But what is a "Western"? Can it even be encompassed by the term "genre"? Is it not bigger than that?
The American Film Institute defines a Western film as one "set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier."
The above-mentioned article talks about the "timeless pleasures" Westerns provide: "tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes, good triumphing over evil..."
For me, a Western is any movie, TV show or book which depicts an individual or small group battling to survive in some kind of frontier. Ideally, it will include two or more of the following ingredients:
c) Native Americans
Is the Western really dying? Using the above as my criteria I have chosen my top eleven Westerns films or TV shows from the past decade, viz: 2003 - 2013. I have listed them from oldest to newest.
|montage of my fave Westerns 2003-2013 by Richard Russell Lawrence|
1. Firefly (TV 2002-2003)
This short-lived, much-loved Joss Whedon television show was a great example of a Western set in space, the "new frontier" in the tradition of Star Wars. It has all five of my ingredients (though Native Americans are only glimpsed in a crowd scene in episode one.) Probably the wittiest of my eleven choices. Certainly the most fun.
2. Open Range (2003)
This is the only Western on my list that involves cattle or cowboys, which are absolutely NOT necessary for a Western. Open Range was laudable in its attempts to go for realism (e.g. a horse is killed in a shootout) and for the sublime Robert Duvall, but was bleached to bones by the blazing brilliance of the Deadwood sets, costumes and characters.
3. Deadwood (TV 2004-2006)
The best of the lot. The first few scenes of this magnificent, misguided HBO TV series made me jump to my feet and yell "THAT's what it would have been like!" Deadwood is probably responsible for the past decade's mini-revival (or death throes!) of the Western genre. It is the quintessential Western, pitting loner misfits against the wilderness, greedy men and their own fatal flaws. Why "misguided"? It could have run for years but creator Milch sank it with expletives in an attempt to make it feel authentic. This goes to show what a minefield of political incorrectness the Western genre can be.
4. The Proposition (2005)
Here's a great example of a Western set in Australia, but it totally works. Brutal, mysterious and with Ray Winstone. What's not to like? The opening gun battle is like nothing I've seen on film before and the story has more twists and turns than The Sixth Sense.
5. Seraphim Falls (2006)
With nods to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, this is an overlooked gem. The action ranges across mountains and deserts and features a surreal cameo by Angelica Huston as a Snake-oil Saleswoman. I don't care if the critics panned it. I loved it.
6. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy's book faithfully transported to screen by the Coen Brothers. A "modern" Western with sagebrush dry humour and a world-view as bleak as the West Texas desert.
7. Breaking Bad (TV 2008-2013)
The best TV show of the decade, I'm calling this a Western on account of its stunning desert landscapes and (New) Mexican cartel drug lords scarier than any Comanche Indians. As with many later Westerns, the protagonists are the outlaws. Plenty of desert sunsets, shootouts and showdowns. And did I mention the New Mexico desert?
8. Meek's Cutoff (2010)
I found this film infuriating when I first saw it on account of its "lack of ending". I stomped home to look up the background history of the real pioneers it's based on. That was when I realised the genius of Kelly Reichardt's approach. The life of an American settler was in constant limbo with no knowledge of what the next day or even hour might bring. Reichardt's constrained screen aspect mimics the blinkered viewpoint of seeing the world through the tunnel of a "poke bonnet" and the muffled dialogue of the men frustratingly conveys how much women were sidelined. An encounter with a Native American is fraught with misunderstanding and confusion. Haunting, unforgettable and stripped of all romance, Meek's Cutoff is probably the most realistic "taste" of the West the way it was.
9. True Grit (2010)
No film could do justice to Charles Portis' masterpiece, but the Coen Brothers give it their best shot. My perfect True Grit would have John Wayne as Rooster with the 1969 screenplay, including its better-for-film upbeat ending (written by Portis) but with Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie and the set dressing of the 2010 version.
10. Justified (TV 2010 - still going!)
This barely squeaks by on my criteria, having very few horses, no desert and no Native Americans, but Raylan Givens – a beautiful US Marshall in cowboy boots and hat and with an itchy trigger-finger – is a fabulous Western hero. Although Elmore Leonard's story is supposed to be set in Eastern Kentucky, it's actually filmed in and around Santa Clarita, Hollywood's iconic Western backlot.
11. Rango (2011)
Finally, there are some great Western books being produced. A few of my recent favourites are St. Agnes Stand by Thomas Eidson, Boone's Lick by the great Larry McMurtry and Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (much better than the film). I myself am trying to revive the genre among children with my tales of a half-Sioux, half-white 12-year-old Detective in Virginia City, Nevada Territory: The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Just out is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows.