Destry Rides Again  (1939)    79/100

Rating :   79/100                                                                       94 Min        PG

Classic western famous for a number of reasons – firstly, at its core the protagonist Destry (James Stewart) is called into the remote, fictional town of Bottleneck as deputy Sheriff and elects to try and enforce justice without the use of guns, indeed he doesn’t even carry any on him, and secondly the movie features what must be one of the longest, if not THE longest, catfight in cinematic history (excluding porn of course) between the legendary Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel – a fight extended when Jimmy Stewart gets involved (pictured above – the two famously embarked on an affair whilst on set, and it’s difficult to imagine the passionate fight scenes didn’t play a pivotal role).

What brings Destry there in the first place is the murder of the previous sheriff – something nobody in town wants to talk about or acknowledge lest they face repercussions from the gang operating out of The Last Chance Saloon (there were multiple locales carrying this name throughout the Old West, originally ones that offered the last opportunity to imbibe before heading out into the desert {and, presumably, the last chance to change your mind} before it became a generic metaphor). Duty bound, Destry sets out to get to the bottom of things and bring those responsible to justice, and just maybe play a little with the firekitten that is ‘Frenchy’ (Dietrich) along the way.

It’s a fascinating concept which will never get old, and the protagonist is properly tested – thrown into violent situations and forced to endure a ribald reception from the public for his stance but he, ahem, sticks to his guns and gracefully walks through it all with a self-assurance in himself and his belief, which eventually begins to win people over. He, then, has not only the philosophy but also the wherewithal that it will require a strategy and level of personal charisma in order for his approach to succeed.

Directed by George Marshall, who would remake the film again in 1954 (Much like Hitchcock did with ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in 34 and 56), it’s impossible not to be curious as to how Destry is going to handle each situation and the overall feeling of the responses he provides is both satisfying and impressive, although there is a debate to be had regarding the finale and where it fits within the philosophy of the rest of the movie, and indeed you could argue it either makes, or breaks it …

The Homesman  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Tommy Lee Jones tries his hand behind the camera for the second time, the first being with 2005’s ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, this time adapting Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name (incidentally Swarthout also wrote ‘The Shootist’, the big-screen adaptation of which was to be John Wayne’s final film in 1976) and co-writing the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver. Taking place in the American Midwest of the 1850’s (the continuous forty eight States are divided into the West, Midwest, South and Northeast, for those unaware), specifically Nebraska and Iowa, Jones plays George Briggs, a scallywag strung up by a rope and left to perish when he is rescued by Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy who, by way of a life debt, enlists him to help her in her temporary role of ‘homesman’ transporting three troubled ladies back to more civilised territories, a role which, as you may imagine from the name, is normally reserved for men.

Saying these three women, played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer, are troubled is a bit of an understatement, they are in fact all locked in the wagon for everyone’s general safety, including their own, the three having lost their minds whilst living on the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska plains. The western genre often focuses heavily on the terrain and landscape, the wilderness giving rise to questions of morality and justice where no law exists or, as in this case, encouraging aberrant character traits and/or destruction, the problem is none of the three women ever really convince that they’ve lost their marbles, and the first half of the film is not well paced or put together at all. Swank and Jones are both solid in their roles, as one would expect, and the idiosyncrasies of their relationship and by extension the film begin to kick in halfway through, markedly improving matters as more interesting events begin to develop. With brief support from John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, James Spader and David Dencik, this adds its own unique flavour to the genre, it’s just a shame central elements of it are somewhat undercooked.

