John Wayne, in The Comancheros (1961),
Best Westerns, by Bill Hartley
In recent years the Western, once thought defunct, has undergone something of a revival. That said, recent releases shouldn’t be confused with what comes under the heading of ‘Modern Western’. This can be defined as something which takes aspects of the themes and character archetypes of the traditional Western and transplants them to a contemporary setting. Some of these have attracted positive critical attention and perhaps the key to their success is the presence of modern villains; the twenty first century versus the nineteenth, so to speak. Interestingly, some of the best come with a sound literary underpinning.
A good place to start is the multi Academy Award winning film No Country for Old Men, based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy. The picture was set in the 1980s and could be what launched the Modern Western. Filmed in the Badlands of West Texas, the story centres on Ed Tom Bell, an ageing sheriff. He is a man increasingly conscious of being out of his time. As the film progresses, Bell does an occasional narration and we discover he is a living link with the past, being the grandson of a sheriff. He tells us there was a time when some lawmen didn’t even see it as necessary to carry a firearm and whilst crime and violence have always been features of the work, its recent escalation is leaving Bell overwhelmed.
The story concerns the aftermath of a drugs deal gone wrong. Bell and his deputy travel to the scene of the crime and this provides an opportunity to make a visual link with the past, since the final part of their journey is made on horseback. Deep in the Texas back country, a familiar location for traditional Westerns, they find a modern crime scene littered with corpses and automatic weapons. Whilst the landscape remains timeless, greed, extreme violence and corruption have become the new norm.
Bell is a man who values honesty and ethics; he is there to protect his community, even when greed has placed one of them in grave danger. In an old fashioned Western, Bell would have known what to do. Here, though, the sheer ferocity of the violence is mind-numbing. At one point his deputy says to him, ‘this is turning into a hell of a mess ain’t it sheriff?’ Bell, in weary tones replies, ‘If it isn’t it’ll do until the mess gets here’. Later, he pulls over a vehicle, which turns out to be driven by a local man charged with clearing up the crime scene. His pick-up is loaded with corpses from the shoot out, something about which the driver seems totally indifferent. Bell is appalled by the sight of bodies casually wrapped in tarpaulin. The driver smiles and asks sarcastically if he is to be charged with having an insecure load. Eventually Bell decides he is powerless against the forces of evil and chooses to retire.
Whilst the bleak country of West Texas provides a familiar backdrop to No Country, the Modern Western can be flexible when it comes to location. The late Elmore Leonard, a writer who was no stranger to the genre, created the character of Raylan Givens, a US Marshal who appeared in the critically successful television series ‘Justified’. Givens finds himself banished to Kentucky, a place he hoped never to see again. This is a location more Eastern than Western. Even so, in case the viewer is in any doubt about the genre, Givens wears a Stetson; hardly the headgear of choice in those parts but even with a suit and tie his uncompromising attitude to the villains brings a flavour of the Old West to a modern setting.
Speaking of villains, those in the traditional Western tend to occupy a narrow range. In contrast, Justified features Born Again Christians with a peculiar view of right and wrong; tattooed neo Nazi’s, alligator poachers and a couple of women who can outdo some male villains. The show was first broadcast in 2010 and ran for five years, with critics praising the characterisation. Givens is a character who would fit in a John Ford picture but he carries both a pistol and a mobile phone.
A more complex character is to be found in Longmire, a television series which began in 2010 and was based on the novels by Craig Johnson. Longmire is the sheriff of a fictitious county in Wyoming. Whilst his deputies dress in police uniforms he gets by with just a Stetson and badge. Longmire is a widower coping with the loss of his wife; a man who plays chess and reads the poetry of John Donne. In one episode he conducts a pre interview sieve for a deputy vacancy by having the candidates read, then summarise, the plot of Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.
Longmire contains some familiar Modern Western themes, notably a focus on the natural resources of Wyoming: land and fossil fuels. Whether it’s the methane deposits beneath or the potential for a golf course above, there are people willing to despoil the pristine country. Closely attached to the land are the original locals. The Cheyenne are a community suffering from a range of social problems, most brought in from outside and are seeking funds to rectify them. One of them tells Longmire, ‘Last night I had a dream that when I woke up all the white men were gone’. Longmire suggests that opening a casino on the reservation is likely to have the opposite effect.
Longmire’s best friend is a local Cheyenne. Daringly, they exchange inter racial banter of a kind which would have a civil servant reaching for the smelling salts. Cheyenne mysticism plays a significant part in some episodes and even if this can be dismissed as superstition it’s easy to see how it was shaped by the wonderful Wyoming country. Longmire deals thoughtfully with loss and inner conflicts, adding an extra layer to some interesting storylines. Along the way, it teaches viewers more about the first aid treatment of gunshot wounds than (hopefully) they will ever need to know.
Throughout its existence the Western has shown itself to be versatile and an excellent platform for storytelling. Whilst its origins have now receded far back in time, the latest incarnation suggests that there is life left in the genre. In support of this have been some distinguished American writers who have provided material for a variety of onscreen incarnations.
William Hartley is a social historian