Welcome to the seventh and final article in the Westerns 101 series on Lewton Bus. If you missed them, here’s what came before:
- 1. Introduction
- 2. A Bit of History
- 3. Defining the Western
- 4. The Essentials
- 5. Revisionism Before the Revisionists
- 6. The Spaghetti Western
As the 1960s drew to a close, the traditional American Western was officially out of fashion.
Partly this was the result of increasingly diverse competition at the box office. Other genres had appeared, or matured — the grit of the urban crime film, the gloss of the globetrotting spy adventure, the rising sophistication of the science-fiction story, the laser-specific targeting of teens with “youth” movies, the calculated spectacle of the widescreen prestige epic. All had proven themselves more than capable of catching audience interest with their vigorous stories, vibrant characters, and dynamic, modernist filmmaking, and were pushing the conventional Western off America’s movie screens. The genre was clearly overdue for reconsideration; and when the Spaghetti Western hit the US in 1967, heralded by Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” it was clear that a long era was coming to an end.
But in addition to the evolution of the film market, the effect of cultural pressure must not be overlooked. For decades, the Western was key to the American identity — lone heroes standing tall against injustice, and measureless wilderness begging to be tamed. But now, in the latter years of the 1960s, previously marginalized people were rising up and demanding to be acknowledged, and to be included in the national conversation. In this climate, the cultural uniformity and philosophical predictability of the American Western, previously a reliable comfort, was now seen as a problem. Women, people of color, people who would come to identify as LGBT+, they all looked at the Western and wondered, quite reasonably, where they were; and they asked, again quite reasonably, if the Western was supposed to be America’s national mythology, then how should they interpret their exclusion from it?
On closer examination, the traditional tropes of the Western turned out to touch on all sorts of problematic assumptions in the American identity, even beyond the oppressive centrality of masculine whiteness. With new advances toward cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness, people looked back at fifty years of Westerns and were aghast at the persistently insulting misrepresentation of indigenous nations, and the regular celebration of their subjugation and slaughter. The nascent environmental movement, advocating more thoughtful stewardship of dwindling natural resources, pointed out that the Western’s portrayal of pacifying the frontier had laid the foundation for continued short-sighted exploitation of the landscape and its riches. And in a nation awash in guns, struggling with rising violence, it was logical to ask whether it had been healthy for the country to spend so many years telling itself stories where heroes were exalted solely for their ability to solve problems with bullets.
For a country in transition, actively rethinking its identity, it was only natural that the Western, as an expression of its cultural ideology, would become one of its central battlegrounds.
Critics and cinematic pundits, in retrospect, have labeled the years from 1966 to 1975 (plus or minus) the era of the Revisionist Western. As we have seen, there were active efforts by filmmakers at self-examination in the genre long before this period, and it would be false to believe or argue that what the Revisionists were doing was wholly unprecedented. But none of those earlier works triggered a deeper reassessment of the mythology, or steered large numbers of films or filmmakers in new directions; some of those envelope-pushers were dismissed or ignored, or outright attacked, by critics and audiences at the time. It wasn’t until the Revisionist Era that the new perspective really got traction, and came to influence the genre as a whole, to the point that those who were defending the continued validity of the traditional style were seen, increasingly, as out of touch, advocating for an obsolete or even harmful ideology whose time needed to pass.
Below, we will look at some of the most important Westerns of this span.
HOMBRE (1967) — directed by Martin Ritt
As we’ve discussed, above and in previous articles, there were many contributing pressures behind the evolution of the American Western in the back half of the 1960s. The invasion of the Spaghetti Western exposed the stylistic conservatism of the domestic film, and demonstrated a new approach to form and content. Evolving political sensibilities raised questions about the ideology behind the genre. Competition from television forced Hollywood to consider how to differentiate its big-screen cowboys from the ones people were watching every week for free at home.
One important influence that I think has gone relatively unremarked compared to the above is the rise of a new kind of actor. In the heyday of the studio era, actors were viewed as commodities, neat packages of aesthetic and emotional effect who could be plugged into projects as needed with predictable results. A few actors managed to escape this typecasting and take greater control of their careers (notably, James Stewart), but for most, their job was summarized by the old cliché, “Put on your costume, speak clearly, and don’t bump into the furniture.”
