Western: Genre Rides Back in 2007

For decades, the Western, arguably the most uniquely American film genre, was regarded as the “bread and butter” of Hollywood.

In the 1950s, the best decade for Westerns, their production amounted to one-third of the industry’s output, with such seminal works as “High Noon” (1952), “The Searchers (1956), and “Rio Bravo” (1959) to name only a few.

Yet, in the entire history of the Oscar Awards, only three of the seventynine winning films (about 4 percent) have been Westerns: “Cimarron” (1932/33), Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” (1990), and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992).

As the nameless gunslinger in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) Eastwood established himself as a tightlipped, steely-eyed icon. Then for two decades, as actor and/or director, Eastwood was the genre’s keeper of the flame, turning Westerns every couple of years, from “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to “Pale Rider.”

Deconstructing the myth violence and his own screen persona, “Unforgiven” displayed Eastwood’s best work as director in a genre often regarded disreputable. A critical and box-office smash (one of few Westerns to gross over $100 million), the film earned four Oscars, including Best Picture and Director.

For a whole decade after “Unforgiven,” there were sporadic, unsuccessful (“The Quick and the Dead”), efforts at making Westerns. Yet this fall, two major Westerns have registered strongly, both artistically and commercially: James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” and Andrew Domink’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

3:10 to Yuma: Remaking a Classic

It’s impossible to tell whether Mangold’s remake of the classic 1957 Western “3:10 to Yuma” was planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the original, one of the best psychological Westerns. “Yuma” doesn’t have the comparable prestige of that era’s other Westerns, such as “The Gunfighter” (1950), “High Noon,” and “Rio Bravo,” perhaps because its director Delmer Daves wasn’t as reputable as Henry King, Fred Zinnemann, and Howard Hawks, respectively.

The genre’s status may be changing with Mangold’s follow-up to his commercial hit musical biopic “Walk the Line.” A combination of a well-structured scenario, that follows Elmore Leonard’s short story, Mangold’s taut direction and craftsmanship, and the casting of two of today’s most appealing and finest actors, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, called attention to “Yuma” as A-level Western. The film’s box-office triumph (over $40 million in the U.S. and still running strong) might revitalize a quintessentially American genre that’s been all but dead. Mangold’s version doesn’t reinvent the genre so much as take the good elements and bring them up-to-date in terms of characterization, mood, and different conclusion.

Crow and Bale play the roles of Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, respectively, the infamous outlaw and the struggling rancher who delivers him to justice. But Mangold’s version lacks the original’s allegorical dimensions, which was a parable of good and evil, with mythical rains that terminate the drought at the end of that saga.

Bale’ Dan Evans is an honest man who has spent his life abiding by the rules but has little to show. A former Union Army sharpshooter, he came out of the Civil War with a hobbled leg and small compensation that allowed him to move his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and two sons to a modest ranch in Arizona. However, hopes of a new beginning quickly fade amidst the harsh conditions and rampant corruption. A drought renders Dan’s land barren and decimates his herd, driving him deeper into debt and his family into near starvation.

The dreary economic conditions exert negative effect on his family and his self-perception. Dan is also aware of losing the respect of his son Will (Logan Lerman), who thrills to the bandits’ adventures in dime novels. The capture of notorious outlaw Ben Wade, whose violent hold-ups are the stuff of legend, offer possibility for change. The natural-born leader commands loyalty from his band of thugs, including ruthless second-in-command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). In desperation, Dan accepts $200 and joins a group assigned to deliver Wade on to the 3: 10 train to a Yuma prison. Leading the expedition is vet bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), a mercenary motivated by hatred of Wade.

Well cast as the cool (anti) hero, Crowe shows his badass facet. Beneath the charm and attractive faade, there’s an intelligent survivor who knows how to manipulate and exploit human weaknesses. When Wade sees an opportunity to escape or retaliate, he grabs it, but manipulative schemes don’t always work. When Wade offers Dan more money to set him free, the rancher, still maintaining decency, declines. Even so, with time in their hands, and locked in one room waiting for the train, the duo begin to share secrets from their past and make unexpected confessions.

The dialogue is so crisp, the mise-en-scene (with mega close-ups) so precise, and the acing so accomplished, that we are immersed in witnessing two men, initially from opposite ends of the spectrum, learn from one another, and eventually find kinship and camaraderie. Mangold’s achievement is in mixing a classic Western saga with modernist touches. There’s no doubt that the language, dark humor, cynical tone, and visual style are a reflection of our zeitgeist.

Crow is in top form: Cashing in on his wry charm and macho bravado, he navigates smoothly between the rougher and sensitive dimensions of his part. As the good guy concerned with morality and family honor, the gifted Christian Bale again proves his versatility with a range that allows him to play psychopathic killers (“American Psycho”) and be compelling in comic-strips (“Batman Begins”), adventures (Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn”) and now Westerns.

