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Good Western Movies (2000-05): Armchair Cowboys, Loaded Remotes

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David Appleford itcherSomething odd happened to westerns in the new millennium. The studio output was certainly there but it was where audiences watched them that altered the landscape. After a dip in interest during the eighties, the nineties gave a certain amount of new life back to the genre, but by the millennium there were a couple of things that changed. It also gave studios pause for thought. ~ David Appleford

Leaving the Traditional in the Desert Dust

All of those quirky sub-genre westerns that began to emerge made younger movie audiences more selective. They were breaking off into groups, looking for more of the unusual while leaving the traditional in the desert dust. Older audiences were still happy with what had always worked, but they were staying at home. To get older audiences into the theatre, the film had to be something special. If not, they were quite content to remain indoors and watch television.

Hollywood saw the trend and started to do what they had done with Christmas movies – they made more for TV. In fact, not only was the output for straight-to-television westerns increased, they also started to remake a few of those big screen classics for the small screen. Results varied, but a few stood out, particularly the films produced by cable channels. They were the ones that had the opportunity to push the artistic envelope a little further than a regular commercial channel; they looked just like big screen movies.

But all was not lost when it came to millennium westerns for the cinemas. A few gems emerged. Coming up, five films that illustrate the mixing of TV, cable and cinema, and they’re all worth your time.


Millennial Western Movie Recommendations

‘The Missing’ (Ron Howard, 2003)

I didn’t kill anyone! I said I didn’t kill anyone! I am looking for my grand-daughter!

Based on a ’96 novel called ‘The Last Ride’ by Thomas Eidsen, ‘The Missing’ tells of a woman (Cate Blanchett) who reluctantly enlists the help of her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) when her daughter is kidnapped. The girl is to be sold into slavery and the U.S. Cavalry won’t help.

If the film has any faults, it’s probably the length. At 137 minutes, there’s a point where ‘The Missing’ starts to feel longer than it should, but the performances, the book and the overall look of Ron Howard’s film make this an outstanding, atmospheric western.

Native Americans were impressed, and how often can you say that about a western? Adding to the film’s authenticity was the use of the Apache language. Actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, had to learn how to speak the vanishing Chiricahua dialect, and by all accounts it was quite authentic.

There are said to be only 300 people who today speak the tongue, so when ‘The Missing’ came out, there was a surge of pride felt for the accurate use of the language. And just in case any budding writer is thinking that all you need is one book to be bought by a studio and made into a major movie and you’ve arrived, hold that thought: Author Thomas Eidsen still has his day job. He’s a clerk working for a financial investment company in Boston.

‘King of Texas’ (Uli Edel, 2002)

‘King of Texas’ may have been a television movie, but no commercial station could ever have produced it. It’s Shakespeare meets the Wild West as King Lear dons a hat, straps on a gun and sounds like Patrick Stewart.

Stewart plays wealthy Texan John Lear, a cattle baron who divides all of his land and property to his three greedy daughters only to find that once they have what they want, they reject dad. Backed with such big screen supporting players such as Roy Scheider, Marcia Gay Harden and one of Stewart’s ‘Star Trek’ co-stars, Colm Meany, ‘King of Texas’ is a vastly entertaining western. Plus it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  

Promoted as a two hour film for TNT cable, once you remove the commercial breaks, the whole thing really runs for 95 minutes, and it’s just the right length, even though it may take a while to adjust to Stewart’s Texas accent.

Plus, it gets the stamp of western authenticity. ‘King of Texas’ won two awards and they were both prestigious. Writer Stephen Harrigan won Best Drama Script from the Western Writers of America and the film itself won Best Television Film from the Western Heritage Awards. When it comes to official praise from those who know, it doesn’t get better than that.

‘High Noon’ (Ron Hardy, 2000)

You should have paid the man, Miller. For dying that hard…

Why anyone thought it was a good idea to remake a classic is a mystery. If you’re going to watch ‘High Noon,’ then the 1952 Gary Cooper film should always be your first choice, but there are some good reasons to catch the new version and here’s why.

First, Gary Cooper may be a legendary Hollywood figure, but he was more of a presence than a performer. Tom Skerritt, the newly married lawman waiting for the bad guys to arrive on the noon train, is a much better actor. That may sound sacrilege to Hollywood old-timers, but it’s still a fact. Second, the remake is in color.

