Thursday, September 11, 2014

Westerns That Are Not Set In The West

“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, Monument Valley, 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.)

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 Manchuria – 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.

Tampopo (1985)
Star Wars (1977)
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
The Sundowners (1960)
Yojimbo (1961)

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…


  1. Very interesting! I would love to see your list up for review.

    1. I forgot to include the links for the ones I had already posted prior to this. I have them up now. I have five more I will be adding to them.

  2. Great category.

    One of the great classic Westerns is, of course, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. However, since one of the great set pieces of that film is the Civil War battle and the blowing of the giant bridge...and since virtually all of the Civil War was fought east of the Mississippi, it's a good bet that it's more of a Southern, too.

    Okay, I know it was a spaghetti Western and geography really didn't mean a lot to Leone here, but I think a good case could be made for it being more of a Southern as well.

    And the original Western film, The Great Train Robbery, was filmed in New Jersey.

    Curious to see where this category takes you!

    1. Good point about TGTBATU. There were Civil War battles in Kansas and Missouri, but those still aren't as far west as what most people think of for the locations of westerns.

  3. What a great idea for a theme! Tampopo has a lot of Western tropes and I love it.

    1. My next category was going to be A Great Year for Movies - 1939 (like my 1994 category) since I'm one of the people who consider 1939 the greatest year for movies, and this is the 75th anniversary of it.

      It was seeing Tampopo as a selection coming up for the 1,001 Movies Blog Club that made me do this category first. I had already had it brainstormed from a long while back. In fact, I've got more categories than I will ever use. I've got over 200 of them and I've only used about 50 in the more than three and a half years I've been doing this.

      After I finish this one I've got to get to the 1939 one. At the rate I post now I want to make sure I have time to post on all the movies I want to review. I may do the same thing I did for 1994 and review only the movies I give at least four stars to and only list my three star movies.

    2. I'm really looking forward to your 1939 theme. You don't give very many four star reviews so I will ding you if I see something interesting come up.

      I've started in a small way to cut down on my own reviews, especially for movies that are not very highly rated in the first place. I need to figure out some way of keeping track of them though, other than by just rating them on IMDb. Maybe I can come up with listing such as you use or a weekly short wrap-up.

    3. If you mean keep track of what movies you've seen then you may want to look at Letterboxd, if you are not on there already. If you mean keep track of what movies you've reviewed you may want to build an index like I have on the upper right (if you don't already have one.) In addition to helping visitors see if you've reviewed a particular film, it will help remind you of which ones you've done, as well.

      The monthly status I do was inspired by several other bloggers doing the same thing. I actually never kept track of what movies I saw in any particular month prior to that (other than checking ones off in whatever list I might have been working from.)

      And there are a couple of ways for you to see my higher rated films. I've got Labels on the right for Movies - 5 stars and Movies - 4 stars. I've got 39 5 star reviews and 211 4 star reviews. You could also check out my 1994 category (Label: Movies - Great Year 1994) where all the films I reviewed were at least 4 stars.