A new tradition, however, was taking shape at the Actors Studio in New York in the 1930s and 40s. These performers took their craft seriously, and weren’t satisfied to be ambulatory mannequins interchangeably deployed by producers. Some of them had attempted to leap from stage to screen, bringing their newfangled “Method” with them. From Montgomery Clift to Marlon Brando, these actors tended to chafe against the studio system, working irregularly and often burning out.
Eventually the bonds began to loosen, as the public’s mounting fascination with these smoldering stars compelled the studios to cater more closely to their creative interests. One of the first major actors to benefit from this attention was Paul Newman. With his cool blue eyes, unadorned masculinity, and openly sensitive demeanor, he was a natural big-screen magnet, and the studios fell over each other trying to figure out what to do with him. After a couple of early misfires, Newman had a hit (and an Oscar nomination) with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and found himself able to pick and choose the projects that interested him.
Eager to avoid the pigeonholing that had plagued actors of previous generations, Newman pursued a wide variety of roles and films, from historical epics (Exodus) to romantic comedies (A New Kind of Love), from prestige literary adaptations (The Young Philadelphians) to gritty small-scale drama (The Hustler). He tried a couple of Westerns, without much success; The Left-Handed Gun was an ahistorical take on Billy the Kid, and The Outrage was an ill-considered remake of Rashomon. Both flopped and quickly disappeared.
Sometimes, when considering a film, it was the challenge of the role that interested him, and the opportunity to do something he hadn’t done before. For other projects, it was about the political theme or social message; Newman had been consistently associated with progressive causes, which he frequently served with his career choices. And every now and then, Newman was able to fulfill both interests with a single film. One of these was Hombre (1967), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.
The story, in its broad strokes, is pretty straightforward for the genre — a loner helps a motley group of travelers survive an adventure through dangerous wilderness — but it’s in the details that the revisionist feeling emerges. The loner isn’t your typical gunslinger, he’s a white man who was raised by Apaches and faces disapproval and prejudice from racist whites on a near daily basis. The travelers aren’t just an adhoc assortment of misfits: a few of them have been rendered homeless by the loner’s sale of the boarding house they were in, and one is an “Indian agent” who abused his authority as tribal liaison to steal a substantial sum from his charges. So when they get in trouble, the lone hero doesn’t just automatically spring into action, his decision to help them constitutes an active choice with thematic resonance.
Stylistically, the movie is fairly conventional, especially in comparison to the Italian Westerns that were starting to crowd in around it. Director Martin Ritt never had much of a visual signature or authorial stamp; his career focus, born of his Depression-era youth and early career in left-wing theatrical circles, was on finding, and simply telling, the stories of the marginalized and downtrodden. (His Norma Rae won Sally Field an Oscar for playing a union agitator.) Hombre is of a piece with Ritt’s other work, being less interested in the central character’s physical heroics and more in his character, his relationships with the people in the group he’s escorting, and the racism of society at large.
Hombre is not particularly well remembered today, which is too bad, because it’s a solid little Western with a clear pro-Indian, anti-racism, anti-imperialist agenda. It’s been superseded in the culture by bigger, bolder movies with similar messages, like Dances with Wolves (1990) or Little Big Man (1971; see below), but it’s a definite milestone in the evolution of artists consciously using the Western to rewrite our relationship with our history.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969) — directed by Sam Peckinpah
What, after all these years, is left to write about this?
It’s one of the most important, most influential Westerns ever made, a loud, clear announcement that from this point onward, everything would be different. And unlike many classics, which are initially greeted with puzzled looks and polite confusion and accumulate their reputations only over time, the significance of The Wild Bunch was recognized almost immediately. It was the biggest hit in director Sam Peckinpah’s career to that point (surpassed later by The Getaway and, uh, Convoy) and got an awards push from its producers, winding up with two Oscar nominations. Some critics attacked the film, repelled by its seedy, grimy tone and uncompromising violence, but others recognized what it was up to and defended its craft and vision. Either way, Peckinpah’s status as a major filmmaker was assured.
Since its release, The Wild Bunch has been endlessly studied, discussed, and imitated. The punch of its violence is obvious, but Peckinpah’s inventive camerawork, variable frame rates, and fast, highly-fragmented editing were also groundbreaking, and were subject to immediate emulation by excited young filmmakers. Commentators have debated the extent of the influences Peckinpah brought to the film; Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is a clear forerunner, with its bloody, slow-motion climax, but the sweaty nihilism of the Spaghetti Western, especially its “Zapata” variety, can also be felt in the aesthetic and themes of The Wild Bunch.
