Favourite westerns of the decade

 

© Zentropa Entertainment 33 / Danish Film Institute / Warner Bros

 

And so an old decade ends and a new decade begins…  Which is weird, as to someone of my vintage it feels like we only said goodbye to the noughties a few months ago.  In fact, it feels like the most recent decade hurtled past so quickly that we didn’t even have time to decide on a proper name for it.  What was it?  The tens?  The teens?  The teenies?

 

Meanwhile, I assume that this new decade will be referred to as the twenties.  The previous twenties, in the early 20th century, were also given an adjective and became known as the ‘roaring twenties’.  Unfortunately, if the same adjective is applied to the new twenties, I suspect they’ll be ‘roaring’ because they’ll witness the roaring of countless apocalyptic, global-warming-induced bush and forest fires.

 

Anyway, this changeover of decades has meant that many of the newspapers and magazines I read have spent the past few weeks publishing ‘best of’ lists – best books, best albums, best films – for 2010-2019.  I’m going to post only one such list on this blog and it concerns a cinematic genre that’s close to my heart: western movies.  (I’ve started reading Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove and I’ve just had lunch courtesy of my local Sri Lankan branch of Taco Bell.  So I’m in a particularly western-ly mood at the moment.)

 

Here, then, are my favourite westerns from the past ten years.

 

© Paramount

 

True Grit (2011)

Not so much a remake of the famous 1969 western True Grit as a fresh adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit was received with muted enthusiasm by critics and isn’t usually credited as one of their better movies.  But I like it for its fidelity to the novel.  Like its source material, it has as its central character and narrator the 14-year-old Maddie Ross, a precocious, forthright and priggish girl who hires rascally Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father.  The 1969 version is, of course, dominated by John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn.  Here, though, with Maddie (Hailee Steinfield) centre-stage, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is pushed to the side somewhat and he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure.

 

The result is a more sombre, less exuberant film that is usually the case with the Cohen Brothers, for the most part following the events of the novel.  Things go off on a tangent at one point, though, when the Cohens insert some weird stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin, as if they suddenly decided to make the story a little more Coen-esque so that it’d appeal to their normal audiences.  I particularly appreciate the melancholy ending, in accordance with the book, which has Maddie a quarter-century later as a middle-aged, one-armed spinster travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s heard, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing – only to find when she arrives that he died a few days earlier.  It’s symbolic of how, by the start of the 20th century, the West had been tamed and the old, wild one had gone.

 

The Salvation (2014)

At times it feels like western movies have become so engrained on the global consciousness that non-American audiences are now fonder of them than American ones; and non-American filmmakers are more interested in making them than their American counterparts.  That’s certainly how it feels with The Salvation, a Danish western film directed by Kristian Levring and featuring a Danish / French / Swedish / Welsh / Scottish cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing the villain, as the only key cast-member who’s American.  The story, of a Danish settler avenging himself against the psychos who murdered his wife and child and finding himself up against a gang that controls a town, is no great shakes but the film is well-made and the cast is marvellous.  Besides Morgan, it has the can-do-no-wrong Mads Mikkelsen as its hero, the equally can-do-no-wrong Eva Green as its heroine (or anti-heroine), and also Jonathan Pryce, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshell and former French footballer Eric Cantona.

 

Actually, the thought of Cantona playing a cowboy makes me want to punch my hand in the air and shout “YES!”

