, Cowboy. But in the human being department, you barely meet basic requirements…

This the one they call a sub-spaghetti western, but you could also call it a hodge-podge western and the label would still be appropriate. ‘Dollar for the Dead’ has everything – it’s a comedy, there’s some Hong Kong style cinema in there, and it’s a salute to the Italian westerns that made Clint Eastwood famous, hence the dollar title.

Emilio Estevez is the nameless cowboy –yes, a Man with No Name – and he’s fast with a gun. How fast? At bar when forced to defend himself, he drops his drink, draws his gun, fires, shoots the opposing cowboy, puts his gun away and catches his glass  before it hits the floor. Now, that’s something you don’t see everyday.

It’s all nonsense, of course, but fans of westerns can indulge as this sub-spaghetti western goes out of its way to reference classics like ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,’ ‘The Wild Bunch,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ and the Eastwood dollar movies. And when a cowboy starts to wax philosophically around the campfire by seriously stating, “The longer I live, the more I have to reconsider what I think is dumb,” who can resist?

‘The Quick and the Dead’ (Sam Raimi, 1995)

Like I always say – put a fox in the henhouse and you’ll have chicken for dinner every time…

You’d think that a director with a reputation such as Sam Raimi’s – he’s the guy behind ‘The Evil Dead,’ ‘Army of Darkness,’ and ‘Drag Me to Hell,’ – we’d be discussing another horror-western, but no, this is the outlaw-western. The reason it’s called an outlaw-western is because every principle character in the film is a bad guy – they’re all outlaws.

Sharon Stone, perhaps the most attractive gunslinger ever in the west, rides into town in time to sign up for the deadly single elimination gun fighting contest run by the town’s outlaw leader. He’s the all-round unpleasant guy with an itchy finger played by Gene Hackman.

Despite being helmed by a name director, this was really Sharon Stone’s film. Final decisions were often hers, and so was the responsibility. Even though the studio gave her a list of approved names from which to pick, Stone picked Raimi as director simply because she liked his ‘Army of Darkness,’ plus she wanted a young actor called Leonardo DiCaprio to be cast. The studio bulked, but Stone was insistent. She got her way, of course, but it came with a price, and for Stone it was a literal one; she paid DiCaprio’s salary out of her own money.


The Range Must Remain Open

Keep this in mind. The list of sub-genre westerns doesn’t end with the above five films. Ever heard of a space-western? That’s probably too easy. If you said ‘Star Wars’ then you know what you’re talking about.  

But how about those two classic curry-westerns of the Indian box-office such as ‘Takkari Donga,’ or ‘Quick Gun Murugun.’ And if those don’t do it for you, what about an acid-western, or maybe a Florida-western? They’re all for real. Of course, the pornographic-western is self explanatory, but if you ever come across of an example of something called a weird-western, let me know what you find. Knowing that there’s an actual sub-genre known as a meat pie-western I thought was weird enough.

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