And yet, in all of this, with all of its accolades and acknowledged importance, one aspect of the film’s legacy has gone relatively unnoticed: Peckinpah himself considered it something of a failure.
It’s not that he thought the film was bad, or that he wanted to distance himself from it the way he did some of his other work. He was extremely proud of it, and in a career where he repeatedly butted heads with studios and producers (and actors and technical staff and…), The Wild Bunch represented one of his most enjoyable, least antagonistic filmmaking experiences. He knew he’d made something special, and he was happy to receive the increased attention and accept the acclaim and award nominations that came in the movie’s wake.
No, the problem for Peckinpah was that, even though he made exactly the movie he wanted to make, and achieved nearly all the creative goals he’d set for himself, the audience did not respond the way he’d intended, or expected.
Consider: the film is set in 1913, well past the time frame most people associate with the Western genre. The frontier is almost gone, whittled away by roads and train tracks and spreading civilization. The central characters are rough, uncultured men, at odds with a world that has lost patience with their coarse lawlessness. Seeking the comforts of relative anarchy, these men escape to revolutionary Mexico, where they hope to hang onto their criminal careers and unruly ways for their remaining years. (All of this is very much in line with Peckinpah’s other Westerns, incidentally. From Ride the High Country to The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he repeatedly returned to the struggles of scruffy, scrappy men stranded in the dying West.)
Peckinpah escalates the violence in the story because he was tired, he said, of the “unrealism” of the genre: someone gets shot, and they fall quietly and bloodlessly to the ground. In Peckinpah’s eyes, the Western had yet to fully engage with the consequences of its action — not just the painful physical reality of how it feels to catch a bullet, but the true social and, more importantly, emotional aftermath of having been the one who fired that bullet, of having spent one’s life brutalizing and preying on other people. The Wild Bunch are not noble, misunderstood anti-heroes; they’re crude, nasty men, thugs and savages. Even the best of them is disreputable at best, and unable to function in civilized society. The arc of the film, which begins with humiliating failure and ends as the men change their mind about having abandoned one of their crew to a local warlord and launch a suicidal rescue attempt, is not a redemption, a restoration of honor; it’s just more stupid, pointless bloodshed by men who understand literally nothing else.
And then, having achieved this, Peckinpah released his masterpiece into the world, and was flabbergasted by the response: Instead of being devastated by a dark Western where dishonorable miscreants waste their worthless lives and die gory deaths in the Mexican dust, audiences were turning out in droves to cheer these bloodthirsty brutes in battle. Here’s one sample reaction, from filmmaker Ron Shelton, a young semi-professional athlete at the time: “I was just going to kill an afternoon [watching The Wild Bunch]. It was just a Western, but I liked Westerns. After it was over I was exhilarated and I didn’t know why. I was exhilarated, and I’d just seen a bunch of killers kill a bunch of other killers.”1
This, needless to say, is not at all what Peckinpah wanted people to take away from the movie. His next movie, Cable Hogue, was much quieter, more gentle and humanistic (and, for the record, it’s wonderful), but it was rejected by the audience. He was perplexed and disturbed by the continuing aftershocks from The Wild Bunch and the unrelenting demand for him to deliver similar “thrills” with future projects, and he sank further into alcoholism and rage in his personal life, and into spiteful cynicism and outright cruelty in his subsequent films. One can argue whether he was already wired for self-destructive anger and was destined for that spiral, or if it was at least partly an expression of frustration with the audience’s failure, or inability, to process his film correctly.
In any case, in the history of the Western, there is the time before The Wild Bunch, and the time after. All the doors that previous films were trying to nudge open, The Wild Bunch kicked them down, and then set fire to the house. After The Wild Bunch, the path was clear: the noble vigilante was not a legend, but a lie; the Old West of Hollywood was not a crucible of nationbuilding, but a madhouse of anarchic violence; and the belief that independent honor and personal justice could tame a lawless land was self-serving, delusional horseshit.
The Wild Bunch is utterly essential, probably one of the ten most important Westerns in cinema history, but it’s the kind of importance that necessitates an understanding of context in order to appreciate the upheaval it created. If reading and watching along in this series has helped you grasp the magnitude of this film as a milestone, then our objective is satisfied.
