“Mos Eisley spaceport: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars
Think of all the different kinds of movie genres: drama, comedy, horror, romantic comedy, musical, thriller, action, science fiction, fantasy, etc. What do these genre names have in common? They all describe the content of what is in the movie. And that content can occur in any possible setting or time period.
At first glance, the one exception to this is the Western genre. Instead of describing what is in it, it describes where and when it is set. Say “western” and people picture the American West,
desert, cacti, mid 1800s technology, etc.
It’s the only major movie genre that is like that. (No, “Foreign” doesn’t count since that
describes the language being spoken in the film, not where it is set. Watch The Wedding Banquet sometime. And some people miss the fact that a movie
set in outer space does not have to be science fiction. It was sad how often I saw Gravity described
as “sci-fi”. It’s a drama set in
contemporary near Earth orbit. And while
we’re at it, science fiction doesn’t have to be set in the future.) Monument Valley
But at second glance, is “western” really describing only the setting? I’m sure it started out that way, but over the decades it has also come to describe the kind of story you can expect almost as much as when you hear “horror” or “romantic comedy”. When hearing the term “western” some people certainly are picturing desert, but others are picturing tales of good guys vs. bad guys, revenge on someone who has hurt a family member, gunslingers, desolation, a stranger riding into town and helping a widow save her land, etc.
And there are films with the classic western setting that have nothing to do with any of the classic western stories and themes. Take From Noon to Three (1976). It certainly starts like you would expect, but it goes in a whole other direction that people probably are not expecting when they think of a western. And that doesn’t hold a candle to Dead Man (1995) when it comes to a classic western setting presenting a story far removed from that of the classic western film.
Consider the following story: farm boy from the boondocks meets an old gunslinger who shows him the ropes. After riding into town where all the bad guys and action are they join up with a disreputable criminal with a heart of gold and later a fancy woman out of her element. Farm boy wants to get revenge on the man who killed his father. And that man is the former protégé of the old gunslinger who was once very close to him until the protégé betrayed him. If that’s not a western, I don’t know what is. If you haven’t figured it out already, I just described Star Wars.
Aside from science fiction, the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa were certainly influenced by American westerns, to the point that some of them even ended up getting remade as out and out westerns (Seven Samurai = The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo = A Fistful of Dollars, Sanjuro = For a Few Dollars More, etc.)
And the American West isn’t the only place with lawless wide open spaces. A film such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) is set in
– which is both literally and metaphorically the Wild West for the 1930s
Koreans that are the main characters in it.
The Sundowners (1960) is set in the Australian outback in the 1920s and
features a family living and riding in what might as well be a stagecoach while
driving sheep. Django Unchained (2012)
is certainly set in the right time period, but it’s in the American South not
the West. It echoes so much of the
classic western, though, that writer/director Quentin Tarantino referred to it
as a “Southern”.
All of these films and more are Westerns in everything except name. These are the kinds of movies I will be recommending in this category. As I review the films I will come back and add the links for them here.
Star Wars (1977)
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
The Sundowners (1960)
Firefly (posted May 5, 2011)
Serenity (posted May 5, 2011)
Seven Samurai (posted October 7, 2011)
Django Unchained (posted February 4, 2013)
On to the reviews…