 

© DMC Film / Film4

 

Slow West (2015)

If Danish filmmakers can make a western, then surely so too can British and New Zealander ones.  Filmed in New Zealand and directed by a Scotsman, John Maclean, who was once the DJ, sampler and keyboard-player with the Beta Band, Slow West is an eclectic affair.  It features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians, two husband-and-wife Swedish bandits, a German social anthropologist studying the Native American tribes, a villain masquerading as a clergyman, a haunted forest and some Laurel-and-Hardy-style slapstick comedy involving a washing line.  Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.  The result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but nonetheless has a lean and linear narrative.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an innocent love-struck teenager who pursues the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic to America, and finally across the Wild West where, in an echo of True Grit, he hires a mysterious and hard-bitten bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and guardian.  Needless to say, things become wilder and more dangerous the further west they go.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The eighth movie (get it?) made by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight has a rogue’s gallery of characters trapped in a store-cum-refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of a blizzard, one night sometime after the American Civil War.  They include gang-leader and human wildcat Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a prisoner of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth suspects that at least one of his fellow travellers in the haberdashery is a member of Daisy’s gang and is plotting to rescue her and eliminate all the witnesses, i.e. everyone else.  Who is it?

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is long and long too are the scenes where characters probe, joust and bicker and generally are as verbose as possible.  But I don’t mind that with The Hateful Eight, where the screeds of dialogue, restricted setting and limited number of cast members make you feel at times that you’re watching a stage play rather than a film – a play with some fine performers (Russell, Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth) and a play that’s practically Jacobean in its levels of blood-letting.  Pleasingly, with its snowbound landscapes and paranoid atmosphere where nobody is sure about anyone else’s identity, it also echoes elements of the greatest movie in Russell’s back catalogue, 1982’s John Carpenter-directed The Thing.

 

Tarantino’s previous movie was the 2012 western Django Unchained,  Before the decade was over, he also directed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) which, though set in 1969, contains sequences where we see its main character performing in 1950s and 1960s American TV western shows.  Tarantino obviously loves the genre, so will he treat to us to another fully-fledged western in the 2020s?  Go on, Quentin.  You know you want to.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional, leisurely-paced western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters).  It sees a posse of mismatched characters, led by Kurt Russell (again) as a slightly over-the-hill but still hard-assed sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his totally over-the-hill but still eager deputy, ride off into the wilderness in search of some people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.

 

But when the posse catches up with the kidnappers, who turn out to be a tribe of cave-dwelling, inbred, cannibalistic troglodytes, things take a sudden swerve into the macabre.  Zahler signals this swerve by showing a jaw-dropping act of violent horror that’ll have you pausing your DVD for a few minutes so you can recover.  (Folk who originally saw it in the cinema weren’t so lucky.  A mate of mine confessed he had to get up and walk out at that point.)

 

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Capably directed by Ti West, a filmmaker better known for his horror movies, In a Valley of Violence has a drifter and ex-soldier (Ethan Hawke) arrive in a frontier town where the sheriff (John Travolta) and his deputies run things more like gangsters than law-enforcers.  The most psychotic deputy (James Ransome) also happens to be Travolta’s son and he soon takes a violent dislike to Hawke.  Like The Salvation, In a Valley of Violence doesn’t offer anything that’s groundbreakingly new – but there are a few fresh twists in its plot.  Travolta’s character, for instance, isn’t an out-and-out villain but more a weak, conflicted character who’s swept along by escalating events; while it’s not the death of a person that compels Hawke to fight back and seek revenge, but the death of his pet dog.  Meanwhile, the supporting cast is enlivened by Karen Gillan as Ransome’s dumb and excitable girlfriend and Burn Gorman as an unsavoury mule-riding priest.

 

© N279 Entertainment / X-Filme / Momentum Pictures

 

Brimstone (2016)