(Also, note: Unsurprisingly considering its controversial content, the movie exists in several versions, reflecting years of being cut and re-cut. When you look for a copy of this to watch — and you absolutely must watch it — you’ll want to verify the runtime of 145 minutes to ensure it’s the most complete restoration available. If the disc also includes the terrific retrospective making-of documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, so much the better.)
LITTLE BIG MAN (1971) — directed by Arthur Penn
Of all the movies discussed in this article, Little Big Man is certainly the funniest, taking the most glee in its subversiveness and anti-establishment agenda. It’s also, probably, for better or worse, the most 70’s movie on this list.
Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, the film follows the title character through an episodic series of adventures, occasionally intersecting with historical events and characters over the decades. Structurally, you might feel some similarities with Forrest Gump or Zelig, in that there isn’t much of a story beyond simply following a hapless hero from incident to incident, but Little Big Man is better understood as part of a much older tradition going back all the way to Candide and Don Quixote, among others. In these stories, the hero is at the mercy of fate, bouncing along from place to place and from companion to companion, making the best of both triumphs and disasters as the world sees fit to deliver them. The story isn’t interested in exploring the characters in any real depth; instead, the point is to embrace the fluky happenstance that governs the world in order to satirize the people who imagine method in the madness, and the incoherent society they make for themselves.
As with most stories of this kind, the satirical target is not the historical period in which it’s set, but the modern world of the audience. The chaos of the past, in other words, should be read as analogous to the chaos of the present. 1971 was at the center of a decade of transition and turmoil: the Vietnam War was raging, with popular support nearing total collapse; the struggles for civil rights and women’s equality had reached a newly militant phase, and LGBT+ communities had joined the fight; illegal pharmaceuticals were everywhere, leading the White House to officially announce the War on Drugs; and the global economy was in massive upheaval.
So what better time for a movie that says history is a lie, moral leaders are frauds, and the United States military is led by slaughter-happy madmen… and is a comedy?
The story, such as it is, is framed as a series of flashbacks. In the present, a historian is interviewing the elderly Jack Crabb about his eventful life, starting with the murder of his family by Pawnee warriors and his rescue and upbringing by the Cheyenne. After a relatively happy adolescence, he’s captured by US cavalrymen, and is fostered out to a reverend. That doesn’t go well, so he bolts to seek his fortune. He tries out a few jobs — apprentice to a traveling salesman, storekeeper, would-be gunslinger — and meets historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer along the way. After a few years, he reconnects with his Indian family, which by strange coincidence leads to a stint in the US military, until eventually he finds himself in the middle of Custer’s Last Stand, during which the Seventh Cavalry is annihilated at Little Bighorn.
The film is unquestionably a product of late-60s-early-70s counterculture, which means some of its envelope-pushing hasn’t dated particularly well. On the positive side, the representation of George Custer as an unhinged glory hound is still hilarious, if historically questionable, and his rant during the climactic massacre is magnificently deranged. Also, some lingering sexism aside, this might be the best depiction of Indian culture and a broad variety of Indian characters by white filmmakers in cinema history. On the other hand, some of the casting of those natives is a little offbase; Crabb’s Cheyenne wife, for example, is clearly played by an Asian woman, which would have resonated as a Vietnam critique at the time, but which feels misguided now. Also, there’s Little Horse, one of the Cheyenne characters befriended by Jack, who is a “two-spirit,” one of the “third-gender” people recognized and honored by a number of Native American tribes. For a Western in 1971, the portrayal is groundbreaking and remarkably respectful, especially for the completely nonjudgmental way everyone relates to him; but to modern eyes it reads as just a little bit too campy, too specifically coded as an early 70s gay stereotype, which isn’t aligned with the cultural or historical record. Still, considering the now-cringey Midnight Cowboy was only a year before, Little Horse has to be acknowledged as a major step forward.
Little Big Man exults in its active rewriting of the past. It merrily thumbs its nose at traditional history and American fantasies of righteous self-determination, and it’s shocking and ferocious in showing the horrific violence inflicted on native peoples by American soldiers, which means you will find it either grossly offensive or hilarious and shattering, depending on your social and political proclivities. Either way, there’s no clearer example of the aggressiveness with which revisionist filmmakers were taking on the genre’s established mythology. There really is nothing quite like it.
