|KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) -- This summer the Cineplex is crowded with a plethora of roughhewn comedies, several-too-many horror-thrillers, and a cascade of caped crusaders. But yet again, the cinematic landscape is bereft of the Western. Oh, I know there's a new "Lone Ranger" in the works, but that's set for a July 2013 release. So, why has the Western been ignored by today's moviemakers?
I have a theory.
If you look at the evolution of movie genres such as the horror film or the comedy or even the fairy tale, they each have morphed into products meant either to reflect our changing times or influence them. Horror films such as "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Dracula" or "Cat People" once were morality tales, where good eventually was triumphant over evil. But the scary movie has undergone more transformations than Lady Gaga's wardrobe. And with few exceptions such as the psychological sci-fi thriller "Signs" (2002), most of today's entries into that film forum have been little more than salutes to studio special effects departments. Fright flicks aren't really morality tales these days, just CGI gore fests.
And comedies? Past generations have laughed at everything from the slapstick shenanigans of the Three Stooges to the soulful hilarity of Charlie Chaplin ("City Lights") to the sophisticated wit of William Powell ("The Thin Man") to the prancing energy of Danny Kaye ("The Court Jester") to the charming antics of Cary Grant ("His Girl Friday," "Bringing Up Baby") to the staid buffoonery of Peter Sellers ("The Mouse That Roared") to the satirical humor of Stanley Kubrick ("Dr. Strangelove"). Most of today's funny film folk go no further than comedy club raucousness with its "I-can't-believe-I-just-saw-that" syndrome. Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogan, Ben Stiller and Jason Segal, along with their comic clones, are unbridled by codes of decorum. This era's screen comic peppers his life observations with sophomoric stench known in polite circles as bathroom humor.
But the Western doesn't lend itself easily to revamping. Given, many have tried, some with seeming success, but in the overview, their attempt has led to the near demise of the genre.
Where John Ford's westerns were poetic in presentation, Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns became campish, like cartoons for grownups. Sam Peckinpah gave us a masterpiece sendoff of the old West as Hollywood once knew it with his "Ride the High Country" (1960), then redefined the horse opera with his excessive yet intriguing "The Wild Bunch" (1969). In his defense, with that film Peckinpah was actually attempting to point a finger at the increasingly violent nature of our culture. He filmed the savage action in close up and slow motion, thinking it would speak volumes concerning the direction our society was heading. He was alluding to the corruption of the soul and the changing of man's character. Sadly, he merely opened the door to violent exploitation much the way Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) did for profane language.
From then on, our western history was depicted with flawed heroes by filmmakers determined to dispel the glamour of the Old West. Even Clint Eastwood's admittedly brilliant and poignant "Unforgiven" (1992) wallowed in grime, with the genre's black and white themes now tinged with shades of gray.
In keeping with our more pessimistic times, where filmmakers emphasize "reality" over symbolic allusion, no longer would the good guys wear the white Stetsons, the bad guys the black ones. Some, as in the case of "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), now wear pink hats -- metaphorically speaking.
True, a great many B-westerns used the Native American as little more than props, but the best of the Wild West Oaters emphasized how the world thought of America: vast, and full of mystery and promise. The western hero was never portrayed as petty or vindictive, but as a person of both rugged individualism and quiet dignity, someone whose word meant more to him than his own best interests. He faced formidable odds, defended the rights of others, showed regard for authority and paid tribute to the pioneers, those who made the ultimate sacrifice while building a new nation.
I could have made this column all about John Wayne as his screen persona symbolized the world's assessment of America. Indeed, the Duke is still seen as a Mount Rushmore identity, solid, protective and patriotic. And it's John Wayne who starred in one of the best American films ever constructed, "The Searchers" (1956).
Western lore-makers John Ford ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"), Howard Hawks ("Red River"), and Henry Hathaway ("True Grit") helped create Wayne's screen image, but director John Farrow also gave us a primal portrait of the cowboy with "Hondo" (1953). In it, Wayne played a loner who had once lived with the Indians, Hollywood finally paying tribute to the courage and lifestyle of the Native American. From Louis L'Amour's novel, it is the tale of a cavalry scout who rescues, and is then rescued by, a lone pioneer woman. The personification of the Western, "Hondo," and the genre in general, dramatizes the one-time ideal of the American male. Continued...