That’s not exactly a selling point considering the original looks glorious in black and white, but for many modern audiences, color can make a difference. And third, the tension in the original was a real nail-biter, but the climactic shoot out in the remake has more of a kick. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just different.

Just for fun, here’s what you do. First, watch the ’52 original, then check out Sean Connery’s sci-fi ‘Outland,’ which had the same plot, and finally see the Tom Skerritt remake. That may be a lot of viewing in one go, but what a great way for a movie buff to spend a rainy afternoon.

‘Monte Walsh’ (Simon Wincer, 2003)

…as time goes by, we all have to take the best we can get…

Another remake, though unlike ‘High Noon,’ ‘Monte Walsh’ is hardly considered a classic. The original 1970 big screen version with Lee Marvin is certainly a good film, but time hasn’t kept it on people’s shelves. In fact, when this 2003 version came out, most never realized there was a previous one.  

The plot is the same, two cowhands who work the range find their lives changed when a fellow worker becomes involved with a killing. In fact, the remake is so similar to the original that most of the dialog from the first is intact, and even some of the cinematography is setup the same.  

There are slight changes, however. Tom Selleck plays the rough, gruff Lee Marvin role, but Selleck plays it in a way that makes the character considerably more likeable, even kind. Because the screenplay is almost word for word from the first film, the harsher pieces of dialog that were written for Selleck’s character were given to others. They’re still there, but they’re said by someone else. It just makes Selleck’s cowboy more in line with how audiences like to see a kindly Tom Selleck.

And even though this was another cable TV movie, the film cast several big screen names to boost its pedigree. In addition to Selleck there’s also Isabella Rosellini, William Devane, Wallace Shawn and two of the Carradine brothers, Keith and Robert. And like ‘King of Texas’, this 2003 ‘Monte Walsh’ also received an authentic stamp of western approval. It won Best Film from the Western Heritage Awards.

‘Open Range’ (Kevin Costner, 2003)

Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either…

Back to the big screen, and for Kevin Costner, back to a western, and it’s a great one.

After ‘Silverado,’ ‘Dances with Wolves,’ and ‘Wyatt Earp,’ Costner obviously has a fondness for westerns, and with ‘Open Range’ he’s delivered arguably one of the most handsome westerns around. Costner is Charley Waite, a one-time killer who feels guilt for his past and tends to suppress his killer instincts. But it’s when he and his partner, Robert Duvall, lock horns with bad guy Michael Gambon in a nearby town that old habits resurface. The climactic shoot out looks and feels authentic. It’s one of the best on film.

As director, Costner didn’t like most of the existing movie studio towns available for filming, so he spent a million dollars from the budget to build a brand new town in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the town was so far away from anywhere else that in order to get the supplies needed to build the homes and the saloons, he had to spend another forty thousand dollars just to build a brand new road that would take the supplies to the faux town.

Duvall’s character continuously refers to actor Michael Jeter’s character as ‘Old Man,’ even though in reality, Jeter was twenty-one years younger than Duvall. Sadly, this was the Broadway actor’s last film. Michael Jeter died before the film was released. ‘Open Range’ is dedicated to him. And if you’re looking for a further stamp of approval before you commit, how about this. Sir Anthony Hopkins is said to have been so enthralled with the film that after watching it, he wrote two fan letters, one to Robert Duvall and one to Kevin Costner. Yes, even big time movie stars occasionally become star struck.


Every Trail Has Puddles

The new millennium certainly indicated just how different westerns needed to be in order to get audiences interested and back into cinemas. As already stated, younger fans wanted unpredictable, even quirky westerns in unusual settings, while the older set raised on John Wayne and James Stewart wanted the traditional. Hollywood tried its best to cater to both, but as the new decade continued, there was no looking back.  

Despite big screen adventures in the first half of the decade like ‘Open Range’ or even the 2004 remake of ’The Alamo’ with Dennis Quaid, those who liked things traditional would in general have to stick to television. Nowhere was this more evident than the first big screen western that began the second half of the decade.  

In 2005 there was a certain award-winning western called ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ It was labeled as a romantic-western, and even though it was a terrific film with two outstanding central performances, it was hardly the kind of movie romance that either old timers John Wayne or James Stewart would have cared to depict. Keep reading.

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