McCABE & MRS MILLER (1971) — directed by Robert Altman
Also unique in the genre is McCabe & Mrs Miller, explicitly described by its director Robert Altman as an “anti-Western.” It has a loose, unhurried, naturalistic vibe, such that you might take Altman’s description to mean that the film is simply uninterested in the usual tricks and tropes of the category. But when you look closely at what it’s doing, and how it tells its story, you start to recognize all the ways it’s rejecting and attacking the traditional mythology from behind its casual-deadpan mask.
The first thing you notice about the movie is the way it foregrounds its setting. I’m not referring to the standard Western shot where the camera surrounds a lone rider with spectacular landscape; there, even when the person is dwarfed in the frame, we still share their perspective, and are experiencing the vista from their awestruck (or determined, or terrified) point of view. McCabe & Mrs Miller, by contrast, takes establishing a sense of time and place as the key to its artistic objective, without bothering to isolate and highlight what a more conventional movie would consider the “central” characters. The weather is ever-changing, the streets frequently muddy; the film is just as interested in how much time it takes for people to shake water and dirt off themselves when they enter a building as it is in what they’ve come in to say and do. The people and their story are not there for us to identify with and project ourselves into; instead, the movie asks us to step back, looking at everything holistically, objectively, to understand and feel what it must have been to be there, in order that we can viscerally know what it would have taken to survive and succeed in such a place.
One of the key devices Altman employs to establish the town of Presbyterian Church as a concrete location is sequential shooting, i.e., filming the script in story order. It may seem like a minor thing, but it turns out to matter a great deal. At the beginning of the film, John McCabe arrives in a small Pacific Northwest mining town, and immediately starts trying to figure out how to hustle a buck. Over the story, as he establishes himself, we can see the town growing, building up around him. Incredibly, the construction in the background is the actual evolution of the movie set, by carpenters dressed in period costumes, using period tools and methods to build and expand the town throughout the production. The movie never calls specific attention to this as a conceit, but it makes Presbyterian Church feel like a real living community, unlike the familiar cliché of the backlot Western main street lined with false-front buildings.
Also noteworthy is the general filmmaking aesthetic, from the photography to the editing, which furthers the aim of erasing the distance of time and making the past feel immediate and alive. Altman (working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) manipulates the film stock to create images with a built-in tension, where the low-contrast filter of hazy memory is undercut by lightened, high-detail shadows like the eye would realistically perceive. On the soundtrack, scripted dialogue is fragmented and buried under crowd chatter and background noise, and the overall cutting rhythm de-emphasizes the importance of the two title characters, treating them less as the center of the plot and more like slightly more colorful patches in a quilt.
And speaking of the title: note the two names are joined by an ampersand, rather than the word “and.” To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s not a character and a character, it’s a law firm. The running theme of the movie is that all the relationships are transactional — everything is a matter of business and profit, and people are concerned with exploiting other people before they are subject to exploitation in return, or before someone with more pull arrives from elsewhere to dominate the lot of them. In the climax of the film, the residents of the town temporarily set aside their selfishness, working together to tackle a communal crisis, while McCabe finds himself alone, basically ignored among the distracted throng, as he tries to deal with another crisis, one of his own making that affects only him. Given the thematic preoccupations of the film, his fate is well-earned.
I’ll be honest here: If you’re expecting a typical Western, or even a conventional movie, McCabe & Mrs Miller can be a difficult, frustrating watch. It’s highly idiosyncratic in its aims and style, and other than Nashville might be the purest expression of Altman’s distinctive approach to simulated, highly studied pseudo-realism. If you’ve heard this described as a masterpiece, and you’re excited to see the story of two people named McCabe and Mrs Miller, you may find yourself puzzled and irritated by a movie where apparently not much is happening, and when things do happen the movie only occasionally seems to show much interest.
But if you’ve reached this point in the series, and you’re curious to know what happens when a master director takes on this well-worn genre and does something unusual and completely unexpected — if you know that the movie isn’t telling you a story in the normal sense, but is simply offering a window for you to look through — then you’re ready to see one of the greatest films in Westerns history.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972) — directed by John Huston
After Hombre, above, Paul Newman shows up again here in a much more outré piece with a somewhat stronger, if muddled, anti-establishment bent.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is, without a doubt, an odd duck. It’s inspired by an actual historical figure who acted as a local judge in Texas during the 1880s, but the film freely mixes and matches events from his life, and invents a number of others, in an apparent attempt to give a feeling for the man without adhering too closely to the official record. (This is probably a good choice, because as crazy as the film gets sometimes, the factual history of the real Roy Bean is even more eccentric and epic.)