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Deconstruction of Two Mythss

Inventive in narrative structure, contemplative in tone, and significant in retelling a mythic saga with contemporary perspective, Dominik’s “Assassination of Jesse James” is brilliant. The film positions itself as a revisionist work about he legendary criminal as well as deconstruction of persistent problems in American history: The link between crime and fame, and the obsession with celebrity.

Dominik’s poignant Western ranks with Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), Peckinpah’s eloquent Westerns (“The Wild Bunch,” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) and Altman’s “McCable and Mrs. Miller.” Amazingly, the film is not violent–not by standards of 1970s Westerns or today’s actioners. By following his characters well after James death, “Assassination of Jesse James” registers as a study of jealousy, obsession and revenge, centering on the legendary hero’s nemesis Ford (Casey Affleck in career-defining performance) and his deadly preoccupation with the notorious figure. The other innovative device is extensive voice-over narration (by Hugh Ross), which links events and comments on the characters, offers another layer of storytelling that makes the saga more evocative–a poetic ballad.

Based on Ron Hansen’s novel, “Assassination of Jesse James” delves into the public and private lives of America’s infamous outlaw and his unlikely assassin, the coward Ford, by focusing in character and period detail on the last year of James, just before his shooting. The saga is set in 1881, when Jesse James was 34 and Bob Ford 19. As he plans his next great robbery, Jesse continues to wage war on his enemies, all trying to collect the reward money and the promised glory that would come with his capture. But the film is not about plot. There have been countless books, plays, and tales about America’s “first bona fide celebrity,” but most of those, including previous Hollywood films, emphasized Jesse’s larger-than-life persona and daring exploits.

“Assassination of Jess James” shows that Jesse James was the object of owe and admiration, even to those he robbed, terrorized, and survivors of those he killed. The sensational newspaper and dime novels that chronicled Jesse James at his height made sure that he was more than “just a criminal.” The thirst for sensationalistic tales and obsession with celebrities, which define our culture today, go back to at least a century ago.

Dominik doesn’t claim to understand Jesse James, instead keeping his figure as a mystery and enigma to the end. He suggests that to some Jesse was a Robin Hood type, targeting banks and railroad owners that exploited poor farmers. To others, he was a tragic man, a wronged, wounded Confederate solider striking back against the Union that had ruined his life. Still others saw him as the last frontiersman, a symbol of American freedom and spirit, a charismatic rebel who lived by his own rules.

According to the film, Ford was a man of contradictions. He was an idealistic, ambitious lad devoted years hoping to ride one day alongside his idol. Ford could never imagined, as becomes clear and sad in the last reel, that history would stigmatized him as “the dirty little coward,” who didn’t have the guts to engage in a direct shootout and finally shot Jesse in the back.

Most of the tale is a chronicle of how Ford became a member of Jesse’s inner circle, which enabled him to bring down a formidable man that numerous lawmen across a dozen states had failed to do. The movie is about the evolution of friendship, how Ford and his brother Carley (Sam Rockwell) became Jesse’s comrades and what happened among this trio in the last hours leading to the gunshot that would end one man’s life and become the definition of another’s.

“I didn’t know any more about Jesse or Ford than the average person,” Dominik said recently, ” but I was drawn into it as a story of people and emotions that were vivid and realistic. Who are they How do they interact with each other The fact that they happened to be two legendary figures of American history added a level of drama but was really a secondary issue.” He elaborates: “My film gives you a sense of what that event might have been like–to shoot a man in his own house with his wife and children nearby and then to wait around for days, and try to deal with the enormity of public reaction. You see Ford’s anxiety, neediness, ambition, and fear. That’s what moved me about the book and what I wanted to capture on screen.”

Brad Pitt won the acting kudo from the Venice Film Festival jury. If the film is successful, he may receive his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. Pitt, who, in addition to playing the lead, is a producer, says he found “the dissection of two myths, of Jesse James as a hero and Robert Ford as a coward, to be compelling.”

For Pitt, the movie is as much of a psychological drama as a Western, “because it deals with the anatomy of an assassination and its consequences.” Although the action opens with an ambush and train robbery, the real drama unfolds in the aftermath–in Jesse’s personal demons, his intense dedication to covering his tracks, his increasingly cryptic interactions with his gang’s restless members, who must sit idly by until he gives them their next job. Dominik reaffirms: “I wanted to show how these characters struggle more with themselves than with each other. Each is shaping reality to suit his desires and anxieties.”

Jesse James came to prominence when the concept of media image was just developing. Newspapers and dime novels were catering to a public hungry for thrilling entertainment. Tales of his crimes were often enhanced and even fabricated with emphasis on his daring and charisma. In this and others respects, it’s an evocative film that speaks to our times in more relevant ways than stories set at the present time.