Dances with Wolves

John Dunbar sits in a field with Two Socks the wolf in a promotional photo for Dances with Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.

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Django Unchained

Calvin Candie wags a cigar in Django's face in Django Unchained

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales looks stoic with two pistols in The Outlaw Josey Wales

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Three hired guns face off against a mysterious stranger in Once Upon a Time in the West

“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”

Even after the “spaghetti” Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly established Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) as a master of the genre, he still had a lot to offer. Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, is another great epic Western on the same level as Leone’s previous masterpiece, and that’s no small feat. Unlike Leone’s original Dollars trilogy, which were mostly about the adventures of wandering gunslingers, this one is a revenge tale that focuses on more stable parts of civilization like a young wife and a railroad tycoon. But even with a home to go back to, there’s plenty of turmoil for the characters here. And Leone is still a master at crafting suspense and general moodiness, so this is a very entertaining Western as well.

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High Noon

Will Kane and Amy ride a wagon together in High Noon

“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”

When you think of classic Westerns, several things jump to mind: epic gun fights, fast horse chases, and brave heroes with supernatural skills. High Noon, a 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity) and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, turns this formula on its head. It spends much more time pontificating and talking about morals than showing us gun fights and chases, and the heroes of the story are (rightly) scared out of their minds and would rather avoid the confrontation altogether. This film takes its time laying out why these characters are the way they are, and exactly what they’re thinking in this hard situation. It was so different that career cowboy and genre poster boy John Wayne said it was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” In a 1971 interview, 19 years after the film was released, he was still complaining about it. This isn’t exactly a fast-paced Western, and it’s definitely not a traditional classic Western, but the writing and acting in this were phenomenal and captivated me for the relatively short runtime (85 minutes).

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The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

“Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far, so good.’ ”

Sometimes remakes aren’t terrible. The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 American Western directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral), is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai. It’s pretty much universally accepted that the original is a superior film; but this American remake is still a great movie—so much so that when Kurosawa saw the film, he sent Sturges a ceremonial Japanese sword as a gift. Today, this feels like a classic Western, but it broke enough of the classic Western customs that American audiences weren’t too crazy about it. Thankfully, it saw amazing success overseas, particularly in Europe, which would start producing hit “spaghetti Westerns” of its own just a few years later. But regardless of what style it is, this is a great Western film with excellent character development, thrilling action sequences, and an honest and hard look at the lives of the gunslingers of the Old West.

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For a Few Dollars More

Manco and Colonel Douglas Mortimer look dapper in For a Few Dollars More

“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

For a very long time, America loved classic Westerns. In 1964, an Italian director shook things up with A Fistful of Dollars, an amazing Western that actually got noticed in America. In 1965, director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) followed up on his smash hit with another amazing Western: For a Few Dollars More. Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volante (two of whom starred in the previous movie), this showed the world that Leone was more than a one-hit wonder and was one of the masters of this American genre. The first film of the trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, had an excellent plot, and the third film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, had superior atmosphere. For a Few Dollars More was right in-between. This sadly means it wasn’t quite as good at either of these things, making it something of a weak link in the trilogy. But the mixture of elements was excellent and this is, in many ways, the quintessential classic Western. It holds up very well today.

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Unforgiven

Bill Bunny and Ned Logan in Unforgiven

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Even after the classic Western was replaced by the revisionist Western, there were some romantic and, frankly, false notions about the old West floating around in the 90s. Notions that heroes acted with honor, sheriffs were the good guys, and gunslingers were unstoppable bad-asses with superhuman aiming ability. Unforgiven, directed by Western legend Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) and starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman, shattered those notions. Justice was determined by who was willing to pay for it. A hero who wanted to stay alive wouldn’t pass up a chance to shoot an enemy in the back. And, perhaps most strikingly, old gunslingers weren’t these invincible superheroes. This is a very well-written modern Western that’s both a deconstruction of and an homage to the genre and it’s a great watch.

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A Fistful of Dollars

Clint Eastwood, looking cool in A Fistful of Dollars

“When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.”

By the 1960s, the Western was becoming a tired genre. In 1964, an Italian director, Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) set out to change the genre. And, to some degree, he did. A Fistful of Dollars was different than the classic Westerns: it was darker, grittier, and more morally gray. Revisionist Westerns had been produced in America, but this is the first time a European Western got America’s attention and went on to be a worldwide success. It spawned a whole sub-genre, the “spaghetti Western” (named for its Italian roots), and it showed that it really was time to evolve the Western genre. The plot is clever (although it basically rips off Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo), the dialogue is as cool as any vintage movie ever was, and it introduced the world to Clint Eastwood as a leading man. There’s lots to love here.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

“I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over. Don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”

The 60s were a time of great growth and change in film, and no genre shows that more than the Western. Films like 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly shook things up a big, and censorship loosened up in 1967, opening the doors to explore new territory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross, seems pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but was a huge jump forward for the genre. It’s also a fun Western with great characters and lots of effective humor. I’ve honestly never been a fan of the old classic Westerns, but I had a lot of fun watching this one.

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