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Good Western Movies (2005-10): Beans Around the Campfirei
Image source: HBO

Good Western Movies (2005-10): Beans Around the Campfirei

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David Appleford itcherDuring the latter half of the new millennium’s first decade, when it came to westerns, Hollywood was in a quandary. Despite a resurgence of interest during the nineties and into the new century, by mid-decade the traditional western was either on TV or nowhere to be seen. ~ David Appleford

The Endlessness of Subgenre Westerns

Look at the trend from 2000 on and you’ll see; there was certainly no end of those sub-genre westerns, most of which were now by-passing both the big screen and TV by going straight to DVD. Films that played with classic titles, like ‘The Quick and the Undead,’ and ‘Dead Noon’ covered the direct to DVD horror-western, while ‘Stingray Sam,’ and ‘High Plains Invaders’ covered the science-fiction western.  

Westerns of quality tended to be contemporary-westerns, such as the outstanding ‘No Country for Old Men,’ and the excellent ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ but purists who wanted things to be the way they were had to hunt harder to find anything that reflected traditional.

The following five films reflect if not the best, then certainly the most interesting of westerns released from 2005 to the end of the decade. Three are based on real events with the usual amount of Hollywood fiction included, plus a violent Australian western and one traditional. Be ready to lock and load.

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Winding Western Movie Recomendations

‘The Proposition’ (John Hillcoat, 2005)

I know something you don’t know. Your brother’s come to kill you. I can help…

Director John Hillcoat’s Australian outback-western is a brutal affair, but well worth your time. It’s the 1880s in the Australian desert. After a shootout, what’s left of the murderous Burns Brothers gang is captured. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is given a proposition. He can go free of past crimes if he finds and kills his older, psychopathic brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), a man so vicious, even the Aborigines refuse to go near his camp.

The film had a limited release and tends to get lost in the shuffle, but if you find a copy, grab it with both hands. The attention to detail is thorough. Even the buttons on the costumes were handmade to make things as authentic as possible.

The violence may be a tough watch, but look closely and you’ll notice that two important characters, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) never fire their guns, even though one is a policeman and the other is a bounty hunter. Because of the film’s sunburned look and its bloody violence, ‘The Proposition’ was compared with the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work. Considering the Peckinpah American western pedigree, that’s all the praise you need.

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‘The Donner Party’ (T.J. Martin, 2009)

First, think back to the horror-western, ‘Ravenous.’ ‘The Donner Party’ is the true story that very loosely inspired that 1999 opus, only here things are little less sensational and more matter-of-fact.

It’s the 1840s and a group of settlers are making their way to California, but there’s trouble on the trail. After becoming snowbound in the mountains and with food in short supply, a small group of settlers turn to cannibalism for survival. The film was originally to be called ‘The Forlorn,’ so named after the group that started the feeding; they called themselves ‘The Forlorn Hope.’

The film is a gritty look at what really happened up there in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, though the production wasn’t without its share of problems. The original production company yanked its financing from the film, causing all kinds of last minute reshuffles. Because the funding diminished, much of the original cast was cut. So, too, was the shooting schedule.  

As a consequence, location filming was accomplished within just 12 days. Even the title was changed. That was done not by the film company but by the distributor, who stepped in believing that the title ‘The Forlorn’ would mean less to an American public than the known tragedy of ‘The Donner Party,’ which was correct. The end result was a film that may have taken liberties with the real event – after all, it’s not a documentary – but given the obstacles first time director T.J.Martin had to overcome, it still works. And if the story of ‘The Donner Party’ is new to you, this is the best place to start.

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‘September Dawn’ (Christopher Cain, 2007)

Like ‘The Donner Party,’ ‘September Dawn’ is about an important historical event told within a framework of fiction. It’s a genuine appalling affair regarding a real-life massacre that would have made a fascinating story on its own terms, but writer/director Cain along with co-writer Carole Whang Schutter created a Romeo and Juliet styled love affair to hold things together, and it’s this addition that dilutes the story.  

While reviews and box-office were less than enthusiastic, the film still works from the point of view of bringing a controversial event to light. Without ‘September Dawn,’ most outside of the Mormon Church – and to a surprisingly large degree, within the church – would never have heard of the event. On September of 1857, a peaceful wagon train of settlers on their way to California stop for a short time in Utah.  

