Dustbowl Americana slithers into the fantasies of idle dreamers; of the lonesome cowboy, trailing the plains in search of fame and fortune. Of the young girl, awaiting her father's return on a rotted, wooden porch; hoping for a solid shape amongst the hazy lines of desert heat. Of the Native American hunter, tracing with his fingers the muddy outlines of hoof marks left behind by his prey.
The western is dead, but it lingers now in our memories as a phantom. Of the faded glory days of the studio system, and of a period in American history fraught with both dread, brutality, and tragic romance.
Ghosts taking form in a growing genre referred to now as the neo-western. Not a sudden birth; but the product of a long, burdened evolution which gradually tore down the grizzled heroism of John Wayne. The hopeful patriotism of the 1950s disintegrated into disillusionment, and US actions in foreign wars began to call into question the validity of this American mythos.
Arguably, the first true wave of revisionism coincided with the Vietnam protests of the late '60s, and Sam Peckinpah's game-changing The Wild Bunch (1969). Amplifying the violence of the Italian spaghetti western to repellant excess as a parallel to the violence of the Vietnam War's media coverage; Peckinpah heralds the true death of the gunslinger, as Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his ageing gang of outlaws live to see their self-proscribed code of honour lost to the advances of the 20th century. An age in which the invention of the machine gun perpetuated an endless cycle of violence which turned the act of death into a cold, indifferent ritual; a notion perfectly captured when Pike is gunned down in the finale by a mere child.
The Western became nihilism, laying bare the meaningless brutality of a conquered West. No longer was it a wild country tamed by brave men on horses, but a living hell which turned men into nothing more than animals. Today's westerns inherit Peckinpah's legacy as part of a continuing critique of American values in a post-9/11 world. Patriotism in cinema has shifted towards the grander, more fantastical visions of America as the global defender; of superheroes fighting off masked terrorists and intergalactic invaders (though even Captain America: The Winter Soldier seems disillusioned by agency corruption). The cowboy, however, is far too ingrained in this most uncomfortable moment in America's past; in the legacy of a country built on racism and Native American genocide, the gunslinger can longer play the part of the quintessential American hero.
The finest example of the modern neo-western remains Andrew Dominik's contemplative The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). As Oscar Wilde once said, “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.”; Robert Ford's obsessive idolisation of Jesse James echoes our own fixations on him as an American Robin Hood, though the myth laid bare slowly leads to a hatred that ends with Ford putting a bullet in the back of his hero's head. A perfect metaphor for the neo-western's own violent demythologising, in many ways.
Yet, where does Quentin Tarantino fit into all of this? Into all of this demythologising, when he's a filmmaker who ostensibly deals only with mythologising? Tarantino overtly wears his influences on his sleeve, with Django Unchained's titular character sourcing his name from a 1966 Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Yet, by utilising that legacy and fusing it with his trademarked ultra-violence and sharp humour, Tarantino finds a meeting point between revisionism and classicism that is distinctly his own. Django, for example, rewrites history not with the brutal nihilism of Peckinpah's westerns but with his own brand of mythmaking.
With ultra-violence as a channel for righteous fury, Django allows the freedom fighting slaves of the antebellum Deep South their own legendary cowboy hero of the 1950s epic. The Hateful Eight now continues Tarantino's own brand of revisionism, utilising his neo-western take to explore the pared-down character confrontations, and double-crossing, of his debut feature Reservoir Dogs.
Revisionism thrives also amongst the Danes, who produced two westerns last year. Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green starred in Kristian Levring's The Salvation, a bloodthirsty tale of a Danish immigrant's act of revenge against the man who murdered his family, which happens to catch the attention of a notorious gang leader. Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, starring Viggo Mortensen, took a different path; transplanting the western to the desolate hills of Patagonian Argentina, elucidating those ideas of the west's lost romanticism in a series of contemplative, dreamlike wonders. The result was ultimately one of last year's most stunning, memorable films.
This year, American production Bone Tomahawk blends the neo-western with elements of horror for one of its most brutally violent envisionings, in a tale of gunslingers on a rescue mission against a group of bloodthirsty cannibals. Much-troubled production Jane Got a Gun will also finally hit screens. Natalie Portman plays a woman whose family is threatened by a gang of outlaws led by the unforgivingly cruel John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), who seeks the enlistment of a former fiancé to finally take them down. Considering Portman's pretty much the only person to have stuck by this project, with director Lynne Ramsay and actors Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper walking out for various reasons; it's clear Jane Got a Gun represents somewhat of a passion project for the actress. Though its production troubles certainly aren't heartening to hear, there's still hope that this film can deliver an interesting, feminine twist on the traditional male gunslinger canon.
This year will also see the neo-Western's first real assault on the box office, with Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven. It's a difficult endeavour to successfully pull off, though; considering how past attempts like Cowboys vs Aliens, Jonah Hex, and A Million Ways to Die in the West have fared. Alongside Disney's The Lone Ranger, recent big-budgeted westerns have traded brutality for conceptual quirk; refusing to acknowledge a tainted past in favour of such insensitivity as trotting out Johnny Depp in redface to talk about "spirit walkers" and fail to use articles in his sentences. And the less said about Adam Sander's The Ridiculous 6, the better.
For now, The Hateful Eight hits UK theatres on 8 January.
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