After the Danes, Brits and Kiwis had made Westerns during the decade, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that the Dutch should have a go as well.  What is a surprise is how writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes Dutch western Brimstone both unremittingly grim and operatically over-the-top – it’s probably the least likeable film on this list but deserves respect for its determination to make audiences squirm, cringe and gawp.  Telling the tale of a mute woman (Dakota Fanning) pursued across the West by a demented church minister (Guy Pearce) who slaughters anyone who might offer her happiness and stability and has Terminator-like abilities to keep going no matter what injuries he suffers, Brimstone doesn’t flinch in depicting misogyny that’s bred not just by basic male barbarism but also by Bible-bashing religious hypocrisy.  The film stumbles near the end with Pearce finally getting his come-uppance in a hasty and unconvincing manner.  However, Koolhoven makes amends by sneakily adding a downbeat epilogue that shows, in Brimstone’s brutal milieu, that nobody gets a happy ending for too long.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This list began with a Cohen Brothers film and with a nice symmetry it ends with one too, the western-anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  The opening story is also the title one, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as white-clad, singing and relentlessly garrulous gunfighter Buster Scruggs and showing the Cohens as their most inventive and boisterous.  However, the tone varies among the other segments.  All Gold Canyon, for example, about a grizzled old prospector (played by a grizzled old Tom Waits) digging up a remote, unspoilt valley in his belief that gold lies somewhere beneath it, is a more straightforward and conventional adaptation of a Jack London story; while Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in a surreal Wild West reworking of Edogawa Ranpo’s grotesque tale The Caterpillar.  The film concludes with the supernaturally-tinged The Mortal Remains, in which five strangers find themselves on a stagecoach whose destination might just be the destination that ultimately awaits everyone.

 

Actually, The Mortal Remains, and Brimstone and Bone Tomahawk, plus other recent westerns like The Wind (2018) and Sophia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017), suggest that as the Wild West drifts further off into history and away from the modern world, it may become a common setting for stories of the gothic, supernatural and macabre.

 

And that’s my list.  Looking at it now, I have to say thank goodness for Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers and various Europeans and Kiwis.  If it hadn’t been for them, there’d hardly have been any westerns made between 2010 and 2019.

 

© Caliban Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Books and films: True Grit

 

(c) Bloomsbury

 

Such is the cultural heft of the 1969 Western movie True Grit, for which John Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar playing the irascible, overweight and eye-patched US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, that until a few years ago I didn’t even know it was based on a novel written by Charles Portis and published in 1968.  It was only when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, were about to release their own version of True Grit in 2011, with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, that I read a preview of the film and saw Portis’s novel mentioned for the first time.

 

I recently read the novel and I thought I’d devote a blog-entry to comparing it with its two film adaptations.  Needless-to-say, if you haven’t yet read the novel or seen the Coen brothers’ film, or if you’re one of the four people on the planet who haven’t seen the John Wayne film and don’t know its dialogue off by heart (“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”), I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead.

 

To cut to the chase: True Grit-the-novel begins brilliantly.  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Worth, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

 

The narrator of True Grit is Maddie Ross, who is looking back on her youthful adventures from the vantage point of middle age.  She goes on to describe those adventures in the same, mannered – she writes her words in their entirety, for example, and doesn’t use contractions like ‘I’ll’ or ‘didn’t’ – but wonderfully direct prose.  Portis’s use of a simple Southern female to tell his story has led some to compare True Grit with Huckleberry Finn.  However, as has been pointed out by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for the edition of True Grit that I read, there’s a big difference between Maddie and the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel.  “Where Huck is barefoot and ‘uncivilised’, living happily in his hogshead barrel,” notes Tartt, “Maddie is a pure product of civilisation as a Sunday school teacher in nineteenth-century Arkansas might define it: she is a strait-laced Presbyterian, prim as a poker… tidy, industrious, frugal, with a head for figures and a shrewd business sense.”  Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see Maddie Ross’s influence on one of the most memorable of Donna Tartt’s own characters, the juvenile would-be detective Harriet Cleve in her 2002 novel The Little Friend.

