Western films of the 1940’s and 1950’s recount and honour the heroes and tyrants who roamed the Old American West before the dawn of the 20th Century. Cinematic icons synonymous with Hollywood idealism such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper, armed with only a rifle and a sense of moral justice, faced off against Apache warriors and degenerative outlaws who terrorised the Old American West.
Decades of Western film would be subverted with the rise of the Revisionist Western in the 1960’s that deconstructed black and white Hollywood idealism into a shade of moralistic grey. The Revisionist Western turned traditional conventions on their head; bank robbers becoming heroes and church pastors being the villains. The Revisionist Western examined the ideas and themes of determination and survival in the brutal and oppressive landscape that was the old frontier.
In honour, here are five films from the Revisionist Western genre that rejected traditional storytelling for bolder, more extreme interpretations of the Old West.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Stranger Song’ plays over the opening of Robert Altman’s cynical Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) about perpetual liar John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and opium addict Constance Miller (Julie Christie) who turn the torpid mining town of Presbyterian Church into a haven for gambling and prostitution. But when McCabe and Mrs. Miller refuse to sell their profitable business to a shady mining company, they face intimidation and violence from three barbarous bounty hunters.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller transformed the good looking Beatty into a cowardly gambler and Christie into a brash, sickly prostitute who held disdain for the innocent members of the community she lived in. McCabe and Mrs. Miller became the first Western to accurately depict the squalor and mundanity of the everyday battle to survive the unrelenting cold climate of the frontier.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller sported a supporting cast featuring Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine and Rene Auberjonois that spun a new interpretation of the anti-Hollywood Western.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Black Sheriff Bart “Black Bart” (Cleavon Little) realises the racist community of Rock Ridge is the least of his problems when he discovers state attorney Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) wants to demolish the town build a train line over it. Teaming up with Jim the “Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder), Black Bart must win the trust of the townspeople and fight back against the iron fist of Lamarr and greedy Governor, William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks).
Blazing Saddles (1974) is a bristling spoof of the Hollywood Western and a sly commentary on racism and corporate greed, responsible for birthing the first fart joke to ever grace cinema screens in the infamous campfire ‘beans’ sequence. Blazing Saddles is also a testament to the classic character Lili von Shtupp, the “Teutonic Titwillow” (Madeline Kahn) and “hewr twap of ewotic intwigue”; homage to the iconic Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939).
Meta before meta was even popular, Blazing Saddles has a barnstorming finale that breaks out the confines of it’s own movie and spills on to the Warner Brothers studio lot to have a shootout with Hollywood itself. Only director and co-writer Mel Brooks could be responsible for an ending like that!
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is a woefully misunderstood Revisionist Western drama about the Johnson County War and the Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who pledged to protect the immigrant farmers from theft and violence.
Heaven’s Gate is a behind the scenes cautionary tale of a director who tore down painstakingly made sets because they didn’t look right, fired cast and crew daily, and demanded a minimum of thirty two takes for each scene, including fifty takes of Averill cracking his whip at a door.
Critics roasted Heaven’s Gate at the time of release and it’s excessive 219 minute running time drove audiences out of the cinema. Heaven’s Gate will be historically remembered as the death knell of Michael Cimino’s directing career and the end of the Hollywood New Wave.
Yet behind this cinematic massacre, Heaven’s Gate is a consuming movie experience that works tooth and nail to transport audiences to a lawless time in the American West. A bucket load of patience and a muting of criticism may leave modern audiences with a second opinion on Heaven’s Gate as a forgotten Revisionist Western classic of 1980’s cinema.
Clint Eastwood made a career as “The Man with No Name”, the silent gunslinging bounty hunter who didn’t think twice about killing in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Western Trilogy (1964-1966). These values come home to roost in Unforgiven (1992), the story of guilt ridden former outlaw William “Will” Munny (Eastwood, again) who is roped into killing one last time.
Unforgiven is an astute examination of a lifetime of murder, permeating itself with themes of the past, violence and mortality. This depiction of the Old West is inhabited with only bad people who kill other bad people. Undeniably Eastwood’s best film, Unforgiven won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing at the 65th Academy Awards in 1993 and has earned a place as one of the finest Westerns ever made.
Django Unchained (2012)
A wild tribute to Spaghetti Western cinema of old, Django Unchained (2012) follows the titular freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who partners up with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to save his wife from brutal Francophile slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Welding together Western and Blaxploitation cinema, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s action drama deftly depicts the uncomfortable history of slavery in the United States alongside his trademark guile and wit.
Waltz and DiCaprio give powerhouse performances in a scene that hinges on a handshake deal that pivots the final act of Django Unchained into one of the bloodiest and most relentless shootouts a Western has ever seen. Laced with violence and profanity and a fine ensemble cast, Django Unchained is proof the Western genre is far from dead.