Sun
Jul 6 2014 12:00pm

From the Western Frontier to the Final Frontier: When Cowboys and Sci-Fi Collide

The Phantom Empire starring Gene Autry is widely regarded as the first mash-up between Western and science fiction on the big screen. From the singing cowboy to recent films like Cowboys and Aliens, here are seven titles offering up androids and spaceships mixed with six-shooters and stagecoaches.

The Phantom Empire (film serial, 1935)

Gene Autry’s first starring movie (which was later edited into a seventy minute film in 1940 called Radio Ranchor Men with Steel Faces) has him playing who else but Gene Autry, and he’s running a dude ranch where he broadcasts daily country music and thrilling stories of adventure. That is, until his operation is interrupted by a group of humans whose ancestors went underground during the last glacial period. The subterranean city looks futuristic (if you can get past the obviously miniature model set), and yet when inhabitants from this civilization—buried 25,000 feet down—come to the earth’s surface, they can’t breathe the oxygen; though interestingly enough, when Gene and friends travel to the underground kingdom, they apparently have no counter issues. The film is seriously dated but entertaining as hell for its high camp value. Trivia: Allegedly the producer who came up with this bizarre plot conceived it while in the dentist’s chair under a nitrous oxide high. Yep, that makes sense. (All 12 episodes of The Phantom Empire are available on YouTube.)

 

The Wild Wild West (TV series, 1965-1969)

In the 1960s, everyone was 007 crazy while the Western was dying a slow death. So, Michael Garrison created a “James Bond on horseback” show to keep the genre alive. Robert Conrad plays secret service agent James West, teaming up with master of disguises Artemus Gordon portrayed to perfection by Ross Martin. The most welcoming recurring villain was Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, a power-hungry little person played by Michael Dunn, who steals every episode he’s in. The show was cancelled to appease Congress who had their sights set on eliminating television violence. And what a crock of you-know-what that was. Two television films followed in 1979 and 1980, as well as a pitiful remake with Will Smith in 1999. Trivia: Robert Conrad has said he was the 17th actor to try out for the part and Rory Calhoun was an initial early choice but producers were not taken with his screen test.

 

Westworld (film, 1973)

Delos, a resort Disneyland for adults, turns into a chamber of horrors when the stage robots begin fighting back and killing the tourists. The park features three themed “worlds”: the Old West, a Medieval World, and a Roman World, where the guests walk amongst the robots who are programmed not to hurt humans. But as an infection of sorts spreads through the automatons’ wiring, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin are two unfortunate guests who find out the Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner is wired crazy deadly. The best scene occurs when the Gunslinger gets a  face full of acid and yet keeps on attacking. (The stale sequel—Futureworld starring Peter Fonda—should be avoided at all costs.) Trivia: This was the first film Michael Crichton directed from his original story to which he used a similar plot element in his 1990 novel Jurassic Park.

 

Firefly (TV series, 2002-2003)         

The very best mash-up of science fiction and Western ever produced and I’ll meet you on a dusty street in Mos Eisley and challenge you to a duel of words if you disagree. Pre-Castle Nathan Fillion is Captain Mal of the spaceship Serenity, a cowboy in the not too distant future who leads a small band of fellow rebels living beyond the reach of the Alliance’s long arm. Producer and creator Joss Whedon pitched Firefly as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” Unbelievably canceled before its time, the show on DVD became a sales favorite and resulted in the big screen film Serenity.

 

Serenity (film, 2005)

The film centers on River Tam (Summer Glau), who’s been a mystery since the start of the original series. At first she appeared to be a bit touched, but it’s soon revealed that she’s a highly intelligent fighting machine enhanced by the Alliance and they want her back at all costs. The film lost some of the luster of the TV show but is still great fun as it continues the adventure of these rebels in the 26th century. And it does offer a surprise ending with the fates of two fan-favorites.

 

Cowboys & Aliens (film, 2011)

A nifty title and a powerful starring duo of James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) can’t save this film from being anything but 2 1/2 stars out of five. Not necessarily boring and Olivia Wilde, even reading a phone book, is always welcomed, but the film suffers from a serious case of meandering until it finally comes alive toward the end. What should have been a definitive movie in the Western and sci-fi world, instead, becomes just routine. Not awful but the graphic novel of the same name created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg is far superior and a must read.

 

R.I.P.D. (film, 2013)

The acronym title stands for Rest in Peace Department. Ryan Reynolds dies and finds himself saddled with a Wild Bill looking Jeff Bridges in an afterlife job of making sure the dead stay dead. Similar in attitude to Men in Black and with a slice of Ghostbusters thrown in for good measure, only missing most of the fun of those earlier classics. It does have enough of its own flair to sustain interest for a while and it’s not a complete turkey, but it made me wanna watch Bridges in the True Grit remake again. Or the Dude. Or just about anything else. Note: I do highly recommend the Rest in Peace Department comic book by Peter M. Lenkov.


Under the pen name of Edward A. Grainger, David Cranmer writes the continuing adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. He is also the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.

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9 comments
1. Mates
I remember when Westworld was state-of-the-art visual effects but haven't seen it since the 1970s. I'm wondering how it holds up?
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
The effects are quite dated, Mates. But the story itself still grips and is well worth another view.
3. John M. Whalen
All praise to Phantom Empire, campy as it is, an innovative film for its time. The Depression era of the mid-30s was a time when writers and filmmakers fulfilled the public's great need for escape. Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were everywhere, in newspapers, radio and movie theaters. Producer/writer Kenneth Johnson (Six Million Dollar Man, V, Alien Nation) tried a short lived version of Phantom Empire with a six episode cliffhanger called The Secret Empire (1979). Part of the Cliffhanger TV series. Wasn't much of a success but an interesting try.
David Cranmer
4. DavidCranmer
John, I vaguely remember Cliffhangers and had to Wikipedia it to refresh my memory. Only ten episodes were produced and I agree the concept was an interesting try.
Sharon Wilder
5. SharonWilder
I will have to check out The Phantom Empire on YouTube. Sounds like an interesting film.
Brian Greene
6. BrianGreene
Nicely written piece as always, David. I've seen some episodes of the Wild Wild West TV show and enjoyed them.
David Cranmer
7. DavidCranmer
Glad to help, Sharon!

Brian, A few years back I received the entire Wild Wild West collection as a gift and found the show had aged quite well. And thanks for the kind words, friend! I'm just trying to keep up with you, Jake, and Scott.
8. randal120
Randy Johnson here.

Have seen and enjoyed all but the last two. I started on COWBOYS AND ALIENS recently, but ended up bailing. Not sure why.
David Cranmer
9. DavidCranmer
Randy, Cowboys and Aliens seems to be dressed up with no where to go. But it does get better if you can wait it out to the ending.
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