 

Thanks to Maddie’s combination of precociousness and strait-lacedness, sparks soon fly as she allies herself with two men in the quest to hunt Tom Chaney down.  Firstly, she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to do the job, using money she’s acquired from some skilful haggling in Fort Worth following her father’s murder: she manages to sell four Texas mustang ponies, which her father had just bought from a trader called Colonel Stonehill, back to Stonehill.  (Later, she buys one of the ponies, called Little Blackie, back again from the understandably bamboozled Stonehill.)  Cogburn has many bad habits, including a weakness for the bottle, which Maddie doesn’t approve of.  When he offers her a spoonful of the hard stuff to drink, she snaps, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

 

Then at the lodging house she’s staying at in Fort Worth, Maddie encounters a young and conceited Texan Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s hunting Chaney for a murder he’d committed previously in Waco, Texas.  Maddie is wise to LaBoeuf’s conceit immediately and is unhappy about the idea of him taking Chaney back to stand trial in Texas – she’s determined to have him hang in Fort Worth, the scene of her father’s murder – and tells him so, much to his displeasure.  LaBoeuf growls, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”  To which Maddie retorts brilliantly, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.”  (It seems icky that thirty-year-old LaBoeuf would consider ‘stealing a kiss’ from fourteen-year-old Maddie.  Mind you, by nineteenth-century standards, I suppose this wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.)

 

(c) Paramount

 

In the 1969 film, Maddie is less central to the plot and she’s also played by Kim Darby, who was in her early twenties at the time.  These things remove much of the humour from the situation – no longer are two rough, tough grown men being bossed around by a pushy and prudish girl in her early teens.  Because of Darby’s maturity, Maddie seems much more compatible with LaBoeuf (who’s played by country singer Glen Campbell) and as the film progresses there’s a whiff of romance between the two of them.  Furthermore, there are times when John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems almost like a father-figure to them both.

 

Nonetheless, the 1969 True Grit remains an amusing film.  With Maddie portrayed in more conventional terms, there’s more focus on Cogburn himself – and of course Wayne, who’d thought the film’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, seized the opportunity and played the marshal as an entertainingly rambunctious, almost Falstaffian figure.  I know serious film-buffs are sniffy about Wayne winning an Oscar for the role and dismiss it as a long-time service award rather than as recognition of specific acting ability, but to be fair, Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn has stayed in the popular consciousness for longer than many other Oscar-winning performances from the time.  (Nowadays, for instance, who really remembers Cliff Robertson in the previous year’s Charly?)

 

In 2011, the Coen brothers returned to the novel’s framing device and to the concept of Maddie being little more than a child.  As well as recapturing the wry humour of the novel, this approach puts Maddie centre-stage and pushes Cogburn a little to the side – as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure than Wayne’s version.  LaBoeuf, who’s played by Matt Damon, is side-lined even more.  Damon’s portrayal of the ranger is pretty low-key anyway, and for some reason the Coens have him abandon Maddie and Rooster twice during the film – neither of these departures happened in the novel – which further lessens the character’s impact.  With Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen years old at the time of filming) playing Maddie, the character’s solemn and priggish voice that was so memorable in Portis’s book comes across strongly.

 

However, I would have liked it if the Coens had included a few more of Maddie’s quaint, religious pronouncements.  “…(A)ll cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says at one point in the novel.  “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say, well, this is superstitious ‘claptrap’.  My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”  Elsewhere, she describes Woodrow Wilson as “the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age” and she reprimands the breakaway Cumberland Presbyterian Church by saying, “Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10.  Also I Peter1: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7.  There you have it.  It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me.  It is good enough for you too.”

 

The novel sees Maddie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off into Indian Territory, where Chaney has fallen in with a band of desperadoes led by ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper.  At first, neither man is enamoured with Maddie’s presence.  Only gradually does she earn their respect and acceptance.  Cogburn sides with her when LaBoeuf, in a fit of impatience, starts beating her with a switch: “Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf.  He said, ‘It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper.’”  Later, it’s LaBoeuf’s turn to support Maddie against Cogburn, who proposes leaving her at J.J. McAlester’s store, a rare safe haven in the territory: “LaBoeuf said, ‘There is something in what she says, Cogburn.  I think she has done fine myself.  She has won her spurs, so to speak.  That is just my personal opinion.’”