Its oddness is also, I think, attributable to being a collaboration between three highly dissimilar creatives: screenwriter John Milius, the notorious libertarian wildman of Hollywood; star Newman, equally public with his fierce progressivism; and director John Huston, cinema royalty by this point, generally liberal but quietly patrician about it (his most overtly political stance was the renunciation of his US citizenship in the early 60s in the wake of the McCarthy witch hunts). Each of the three had different personal interests in the Roy Bean character and story, which were not always compatible, leading to a film that sometimes feels like it’s arguing with itself and doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Still, if you want to know what the revisionist era was about, this is a fascinating mess.
The movie’s plot is a grab-bag of truth, yarn, and wholesale invention, much of it borrowed from or inspired by the several earlier cinema treatments of Roy Bean’s life over the years. (Walter Brennan famously won an Oscar for playing Bean, in 1940’s The Westerner.) At the top, Bean arrives in the small town of Vinegaroon. He quickly runs afoul of the local hooligans and is thrown out on his ear, whereupon he immediately returns, kills everyone who offended him, and announces he’s taking over. The rest of the movie alternates shaggily between observing Bean’s idiosyncratic style of leadership and watching the push-and-pull of various factions in the town either adapting to or trying to resist the Bean regime.
It’s certainly a fun movie, unruly, bordering on anarchic, with events occasionally piling across one another without apparent regard for logical sense. You have the nagging feeling, though, that the creative team never quite agreed with each other, or even understood themselves exactly how they felt about Judge Bean, or how they wanted the audience to perceive him. Is he a mad dictator, a Nero of the West, who forces an unwilling town to accept his lunatic tyranny? Or is he an oddball visionary who successfully carves out a piece of the frontier and reshapes it for himself? Is there a critical message about how easily megalomaniacs can dominate American governance, or does it admire and celebrate the power and charisma of larger-than-life leaders who bend the culture to their will?
When you look at some of the behind-the-scenes background on the production, you start to understand why the finished film seems to have trouble clearly expressing its point. Milius saw Bean as a dark character, an obsessive autocrat who beat the town into submission, but “in the name of progress.” (“That’s the kind of people who built this country!” he said later. “That’s the American spirit!”) He wanted a rougher man to play the lead, maybe Lee Marvin or Warren Oates, and hated the casting of Newman. Huston, by contrast, saw the story as more of a Western tall tale, a “departure from reality,” that nevertheless, he said vaguely, had a message to deliver. (In his autobiography, An Open Book, Huston says that there was “a splendid feeling for the old west” in the script, it said “at the same time … something important about frontier life and the loss of America’s innocence.” What that “something” might be is left unarticulated.) And Newman, of course, who stumbled across the script while Milius was shopping it around, perceived a cynical illustration of how law and order can be perverted by self-serving men, not to mention a terrific scenery-chewing anti-hero unlike anyone he’d played up to that point. In the end, none of them was entirely happy with the product; Huston gently handwaved it as “not exactly a failure,” while Milius openly attacked it in the press after release.
So while the result of all this is a movie that circles very entertainingly but never quite comes in for a landing, it’s still well worth a watch for this series. It’s what you get when three clever and imaginative artists agree that they want to make a Revisionist Western, but unwittingly pursue three different, mutually incompatible revisionist statements in the same film.
HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) — directed by Michael Cimino
As should be clear by now, the filmmakers behind Revisionist Westerns were consciously aiming to rewrite the mythology of the American Western.
The early revisionist films, as we’ve seen, are mostly about observing problems with the mythology, noting its limitations and asking the viewer to think more deeply about what they’re seeing. But that changes when the true revisionist period arrives: filmmakers begin actively tearing the mythology down. Sometimes they try to replace it with an updated or alternate perspective; sometimes, though, they just walk away, leaving the wreckage behind.
