Yeah, I’ll admit it. I hate westerns. Oh, there are a small handful I truly enjoy, classics like John Ford’s The Searchers or revisionist Westerns like Unforgiven, but in general it’s hard for me to get enthused about dusty plains, cowboy hats and country music. But what if we consider the Western genre as one not confined to a certain era or locale? Westerns are generally defined as morality tales that take place in an untamed wilderness, featuring a antihero with a vague, often shady past, who adheres to a code of honor more powerful than the code of law. Villains are often entirely ruthless and cruel (even sometimes when working as a representative of the law). And the populace is typically completely subjugated by the villain to the point where they call upon the hero to rescue them. I have no problem with stories containing the characteristics I’ve just described…just not Westerns. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few Westerns where the basic tenets of the genre have been taken out of the crusty, dusty old west.
This film, along with Seven Samurai, is the prototype for what would be known as the Spaghetti Western. Both are directed by Akira Kurosawa, a master at his craft. Kurosawa himself was inspired by the classic westerns of John Ford, (and also in part by film noir and Dashiell Hammett novels) so in a way this could be considered an “Eastern”. The hero is a nameless wandering swordsman (Toshiro Mifune) who happens to wander into a village where two rival gangs are feuding over who gets to subjugate the local villagers, and take their resources. Perhaps acting out of a sense of justice (though he would never admit it) this bodyguard, or yojimbo, decides to pit the two gangs against each other, to the benefit of the villagers. The two gangs inevitably destroy each other, the villagers are saved, and Mifune’s nameless swordsman wanders off into the sunset.
Imagine the best aspects of a western, but with awesome swordfights instead of gun battles and you have an idea of why I like this film. Incidentally Yojimbo was later remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars. In this scene, the swordsman taunts a few gang members to the inevitable point of conflict. See if you can spot the influence this scene had on George Lucas’ Star Wars…
The basic structure for George Miller’s 1981 Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which was, of course remade as The Magnificent Seven). In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Australian desert, fuel is a rare and highly sought commodity. A small band of settlers cling to one of the last working oil refineries in the area. They are constantly attacked by gangs of punk-clothed marauders intent on stealing the refinery (and all the refined gasoline) for themselves. Enter Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky , “a burnt out, desolate” shell of a man whose family was killed by marauders. In the settlers he sees a chance to save these desperate settlers and perhaps regain his own humanity.
I love how this film takes classic western conventions and allows them to exist in this dystopic future. Take a settlers vs. Indians film, but instead of horses, the Indians ride souped-up motorcycles and ATVs, and are dressed in leather and chains, and you get the picture. In this scene, the leader of the marauders, Lord Humongous, delivers an ultimatum to the fortressed settlers, who still manage to get a few swipes in their own defense.
In John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape From New York, Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken, an outlaw sentenced to death, but given a last minute reprieve to be recruited on a succeed-or-die mission to rescue the President of the United States (who somehow happens to have a British accent) from the Duke of New York, a super thug who rules the town with an iron fist.
Carpenter has always said he felt Escape was a western, and the western influences are apparent, from the tough-as-nails loner with a shady past, to classic recurring lines like “I heard you were dead” (taken directly from John Wayne’s 1971 Big Jake), right down to the casting of spaghetti western veteran Lee Van Cleef as warden of Manhattan Island Maximum Security Prison (filling in the role of the sheriff in a classic western).
In this scene Lee Van Cleef as police commissioner Bob Hauk meets Snake Plissken for the first time and briefs him on his involuntary mission. Note the western motif of Hauk’s office, all done up in rifles, swords, and leather.
Space Westerns are a very specific subgenre where all the typical elements of the Western genre are transferred over the backdrop of outer space. Here are a couple of prime examples:
Peter Hyams’ 1981 Outland is essentially High Noon, set in space. Sean Connery is William T. O’Niel, the newly appointed marshal of a rough mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. When miners start mysteriously dying one by one, Marshall O’Niel investigates. He uncovers a lucrative drug smuggling ring run by Sheppard, the manager of the mining town. When O’Niel threatens to expose the ring, Sheppard sends a couple of hitmen to kill O’Niel. O’Niel attempts to recruit deputies to assist him, but everyone systematically abandons him, leaving him to face the killers single-handedly.
While it may not be the best film in the world, it’s still fun to see Sean Connery playing a Gary Cooper-esque lawman, in a space setting that clings so close to its western roots, the weapon of choice is still a shotgun and even the saloon has swinging doors. Here’s the trailer:
“Firefly”, the Joss Whedon cult hit TV series, and Serenity, the feature film based on that series, is possibly the most intendedly blatant space western ever. Whedon created a setting straight out of history. Picture the American Civil War, but set 500 years in the future. Instead of the North vs. the South, it’s the Alliance vs. the Independent Faction. The crew of the Serenity is comprised of “Browncoats”, those who fought for the Independent Faction, the losing side in the war. They take smuggling jobs and engage in heists deep in the wild rugged frontier…except the frontier are frontier planets. Guns and rifles still rule, and the horse and coach is still the primary mode of ground transportation. But some guns are laser pistols and space battles go hand-in-hand with shootouts.
If you’ve never seen “Firefly” or Serenity (and shame on you if you haven’t), here is the pilot episode of “Firefly” for your enjoyment:
This is probably the closest thing to a legitimate western on this list. The Coen Brothers’ tale of a drug deal gone bad and the greed and violence that follows, like traditional westerns takes place in the western US, specifically Texas. Our protagonist, a sheriff intent on setting things right. But being that this IS the Coens, there’s certainly nothing traditional about this western. It’s set in 1980, and the times are changing for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bad guys aren’t quite what they used to be and the hitman sent to retrieve the cash from the botched drug deal takes the cake. He is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the devil incarnate, a cold, ruthless machine of a man who dispenses with guns in favor of a bolt pistol, a weapon used to stun cattle. In the hands of Chigurh, deaths are both quick and excessively violent.
Here’s a scene in which Chigurh asks a storekeeper to choose between heads or tails on a flipped coin. The storekeeper was probably completely unaware of how close he came to his own fate.
So as you can see, just because it doesn’t look like a western, thanks to screenwriters who still seek to place the timelessness of the western aesthetic against their own imaginative settings, I can still enjoy a western without the cowboy hat and the saddle sores.
What’s your favorite Non-Western Western? Feel free to let us know in the comments below.