Nearby Mormon militiamen, ever vigilant of attacks on both their religion and their way of life from outsiders, consider the passing settlers as a threat. Under orders from high command, the Mormons mercilessly attack the wagon train with orders to kill anyone who is old enough to talk, which in a shocking climax, is exactly what they do.

Outside of the somewhat wimpy love story between a young woman from the wagon train and the young man from the nearby Mormon settlement, much of the story regarding the buildup towards the massacre and the actual attack were taken from the speeches of church leader Brigham Young and the signed confession from a man called John D. Lee, who led the attack. Lee was the only militiaman to be executed for the killings.  

Director Cain said he made the film as a way of highlighting present day religious extremism where uncompromising beliefs end in tragedy. The fact that the massacre took place on September 11th only serves to underlines that point even further.

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‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ (Yves Simoneau, 2007)

If we don’t put that land into the hands of individual Indians in five years- less-homesteaders and ranchers will demand it all… for nothing. The Indian must own his own piece of earth, Charles…

Unlike the two above-mentioned real-life accounts depicted within a fictional frame, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ is pretty much as it was, even though some history purists continue to complain. When making a re-enactment for dramatic purposes there will always be a certain amount of embellishment, yet the film does its best to stick to as many of the facts as it can. The end result is thoroughly compelling and will fill in the gaps of your knowledge when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in their own country.

Based on a the famous book of the same name from Dee Brown, the film covers the history of native Americans, their way of life, their values and their unfair treatment at the hands of U.S. government policies designed to strip them of their land, the Black Hills of the Dakotas. It begins just after the Sioux victory at the battle of the Little Big Horn against General Custer.

The film was originally designed as a two-part mini series for television, but the continuous cinematic quality of its story ended up working best as one complete piece. As this was a film made for HBO, it was technically a TV movie, which meant at awards time, if nominated, it would be by the Emmy Awards and not the Oscars. The film received 17 Emmy nominations, more than any other Emmy nominee. It eventually won six.

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‘3:10 to Yuma’ (James Mangold, 2007)

Is it true that you dynamited a wagon full of prospectors in the western territories last spring?

Based on a 1957 film of the same name, out of all the films on this list, ‘3:10 to Yuma’ is the only one that can be termed a traditional western. The original was good, and certainly worth checking, but the remake is even better.

It’s 1884 and a small-town rancher (Christian Bale) agrees to keep his eye on bad guy (Russell Crowe) until the train for Yuma, Arizona arrives. The rancher is baby-sitting for cash. The situations between rancher and outlaw are tense and the final shoot-out is hugely satisfying.

The original stars in negotiating talks were Tom Cruise as the outlaw and Eric Bana as the rancher, but things fell through and Cruise left the project. Director Mangold immediately signed Russell Crowe in order to keep the production afloat. Once that happened, Crowe, director Mangold and producer Cathy Konrad all agreed; they wanted no one else other than Christian Bale for the part of the rancher.

For fun, do this when watching the film. If you watch the movie during the afternoon, start rolling at 1:20pm and keep an eye on your watch. The train will actually pull in at 3:10, just as the title suggests.

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Be Ready To Lock and Load

There was one other outstanding western released during 2005-10 and it’s not included on the list, but there’s a reason. Because of how well it was received when first released in 2007, you may have already seen it, and the idea of the list is to hunt down films you might have missed. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ with Brad Pitt is a lengthy account of the famous outlaw. No plot summary is needed; it’s all in the title. It’s also a western masterpiece. If you’re in that camp that hasn’t seen it, then by all means, add the movie to above-mentioned five.  

Coupled with ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ indicates that audience interest in the traditional western still exists, it just has to have the right script. And if Hollywood shies away again, as it did in the late seventies and into the eighties when it thought the genre was all but dead, the good news for any purist, young or old, is that there is a now a whole century of westerns in the library ready to run again from the beginning.

All you need to do is open that can of beans, light the camp fire and start with ‘The Great Train Robbery’ of 1903, then keep going. And say hi to William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne and James Stewart along the way. They’re all truly great company.

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