 

The 1969 and 2011 films follow the novel fairly faithfully during this section, although as I’ve said, the Coen brothers have the threesome separate for a time.  Also, they insert some characteristically perverse stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin.  It’s as if the brothers decided they had to make the story a little more Coen-esque, so that it would appeal to their normal audiences.  Both films are similar in how they show events at a dugout where Cogburn captures Quincy and Moon, two associates of the Ned Pepper gang.  In order to stop the weak-willed Moon from blabbing to Cogburn about the gang’s movements, Quincy grabs a knife and whacks the fingers off one of his hands (“which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log”).  In the 1969 movie, the unfortunate Moon is played by the great Dennis Hopper.  In the 2011 movie, he’s played by the currently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleason.

 

(c) Paramount 

 

Close to the book too is how both films depict the climactic action sequence where Cogburn squares up to the Pepper gang:

 

“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience!  Which will you have?’

“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed.  He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’

“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”

 

In fact, I have seen one film critic – clearly ignorant of the book’s existence – complain that the Coen brothers’ True Grit was too similar to the John Wayne version, citing this scene as an example.  As might be expected from the Coens, the confrontation between Cogburn and the Pepper gang is better staged in their film.  However, in the 1969 film, which was directed by the workmanlike and unshowy Henry Hathaway, the scene contains more of an emotional charge – no doubt because, over the years, it’s become one of the key sequences in John Wayne’s cinematic oeuvre.

 

Subsequently, Tom Chaney batters LaBoeuf insensible with a rock and, though Maddie manages to shoot him, he knocks her into a deep, rattlesnake-infested pit.  Rooster finally rescues her, but not before a snake bites her, and he embarks on a desperate race to get her back to civilisation before the poison kills her – riding her luckless horse, Little Blackie, to death in the process.  In the novel and in the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf survives his injury but is, temporarily, left behind in Indian Territory.  In the 1969 film, the blow from Chaney’s rock is enough to kill LaBoeuf.  Neither film quite does justice to the claustrophobic horrors that Maddie experiences in the pit, which Portis devotes ten pages of his novel to describing.  The Coen brothers are, however, brutal in showing the sacrifice made by Little Blackie.

 

The novel ends a quarter-century after those events with Maddie as a one-armed middle-aged woman – to save her, a doctor had to amputate her snake-bitten arm – travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s discovered, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing.  But she arrives too late.  After having a conversation with the former outlaws, now show performers, Cole Younger and Frank James (“Keep your seat, trash!” she snorts contemptuously at James), she learns that Cogburn died a few days earlier.  All she can do is have his remains dug up and then re-buried at her family plot in Arkansas, with a $65 marble headstone commemorating him as “a resolute officer of Parker’s court”.  The 2011 film stays true to this wistful ending, which symbolises how, by the start of the 20th century, the old Wild West had been tamed and domesticated.  However, it’s a tad more positive, because it has Cogburn writing to Maddie to inform her of his participation in the Wild West show.  In the book, there’s no hint that Cogburn even remembers her, and she only hears about him being in the show after her brother sees it mentioned in a newspaper advertisement.

 

Although there are other westerns where John Wayne played a character who died at the end, symbolising the passing of the Wild West – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for instance, or Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) – the 1969 True Grit goes for a more upbeat ending.  Not only does Maddie remain in one piece (we last see her with the bitten arm in a sling), but there’s a final scene where she’s reunited with Rooster Cogburn at her murdered father’s graveside.  That said, I find this version of True Grit sad in its own way.  This is because of the death of LaBoeuf, who’s a more likeable and heroic character here and, indeed, had seemed likely to end up romantically linked with Maddie.  In fact, as a kid, when I first saw the film on TV, I was quite upset at Glen Campbell’s unexpected demise near the end.

 

I like both cinematic versions of True Grit.  I appreciate the Coen brothers’ film because it captures much of the sombre but quirkily amusing tone of the source material, and I enjoy the John Wayne film because of its straightforward, old-fashioned entertainment value.  But to experience the truest True Grit, you need to read the book by Charles Portis.