Today, in the modern era, we have fully absorbed the lessons of the revisionists. We take for granted that the old mythology is dated, problematic, obsolete, which means we lack the perspective to grasp just how radical a movie like The Wild Bunch was in its day. We’ve internalized the new philosophy so deeply that a movie like Dances with Wolves, which is fundamentally revisionist in spirit (criticizing American militarism and bloody imperialism, while celebrating, however naïvely, environmentalism and indigenous cultures), can appear to us, superficially and aesthetically, as just another classical Western, albeit with a touch of modern polish. We don’t really think about how completely the film, and the genre it represents, may have inherited the revisionist mantle.
Which brings us to Heaven’s Gate. Its 1980 release puts it in kind of a strange place, historically. It was released in a deeply fallow period for the American Western, several years after the energetic deconstructions of the revisionist era basically killed the genre, but also several years before the industry slowly began finding renewed interest in the form. It’s also a notorious film for the extravagance of its production and the selfish indulgence of its director, Michael Cimino; it went overschedule and overbudget to such an extent, and had such a disastrous release, that it essentially put its movie studio out of business. It got a restoration and a small re-release a few years ago, bringing it back to its original length of nearly four hours, and attracting some positive reconsideration by critics. But that’s still a long sit for something that remains, for most people, a curiosity, meaning it still hasn’t been widely seen.
So… what’s it about? And why is it on this list?
The subject of Heaven’s Gate is the Johnson County War in Wyoming, a dark moment in American history whose complexities and nuances are still being debated today. It’s a bleak, messy event, with a convoluted historical foundation, featuring dozens of shadowy participants with varying and sometimes blurry interests. The upshot is that as the untitled frontier got more crowded around 1890, wealthy cattle barons began to centralize and exercise their authority to eliminate competition from unofficial homesteaders, whom they accused of widespread rustling. This led to armed confrontation between mercenaries hired by prosperous ranchers and poor settlers who refused to leave the land where they were squatting, and a scandal when it was discovered one of the ranchers had circulated a “hit list” of enemies to be murdered over fabricated accusations of cattle theft.
The historical facts are a confusing jumble of murky conspiracy, half-understood actions, and tentative speculation, but the higher-level symbolism is starkly clear. Depending on your ideological leanings, you can see this either as a David-versus-Goliath story of hardscrabble men unjustly harassed by an amoral proto-corporation, or as a capitalist story of entrepreneurs driven to the edge of necessity as they defended their God-given right to get rich from filthy, lawbreaking parasites.
The range wars in general, and the Johnson County War in particular, have served as the framework for numerous Western stories over the decades. Some of them, like the early novel The Virginian and its several film adaptations, side with the ranchers, taking at face value their accusations that the settlers were tramps, trespassers, and thieves whose persecution was necessary and lawful. Others, such as the movie Shane and the novel Riders of Judgment, sympathize with the settlers, portraying the cattle barons as greedy tyrants who deliberately spread phony stories of widespread rustling to justify the forced evictions of small ranchers and farmers and the theft of their herds and land. Either way, the conflict over territory is fundamental to the history of the West.
So when writer/director Michael Cimino decided he wanted to make the definitive modern Western, it’s only natural that he would focus on one of its definitive narratives.
It must be understood that when Cimino took on this project, although the so-called Revisionist Westerns (a label which had yet to be officially coined) had effectively destroyed the genre in its original sense, the films were still implicitly perceived as outsider commentary, attacks from rebels and mutineers on a core of traditional storytelling values. What Cimino wanted to do, audaciously, was to codify the revisionist philosophy — to use the status he’d attained with his popular and critical breakthrough The Deer Hunter to make the ultimate statement of the American West, wiping away decades of accumulated folklore about America’s self-invention and putting a new sense of historical cynicism at the center of a prestige epic that in one fell swoop would erase the past and redefine what the Western actually meant from that point forward. It’s a staggeringly ambitious goal, one which only the most brazenly egotistical filmmaker would even consider, let alone actually attempt.
Spoiler alert: He didn’t succeed. He did, however, come rather closer than the later controversy would suggest.
I won’t lie to you, there’s as much that doesn’t work in this movie as does. For every aspect of the movie that stuns with its reorientation of your historical expectations and understanding (major scenes take place during raucous celebrations at a roller-skating rink, which is something you’ve never seen in a Western before), there are others that irritate and annoy (Cimino’s posturing about authenticity is undercut by his free use of actual named people in ways that have nothing to do with the historical record). For every scene that takes your breath away with its vision, thematic complexity, and sheer bravura filmmaking (the introduction of Christopher Walken’s character is an all-timer), there’s another scene where said bravura filmmaking takes over and gets in the way of the movie (the endless, endless graduation dance).