A Million Ways to Die in the West  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     116 Min        15

Seth MacFarlane’s second time at directing and writing a feature film (although he was joined by his usual collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild for the screenplay) after 2012’s ‘Ted’ takes us to the Old West of 1882, where he is about to be dumped by Amanda Seyfried and bemoan his misfortunes and the multitude of ways one can wind up dead in his middle of nowhere town, all before Charlize Theron meets and quickly falls in love with him. It’s a hard life really. The creator of ‘Family Guy’ is actually the thing that looks most out of place here, and although there are a few laughs it ultimately meanders around as light hearted entertainment that’s just as light on the, often toilet gag laden, comedy front. Where the film is actually quite successful is the chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron, who seem to share a few genuine laughs with each other onscreen, which is always nice to see. Elements of the story are closer to a stand up routine than a narrative in a comedy film, and there are certainly a lot of areas for MacFarlane to work on for his third film which must surely follow, but it does all right in the likeability factor come the end. With Liam Neeson in support and a host of brief cameo roles, including Ewan McGregor if you can spot him …

The Lone Ranger  (2013)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     149 Min        12A

The team (producers Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinksi, and lead actor Johhny Depp) that brought ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ to astounding commercial success, reunite for the first big screen outing in a generation of one of televisions most loved and iconic characters, but this time around they are without the charms of Keira Knightley. The result? A disaster, portended to cost producers Disney a monetary cascade of millions. Well, I think we can safely say where the real talent lay on Pirates ….

It’s an odd undertaking to say the least. I’ve never seen a single episode of ‘The Lone Ranger’, nor am I even familiar with basic character motivations, other than the eponymous central character being the masked vigilante of the western genre (it is perhaps the continuing rise of the superhero film that originally inspired interest in this endeavour) and his accompaniment by his equally renowned Indian sidekick Tonto. In fact, I’m probably more familiar with The Milky Bar kid, who was doubtless based on him, so I had no real preconceptions going in, and yet it is abundantly clear where they got this one wrong.

In the first instance the filmmakers have made the cardinal sin of forgetting who their target audience were – in this case families, whilst trying to appeal to a much wider adult audience at the same time, much like Pirates did. But young children should absolutely not be taken to see this film. The first two thirds are a fairly gritty, dark western, with especially brutal murder and executions and the central characters visiting a brothel à la the continuation of adult themes (they do not themselves partake, at least). A family friendly western like ‘Maverick’ (94), also a TV adaptation, is a good example of how to get the balance right, but that is not to say this part of the film is bad, far from it, there are a lot of nice touches – especially with regards to the cinematography and the atmosphere (it was shot on location in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, although I suspect a grainy colour scheme may have been applied to a lot of it in post production, which, if accurate, was entirely unnecessary).

Additionally, Johnny Depp as Tonto is fantastic – going into the screening my biggest concerns were about his portrayal, as it looked in the trailers just like the basic replication of the previous formula and his Jack Sparrow character, but I was impressed throughout by the originality he brought to Tonto, whilst still remaining the playful Depp we are familiar with. Then, however, the final third of the film is delivered as what we expected the whole thing to be, farcical and light hearted, over the top action sequences and Disney gooeyness whilst the William Tell overture plays, which ironically completely destroys the decent western that had been built up so far. Deepening the film’s woes, they annihilate the characters at the same time – up until this point The Lone Ranger has steadfastly refused to kill anyone, instead demanding on principal that he will bring them to justice. In the final third he pretty much gives up on that idea by trying to shoot someone, but he can’t as he is out of ammo, and the silly chase sequences continue. What on Earth? Your central character either stands for something, or he doesn’t, you can’t just casually throw away the core concept of his very being, but at the same time fudge it so he doesn’t actually kill anybody. It’s outrageously pathetic (see the {very well researched, if I do say so myself} Tintin review for more very similar casual character destruction).

Armie Hammer plays the ranger himself, and he is ok in the role, but is a far cry from being inspiring, and it is very clear that Tonto is the more central character, was it the same in the series? I very much doubt it. Indeed, Tonto is billed first in the credits, though he does appear onscreen first too as the film opens with the Indian as an old man, looking like a sun wizened version of Alice Cooper, approached by a young child who will get his life story in exchange for some peanuts – and why in the name of heaven is the blooming child crunching away at the peanuts?! It’s incredibly annoying! Bad enough with every second row featuring some fat bastard with half a truck full of popcorn, grrrrrr!

The camaraderie between ranger and Indian works to some degree, and the supporting acting is fine from the likes of Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner and Barry Pepper. If you stay through the end credits, they last a really long time and whilst they are playing we can see in the background Tonto as an old man again, walking torturously slowly, and yet as fast as he’s able, into the western landscape. It’s incredibly sad, and unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before. It sums up the entire film, a legitimate artistic touch, and yet one completely wrong for this film (the whole movie is also bloody long for families to sit through).

I couldn’t resist this – ‘Hi Ho Silver’ from Scottish singer/songwriter Jim Diamond and written in memory of his father (also used as the theme tune for ‘Boon’)

Django Unchained  (2012)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                     165 Min        18

Tarantino’s latest gets a lot right but, unusually for the director, it also gets a lot wrong. Here he tackles the western genre and has said he wanted it to fit into the spaghetti western style but in an American way. Whilst imagining a western done in the style of Quentin Tarantino delivers exactly what we see here, there is also an element of style being prioritised over story; particularly in the length of the film, which starts off very strongly, but soon begins to drag. The Red Dragon is a fan of westerns, but if you ask anyone who doesn’t like them one of the commonest complaints is that they find them boring and tedious, and asides from some over the top gory violence ‘Django Unchained’ isn’t going to do much to change that view for many.

The story follows that of freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) as he and bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) travel the pre-Civil War American Deep South, ultimately in search of Django’s still enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). There are a lot of nice touches, including a lot of jokes at the expense of racist plantation owners, but at one point Django makes an extremely dubious out of character decision, and it’s purely to set up events in the rest of the film. Indeed, anyone familiar with ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (09), which was a fantastic movie, will recognise several nods in its direction, but also very strong similarities with the way tension was created in that film and then released.

With that knowledge everything plays out with an inevitable unoriginality, and it does indeed become quite tedious, to an almost childish degree, with even some of the music jarring badly with the narrative – something for which Tarantino is famous for normally getting completely spot on. Even things like having one of the slave owners suggest that all black people are genetically programmed to be submissive and that Django, being different, is one in ten thousand, and then much later on having the ‘hero’ Django saying something along the lines of ‘you were right about one thing, I am one in ten thousand’, well it kind of has a lot of negative connotations with it, though this is possibly more down to carelessness than anything else. Christoph Watlz and Samuel L. Jackson (in a masterfully Machiavellian role) give the strongest performances.

Upon the release of the film, Tarantino has had to face a bit of a grilling from journalists over its content, and over the very hot debate at the moment surrounding whether or not movie violence has a direct link to several gun related massacres in the States and elsewhere. In the following interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the strain of that is perhaps beginning to tell….

Rooster Cogburn  (1975)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     108 Min        U

A fair few folk know that Mr western himself, John Wayne, won his only best actor Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in the original version of ‘True Grit’ (69). Fairly few people know that he reprised the role in this sequel in 1975, his second last film before he passed away in 1979. It follows a similar sort of formula to its prequel, with Rooster set out to enforce the law in the Old West and a strong willed female accompanying him, much to his chagrin, for her own personal reasons. This time around it is no child that brightens his days, but rather a devoutly Christian old mare in the guise of Katharine Hepburn. Both exuberate wit and charm together, and the bonds of their relationship prove one of the finest things in the movie along with the visual presentation of the wonderful Oregon scenery.

A perfectly decent western, it’s worth watching for the fact alone that it was the only time the two screen legends appeared in a film together. The pair were both born in May 1907, John Wayne eventually succumbed to cancer – it’s thought as a possible result of his work as Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ in 1956, as the US military were conducting nuclear tests near the filming location, and not only did a disproportionate number of the cast and crew die of cancer, and it become one of the biggest flops of all time, but producer Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Aviator’ 04) reputedly knew about the testing and pressed on with the production, then spent the final years of his life consumed by guilt, locked away by himself watching the film repeatedly. So the story goes anyway.

Someone who was up for casting John Wayne as Genghis Khan clearly had some issues in the first place. Katherine Hepburn went on to cement her solitary stranglehold on the Academy Awards, winning best actress for 1981’s ‘On Golden Pond’ and becoming the first, and still only, actor to win four lead acting Oscars (she is one of only two actors to have even won three in the leading category {the other being Daniel Day-Lewis} and she also appeared in ‘The Aviator’ played by Cate Blanchett, a role which landed Blanchett the best supporting actress Oscar), though her early life was marked with tragedy, developing a large mistrust for people after discovering the body of her older brother after he apparently committed suicide. She would live until the ripe old age of 96.

Seraphim Falls  (2006)    45/100

Rating :   45/100                                                                     115 Min        15

‘Seraphim Falls’ is a western that pits Liam Neeson against Pierce Brosnan. This is a winning premise, but it is misleading. The film opens with Neeson and his posse wounding and then hunting a desperate Brosnan through the Ruby mountains in Nevada, a few years after the Civil War. We have no idea why, and the chase continues leading to what we soon realise will be the inevitable confrontation in order for us to learn about the back story. It’s fairly dull, and nothing we haven’t seen many times before. Pierce Brosnan comes off least worst from this, and there are a few nice touches and shots of the both beautiful and oppressive landscapes (by director of photography John Toll, Oscar winner for ‘Legends of the Fall’ 94 and ‘Braveheart’ 95) but the acting isn’t at fault here, it’s the screenwriting and direction that are fully to blame for allowing what could have been a decent modern western descend into nothing more than a humdrum TV movie. At one point Brosnan gives a particularly convincing performance of removing a bullet from his arm with a knife he’s heated in a fire, but then drops it and noticeably rolls the flesh of his arm onto it with no effect, which pretty much sums up the attention given to detail throughout the whole film. Angelica Huston and Wes Studi make random appearances toward the end too.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (1969)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                     110 Min        PG

This is one of the most famous westerns of all time. Directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (Hill would later receive an Oscar for directing the same duo in 1973’s ‘The Sting’), one already a Hollywood giant and the other soon to become one, the film is very much one of two halves. It follows the exploits of the eponymous outlaws as they rob trains and try to evade the consequences. Little of the real facts about their lives are known, but Butch Cassidy was the leader of one of the gangs that made use of ‘The Hole in the Wall’ in Wyoming, a pass that sheltered various gangs for over forty years and was never successfully infiltrated by the law.

The opening of the film displays an immediate level of class in the way it’s shot and edited, and the entire first half of the film has a sincere artistry to it as it successfully creates the feeling that the riders in pursuit of the main characters are more like vengeful riders of the Apocalypse than real men. It gives it a real tension, and distinction within the genre, as the characters are fleshed out amidst this grim and pensive backdrop.

Then, however, as the pair make their famous emigration to South America, there is a montage of stills to denote the change in location whilst some truly woeful music plays. It completely breaks the wonderful previous buildup. What ensues thereafter is much closer to standard western fare, and as we see more of the two outlaws we realise that they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and ennui starts to creep in. This is summed up by their decisions come the finale, one which is as famous as the song written for the film: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘Raindrops keep falling on my Head’ (which won them the Oscar for best original song, the film also won best cinematography for Conrad L. Hall {he won again for ‘American Beauty’ 99 and ‘Road to Perdition’ 02} and somehow for best writing, courtesy of William Goldman).

The film was released in 1969 and was the top grossing film of the year. It was, in fact, an extremely big year for westerns with the original ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ coming out too. The Red Dragon doesn’t care much for ‘True Grit’, but rates ‘The Wild Bunch’ as one of the best films of all time, whose new editing and camera techniques left an enduring legacy on cinema as well as an ending which has scarcely been rivalled in the western genre. Indeed, both ‘The Wild Bunch’ and Butch Cassidy have been chosen to be preserved by the American National Film Registry (which, since 1989, has chosen 25 or so American films each year for preservation): ‘The Wild Bunch’ was preserved in 1999, Butch Cassidy in 2003, and it’s interesting that the name of Cassidy’s gang had to be changed in the film to avoid confusion with the earlier release of ‘The Wild Bunch’ – in real life his gang were Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, probably named after a more notorious band of the same name from Oklahoma (‘The Wild Bunch’ features entirely fictional characters), and in the film they become ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’, which is misleading as in reality no one gang was called this but the hideout featured several ‘hole in the wall gangs’. As a result of the film’s popularity, Butch Cassidy is often still erroneously associated as being the leader of ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’. The endings of the two films have a couple of storyline points in common too, and whilst in ‘The Wild Bunch’ they have a real context, here in Butch Cassidy they feel more like artificial insertions for the finale, and it’s impossible not to see it as trying to imitate the previous release.

It’s a real shame the promise shown at the beginning is subverted and replaced by torturously bad and even conflicting dialogue, and direction, come the end. It stands as a shining example of how Hollywood can make anything successful with little more than high profile leads and cheesy romanticism, a formula still oft repeated today.

SPOILER ALERT

The Red Dragon wonders why they did not try and fight their way out of the back exit, or indeed risk a peek over the many small walls to the left and right of the place they end up cornered in. Having gone to extreme lengths to avoid the law (including leaving the continent) it is most unexpected to see them run into the arms of a tiny army in order to commit suicide and immortalise themselves in cinematic history. Cassidy initiates this lemming like crusade in order to procure more ammunition for himself. Why? He can’t hit anything anyway, and he seems to still have a reasonable amount left. We learn that the Kid has somewhere in the region of five million bullets left anyhow as the film descends into a version of Operation Wolf with the Kid shooting a never ending stream of useless Bolivian military as they appear from behind the smallest pottery bowl and wicker basket. It is unfortunate they make a decision to fight it out in a tiny village that just so happens to be housing the entire Bolivian army. Would the Kid’s bullets not have fitted Butch’s gun? Didn’t the Kid or the numerous corpses have another weapon? Alas, such is the price to pay in order to become Hollywood icons.

Joe Kidd  (1972)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                       88 Min        15

‘Joe Kidd’ is a western directed by John Sturges, the man behind classics like ‘The Great Escape’ (63) and ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ (57), and it was one of the last films he ever did (the very last being ‘The Eagle has Landed’ with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall in 1976). It is also a classic Clint Eastwood film that was shot the same year he did ‘Dirty Harry’ (72), in between helming his directorial debut ‘Play Misty for Me’ (71) and his next outing behind the camera ‘High Plains Drifter’ (73). It stands up well against those better known films, with Clint in his usual hard man role complimented by some wonderful one-liners, casual standoffs with armed goons, and the use of whatever is at hand to defeat the bad guys, including at one point a train…

Eastwood plays a reluctant ex-bounty hunter hired by ruthless land owner and hunter Robert Duvall to take care of a little problem. Duvall appeared in ‘The Godfather’ the same year, and it’s interesting to see the contrast in the two characters. Here he is just as convincing at being somewhat dishevelled and unhinged, as he was at being the controlled and calculating Tom Hagen. As is common with westerns though, the characters don’t really get much in the way of backstory. What prevents this from being a film in the genre that everyone has heard of is there isn’t much in the way of the big showdown that makes it really stand out. There are some nice touches here and there, but several people on both sides don’t seem particularly concerned whether or not they get hit, judging from how much cover they’re taking.

If you generally like westerns and/or Clint Eastwood then this is certainly a worthy watch, and you will no doubt acquire some new lines to practice while you’re shaving by the mirror …