Ah! I miss those westerns! I terribly miss the brilliant Westerns of the 50’s and the 60’s… John Wayne’s Adventure Westerns… Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns… The Classic Westerns… The Revisionist Westerns… The bereavement only heightened when I caught Sam Raimi’s take on the spaghetti Westerns “The Quick and The Dead” (1995) last weekend on HBO. A brilliant ensemble cast: Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Di-Caprio and Gene Hackman. But the film never comes close to even Leone’s bad western movies. Sharon stone is no Charles Bronson. Hackman growls a lot, but never comes close to Henry Fonda’s brilliance when it comes to playing the villain. And Russell Crowe looks more like a confounded Australian caught in the middle of West American Deserts. The agony culminated into an uncontrollable fit of rage in the climax gun fight between Ms Stone and Mr. Hackman. The bullets flash past and Hackman finds himself punctured in the chest. To heighten the Drama, Hackman is allowed realize that he is shot, only when he sees a hole in his shadow. Hackman then stares at the hole in his chest made by Ms Stone’s bullet incredulously (so do we). To put us into more trouble, the camera now dips a little and peers through the hole in Hackman’s chest so that we can see the sun’s rays coming through it. Arghh! I felt like shouting out “Where are the good ol’ Westerns?” I only restrained myself, for I knew my room-mate would mockingly show me to the attached closet in his room.
Post-1990 Westerns look more like bandaged toes, disgustingly jutting out of the realm. The script and the characters don’t fit into the genre of the exquisite swathe of deserts of West America. The Western classics blended the flavour of the west diligently into the script. The actors too (many from west America) reeked with rustic smell of the west. Clint Eastwood had actually picked up costumes for his memorable character “The Man with no Name” from the second hand shops of California. These costumes including the symbolic patterned serape became a vogue of the Western protagonists later. But it is more than just costumes. Yesteryear’s protagonists are not singular face of good or evil as in post-1990 Westerns. Those cowboys are quintessential souls living in the west characterized by mental toughness, physical strength, emotional coldness and a self defined sense of justice. Some protagonist like Harmonica in Once upon a time in the West (1968) or “The Man with No Name” in Fistful Full of Dollars (1964) also show a sense of empathy towards innocent people in distress. They also amuse us with their wry and laconic wit. These characterizations become quite famous world-wide that our own super stars including Amitabh and Rajni Kant tried to emulate these “lovable rascals” (Though the original credit has to go to Japanese legendary Director Akira Kurosawa from whose movie Yojimbo, the spaghetti Westerns were inspired). Compared to this rich characterization, the modern Western Protagonists looked bland and dull. Will Smith was too boisterous in Wild Wild West (A movie which looked like queer amalgamation of Westerns and Roger-Moore-kind-of Bond movies but turned out to be worse than both). A morally reconciled Russell Crowe in “The Quick and The Dead” looked exactly like a bandaged toe in a western movie. Then there was Sharon Stone with her sense of fair justice and vengeance. Sam Raimi did a big mistake in allowing the characters to take moral stance on issues and bull-dozed the very essence and subtlety of a Western. Not to mention about the one man show of Bruce Willis in “Last Man Standing”, a typical Indian Masala story of a good hero fighting a whole village at a time. These bland portrayals would have made the great John Wayne eat his Hat. John Wayne himself never portrayed a fairy tale kind of hero. His characters are always western to the core. His characters are morally ambivalent and even sometimes (as in the 1956 epic “The searchers”) exuded a harsh sense of racial hatred towards commaches (or the native Red Indians). But on top of that he had a knack of playing the cowboy with style and panache. Looking more or less like our Sanjay Dutt with an act-on-its-own paunch and a dry smile, he swiveled his pistol about his fingers snazzily, rode the horses on the desert majestically and oozed with a cool attitude that will make King Khan bow down. But he never went over the top; he firmly had his tan booted legs on the desert soil.
The supporting cast always played a big role in Leone’s Westerns. There were no stereo-types; all characters were icons in their own sense. Leone was somehow obsessed with the concept of three central characters. No one can forget the climax scene of “The Good, the bad and the ugly”: The three central characters standing in circle and waiting anxiously to draw their guns on each other. He also continued the same trend in his next movie “Once Upon a Time in the West”, with Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards pit up against each other for a Rail Road project. His films also featured Women in strong roles unlike John Ford’s Westerns. Henry Fonda was cast as the blue-eyed cold blooded slurring villain probably for the first time in this movie. It is absolute delight to watch Fonda sling his gun around and play the bad guy for a change. The indistinct long shot of Fonda walking against the mirage of the desert later became the archetype of Westerns. The character of physically challenged Morton, played by Gabriele Ferzetti, the sibylline nature of Harmonica (Charles Bronson), the coffee loving desperado Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and motley of other characters spice up the sensuality of the movie. The character of Morton might have inspired the Half-Man-in-the-smoking-wheelchair villain of “Wild Wild West”. But unfortunately the character lacked both the subtlety and the emotional depth of Morton. Somehow I think that the problem with post-1990 Westerns is that they take themselves too seriously. Leone Spaghetti Westerns had a sense of satirical carefreeness associated with it. It entertained us with amusing wit that is carelessly strewn all over the reels. Remember the scene in “The Good, The Bad, The ugly” where Eli Wallach (The Ugly) shoots a dueler from a bath tub and remarks sardonically, “If you wanna shoot, shoot! Don’t Talk!” Leone’s later movies including “Once Upon a Time in the West” also exudes the same kind of intelligent and delectable wit. John Ford’s Westerns were fast paced adventures which never attempted to morally weigh life in the west. Instead he was content in blending the unbiased reality into his intelligent scripts.
The technical aspects of the classic Westerns complemented the movies very well. Who can forget Ennio Morricone’s famous music track for “The Good, The bad, The Ugly” or his haunting Harmonica track that scintillates us in “Once upon a time in the West”. Cinematography is another main section where our modern Westerns have failed. The large swathe of desert land with magnificent canyons was pictured gloriously in the classics. John Ford’s covered the whole stretch of the West from hot and humid deserts to the blizzard stricken barren lands in his epic “The searchers”. None of the later movies have pictured the Western landscape so flamboyantly.
There might be more than one reason of where those good witty Westerns might have gone. But it is also heartening to note that a new genre of Westerns called Revisionist Westerns is taking the place now. These movies are scholarly works which depict the harsh and crude reality of Western Life. Jim Jarmusch propelled this new genre with his 1995 Johnny Depp starrer “Dead Man”, an emotionally compelling powerful drama. A few movies followed this once in a while, like the 2007 multi Oscar winners “No Country for Old men” and “There will be blood”. While Jim’s work was more a scholarly research about the relationship between different native tribes, “There will be blood” was an honest take on 19th century Oil business. “No country for Old men” was more of the psychopath genre, but it in smoothness of script and subtleness of characterization it revels as a Western. But this might not be enough to console us. We will sorely miss Eastwood, Bronson, Wayne and Fonda. For now, we might have to console ourselves with Quick Gun Murugun.
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