And while the movie at its best, with grand thematic aspirations, lyrical structure, and meticulously precise compositions, evokes positive comparisons to Terence Malick, it’s a Malick who’s had a bit too much to drink and is growling menacingly at you instead of murmuring philosophically, and who really, really doesn’t know when to shut up. By the midpoint of the film, you may wonder whether you’re watching a misunderstood, unfairly marginalized masterpiece; but then it goes on, and on, overplaying its hand and repeating itself, unable to rein in its obvious sense of self-importance. And what’s worse, the years that followed demonstrate that the movie’s self-assigned mission to carve the genre in new stone was unnecessary; because when the Western finally came back, it was obvious that the revisionist philosophy had soaked in to the bone. The reborn modern Western was a new, thoughtful form that distinctly reflected the influence of the earlier deconstruction, and Heaven’s Gate became historically irrelevant.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate and respect, if not actually like, in the film. It may not really work, but as an unmistakable button at the end of an era, it clearly illustrates what the auteurs of the period were trying to do, and it’s worth knowing about, and sitting through at least once.
So, with that, our 101 series comes to a close.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. If you’ve been reading along, or if, better yet, you’ve been watching some of these movies along the way (or most, or all of them, nudge nudge), you now have a better grasp on the history and scope of the Westerns genre. Maybe your curiosity has been piqued; maybe your old interest has been renewed. Either way, we encourage you to keep watching.
Which leads, naturally, to the question: What next?
If you want to keep digging through the classics, there’s certainly no shortage of great ones. Here’s a starter list, in no particular order: Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954), Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956), Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946), Colorado Territory (Raoul Walsh, 1949), Track of the Cat (William Wellman, 1954), Yellow Sky (also Wellman, 1948), Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939, starring James Stewart), Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth, 1959), Forty Guns (Sam Fuller, 1957), Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958), and Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges, 1953). And let’s throw in two more from John Ford, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Fort Apache (1948), and two more from Delmer Daves: Cowboy (1958) and The Hanging Tree (1959).
Or if you’re more interested in the revisionist period, start with Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962), and then go through Will Penny (Tom Gries, 1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972), Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976). (And then lament that the wonderful late-revisionist 1982 film The Grey Fox, directed by Philip Borsos and starring Richard Farnsworth in a rare leading role, appears to have become completely unavailable.)
Or maybe you want to see something more recent. If you’re looking for some old-fashioned fun, seeing traditional tropes updated with modern sensibilities, check out Silverado (Lawrence Kasdan, 1985) or Tombstone (George Cosmatos, 1993). If you’re feeling philosophical and want some Western introspection, look at The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) or Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992). If you want to see something with a challenging independent twist, give Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) or The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) a try. Or if you want to see a modern-set Western that contrasts classic cowboy philosophy with the complications of contemporary society, watch the terrific Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005).
Or perhaps you’d be interested in a non-American director experimenting with the form; you’ll appreciate Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985), Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000), or The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008). And all of these are foreshadowed by the hallucinatory weirdness of El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970).
And, of course, you can always put a classic side-by-side with its modern remake, to see which one you prefer. For 3:10 to Yuma, you’ve got Delmer Daves’s 1957 original, and the 2007 remake by James Mangold; both are very good, for diferent reasons. Or there’s The Magnificent Seven, where you can compare the 1960 classic by John Sturges with the better-than-expected 2016 re-do by Antoine Fuqua (as well as the SF version Battle Beyond the Stars, produced by Roger Corman in 1980). Or watch 1969’s True Grit, starring John Wayne and directed by Henry Hathaway, and then see how the Coen Brothers did it differently in 2010.
If we were continuing our Westerns series forever, any of the movies named above would be worth an extended writeup, but we have to draw the line somewhere. In any case, there’s plenty there to keep you busy for the next couple of years, and then you’ll have enough expertise to trust your own instincts on what’s worth watching. But the thing is, regardless of whichever Westerns strike your interest… just keep watching.
You can see if the movies discussed above are available for rental, purchase, or streaming in your region by checking JustWatch.