Film: Gunfight at the OK Caerphilly

British directors are packing their holsters and heading for Wales. Adam Minns on the rise of the fish-and-chip western
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The Independent Culture
A steam train pushes its way through snow-capped mountains. Two figures on horseback materialise out of the fog ahead, neckerchiefs pulled up over the bottom halves of their faces. One eases a six-shooter from his holster and, eyes squinting under the brim of his hat, aims at the cowering train driver.

Welcome to Wales. Exactly 35 years after Clint Eastwood rode into town on a distinctly unmanly mule in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, the western is coming to Snowdonia. Cowboys Cymraeg, currently in advanced development, is set in a Wild West country where pistol-packing Welsh rodeo fans hold up Snowdonia tourist trains. Along with another Welsh western also in development - called High Noon in Tonypandy - the project joins a host of other westerns-in-progress from British directors, including Michael Winterbottom, Antonia Bird and Richard Attenborough. The spaghetti western is being remoulded; the fish-and-chip western is riding into town.

In a neat twist, Winterbottom is to shoot Kingdom Come, a Gold Rush story inspired by Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, in the Canadian Rockies early next year. Meanwhile, Shakespeare in Love director John Madden is in talks to direct St Agnes' Stand, about an outlaw thrown together with a group of nuns, while both Pierce Brosnan and Robert Carlyle are falling in with the American Indians. Brosnan stars in Attenborough's Grey Owl, which is already in the can, and Carlyle is to play a Scottish clansman who flees to the New World in an untitled western being developed by Bird, following Ravenous, the cannibal western she released earlier this year

Why are British film-makers so fascinated with this genre? The Western is to America what King Arthur is to Britain - the earliest cinematic expression of a nation's identity. The British have occasionally approached the cowboy - recent takes include Ridley Scott's female road movie Thelma & Louise (1991) and Stephen Frears's post-WW2 Western The Hi-Lo Country (1999). But historically, Carry On Cowboy or a plummy Kenneth More teaching Indians to serve tea in The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw never had the mythic resonance of John Wayne.

"As much as I love the British film industry, there is a tendency to think small," says Frank Cottrell Boyce, the prolific writer of Hilary and Jackie, Welcome to Sarajevo and now Kingdom Come. "The English sit around and say: `Wouldn't it be fantastic to do a film about three gas- fitters in Scunthorpe?'" Cottrell Boyce wanted "a bigger canvas to paint on".

Like any self-respecting western, Kingdom Come represents a world in which film-makers can revel in human drama unfettered by social niceties such as resisting the urge to shoot your neighbour. The film - which is finalising an impressive cast, said to include Charlize Theron, Wes Bentley, Peter Mullan, Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley - is the story of a man seeking redemption after selling his wife and daughter for a gold claim. Cottrell Boyce says that he decided to make a western while he was standing on a London station concourse littered with polystyrene cups. But his vision is pure Burbank.

"I always had an urge to do something big - frontiers, blood, gold, mountains, snow, sky," he declares. "Westerns are full-on; they really believe in themselves." The Liverpool-born writer argues that the Californian Gold Rush was the end point for an Irish and European identity rather than the birth of America. His script, populated with settlers from as far afield as Ireland, Germany, China and South American, alludes to "a European tribal movement" stemming from the combination of the Irish potato famine and the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. In fact, Kingdom Come was originally envisaged as a "potato western", with mostly Irish characters.

"Westerns push America as far back into the past as they can. So you are in the 1820s but you have American accents, even though there would not have been a single one," Cottrell Boyce says. "People were straight off the boat. Most would have been Chinese. The Hollywood foundation myth is white, manly, decent and recognisably American." Cottrell Boyce says that he prefers the work of legendary Hollywood director John Ford to that of the revisionist spaghetti school. Ford himself was born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, the son of Irish immigrants.

But Cottrell Boyce's love-hate relationship with the western has parallels with the birth of the spaghetti in Sixties Italy. TV was shrinking cinema audiences, and Hollywood had largely stopped making what was deemed an outmoded genre. Wayne was hardly able to get on a horse, so Leone plucked Eastwood from the US TV series Rawhide and tailored the western to Italian audiences. The result both celebrated the genre and reinvented it as an operatic experience, dripping with Catholic rather than Protestant imagery, Latin rather than Caucasian faces, and set nearer to Mexico than California.

Similarly, present-day Hollywood doesn't seem to know what to do with the western any more. America has tried exhausting the cowboy with acid westerns (The Last Movie); black westerns (Posse); sci-fi westerns (Westworld and even Star Wars); and eco-westerns (Dances With Wolves). Even the current vogue for films skewed to teen audiences was reflected in Will Smith's Wild Wild West.

And the western spirit lives on in the most unlikely places. With a nod, presumably, to the spaghetti's anti-American sentiments, ska and reggae acts go by such names as Clint Eastwood, Trinity and The Man With No Name - and have a penchant for long leather coats. In Blackpool, screenwriter Adrian Hewitt's research for Cowboys Cymraeg unearthed a C&W centre regularly packed with 1,000 people dressed as cowboys, cowgirls and gauchos. Hewitt also discovered western clubs in Essex and rodeos in Wales.

Kingdom Come will be Winterbottom's biggest film to date. However, by the standards of the American studio United Artists, which is co-financing the film with France's Pathe and the UK's National Lottery, its $15m budget is still a bargain. Although the British film industry is following Hollywood's interest in teen-oriented films, it is also hungry for scripts that work within - and subvert - a genre that potential audiences can recognise.

Such Americanisation may worry purists, but it is also welcomed by an increasing number of British film-makers. Take, for example, High Noon High - billed as Grease set in the Wild West with Blazing Saddles- style humour. The project is in development, at the laborious writing- and-rewriting stage, with the London-based director-producer team of James Pilkington and Rob Mercer.

High Noon High, a teen-oriented comedy set in a Wild West high school, is written by two US writers; the script was sent to Mercer and Pilkington by their American agent. The duo, who flashed their anti-establishment credentials in a scuffle at last year's British Independent Film Awards after they booed Ken Loach, embraced its bad taste as a western There's Something About Mary. "Instead of football matches, the students have shoot-outs, so half of them get annihilated," Mercer explains. "And because prostitutes are so normal, lots of the kids have syphilis."

Even at the most excessively American end of the spectrum, however, there is still a certain satisfaction in European film-makers appropriating the western. The genre has plundered cultures worldwide: The Magnificent Seven was based on the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and Biblical references are rife in films like John Ford's My Darling Clementine. Even C&W songs originated in settlers' folk music.

Sergio Leone once told Christopher Frayling, author of the forthcoming Leone biography, that the western started in classical Greece. "Achilles and Hector are actually archetypal western heroes," Frayling says. "One is good with a javelin. One has an Achilles heel, like the flawed hero of the western wrestling with how to be noble when he has faults. As Leone said: `Homer is the best screenwriter of the western that I know.' "

`Kingdom Come' starts shooting in February 2000; `Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death' by Christopher Frayling (Faber, pounds 20) is published in January.

Adam Minns is Chief Reporter at `Screen International'