I am enjoying this Summer of Western Research™ even more than I thought I would.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) A disappointment. I’d seen it before but didn’t rememberanything beyond the early sequence where Billy (a miscast Kris Kristofferson) escapes from jail. There’s a reason for that. The film lacks any definite narrative direction, a pursuit story that meanders through episodes alternating between Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy until they end up at the same place. I’ve read that director Sam Peckinpah was pretty much incoherent drunk through most of the production. It shows. (In case you’re wondering, we saw the 2005 Special Edition Blu-Ray, so the cuts that ruined the film’s original release should not have been a problem. It’s just not very good.)
The Magnificent Seven (1960) Shows its age a little, but once it gets going it’s still asentertaining a Western as you’ll find. It likely begins the turning away from the idealized horse operas with its frank examination of a gunman’s life, a movement that picks up speed with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and the spaghetti Westerns until Peckinpah breaks the mold forever with The Wild Bunch. Good as it is, it has what has to be the single worst cut for time of any movie I’ve ever seen, when The Seven start to work their way into the hills to take out three snipers then magically appear in town with the snipers’ guns. The entire missing scene is explained away with “You got them?” I don’t know if the sequence was never filmed or cut for length. Either way, it should have been handled better. Still, among the Top Ten Westerns ever.
Hombre (1967) A masterpiece, based on what might well be Elmore Leonard’s best book. I don’t just mean his best Western; his best book, period. (If you haven’t read it, get busy. It’sas fine a piece of taut storytelling as you’ll ever read, with nary a wasted word.) I was struck this time by how close this falls in Paul Newman’s body of work to 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and how there can’t be two characters more different than Butch and John Russell. Newman’s gift as an actor was how he never seemed to be acting. The entire cast provides outstanding work, and this may be Richard Boone’s best performance. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. kept much of Leonard’s dialog and captured the tone perfectly. Hombre never tries to be more than it is, and it’s a lot. There have been Westerns as good, but I can’t think of any better.
The Long Riders (1980) Never seen this one before, in part because I thought it was aHollywood gimmick to have sets of brothers (Keach, Carradine, Quaid, Guest) play brothers (James, Younger, Miller, Ford). I should have paid better attention. The casting was organic, stemming from the Keach brothers wanting to play the Jameses, talking to David Carradine about it and him thinking his bros could play the Youngers and it grew from there. An outstanding example of minimalist storytelling as Bill Bryden and Steven Smith team with Stacy and James Keach plus director Walter Hill to tell you everything you need to know without wasting time on exposition. The action scenes ring true and the violence appears as painful as it must have been. Well worth the time as an entertainment, and just as much as a way for storytellers to see how to get in and out quickly without leaving anything behind.
Open Range (2003) Hard to believe people were once worried whether Robert Duvall could play a cowboy. Here he’s Boss Spearman, one of the last of the free range cattlemen, whograzes his herd over unclaimed ground across the West with the help of his small crew led by Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). Costner was the driving force, producing, directing, and even putting up his own money, though he insisted Duvall get top billing and says the film might not have been made had Duval not agreed to do it. Pitch perfect from stem to stern, including outstanding performances by Annette Bening as Charlie’s awkward love interest and a pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as the evil cattle baron who runs the town. I don’t see it often listed as among the great Westerns, but it should be.
Appaloosa (2008) Here’s another one that should be right up there, Ed Harris’s adaptationof Robert B. Parker’s first Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Western. Harris directed and co-wrote the screenplay in a faithful adaptation of Parker’s book, about which I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of traveling lawmen who will go to any town that wants to clean itself up so long as the town agrees to their conditions. The basic story is a clever variation of a love triangle, with Harris’s Cole becoming enamored of newly-arrived widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger), whose efforts to play Cole and Hitch against each other spur the core friction in the story. Well told, well acted, faithful to the original material as well as the period in history, this is another that deserves more attention than it seems to get.