Almost two decades into the century, quality Western films are alive and kicking. Though doubtful the genre will ever bound back to its silver screen “heyday” of the 1940s and ‘50s, those released now are often top-grade fare. Modern Westerns crafted by film makers like Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, and Joss Whedon pay a tribute to the legacies that preceded them and give a fresh twist on execution.
Last week, I brought you Part I of the “Under Burning Skies: Best of 21st-Century Westerns.” This week, Part II:
Crossfire Trail (2001, traditional Western)
For a long stretch, the Western flames burned low—and almost out—until the turn of the century when the fires were stoked for a revival.
During the lull, Tom Selleck had been a durable force in keeping the genre from being extinguished, with successful productions often for Ted Turner’s TNT network—gritty, stalwart gems like Last Stand at Saber River (1997), Monte Walsh (2005), and Crossfire Trail (based on the 1954 Louis L’Amour novel).
In Crossfire, Selleck plays the honorable Rafe Covington, who promises to look after a dying friend’s wife (Virginia Madsen) and ranch in 1880’s Wyoming. With two other close friends by his side, they immediately run afoul of Bruce Barkow (Mark Harmon), a louse doing his damnedest to court the beautiful, recently-widowed woman and take over her sizable holdings. Brad Johnson plays a gun for hire, Beau Dorn—turning in an exceptionally fine Jack Palance (Shane)-type performance—and under Barkow’s employ, he begins to pick off Rafe’s buddies, sniper style.
It shouldn’t be overlooked how excellent Tom Selleck is in other L’Amour adaptations, including The Sacketts (1979) and The Shadow Riders (1982)—plus my all-time favorite Western with the former Magnum, PI star: Quigley Down Under (1990).
2001 round-up: Grey Owl, a revisionist Western with Pierce Brosnan and Shanghai Noon, a comedy, starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
The Missing (2003, revisionist Western)
Magdalena Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a New Mexico doctor, raising two daughters, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), on her own and being courted by Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart). Her estranged father Samuel Jones/Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan (Tommy Lee Jones) comes to visit, but Magdalena turns down his peace offering of money and sends him on his way—an undisclosed family riff still bleeds hatred on her part.
The following day, Brake escorts Magdalena’s daughters to town, but when one of the horses returns without a rider, she goes in search and finds a horrifying sight—Brake and a fellow rider have been slaughtered. Dot, who’d remained hidden at Brake’s urging, tells her mother that Indians have captured Lilly.
After the authorities prove to be ineffectual in tracking her daughter, Magdalena turns to her father for help. Perhaps a bit hackneyed in spots (though the acting is uniformly superb), this Ron Howard film gained respect for using the Chiricahua dialect of the Apache language that, according to Wikipedia, is spoken today by only a few hundred people.
2003 round-up: Open Range starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, plus Tom Selleck in a remake of Monte Walsh.
3:10 to Yuma (2007, outlaw Western)
I’ve gotten a fair amount of flak, among die-hard Western aficionados that is, supporting this remake over the Glenn Ford/Van Heflin 1957 original—which, with no doubt, is one of the holy grails of all Westerns (both versions are based on the 1953 Elmore Leonard short story). However, the Yuma remake seriously rocks the saloon with some of the most sustained shoot ‘em up sequences to ever conclude a Western film.
Set-up: Impoverished rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is determined to bring outlaw Ben Wade (Russel Crowe) to justice and collect a reward for his needy family. All he has to do is get Wade on the 3:10 locomotive to Yuma. Observing the near impossible mission is Dan’s impressionable son William (Logan Lerman), who wants to be a cowboy and is having a hard time not liking the larger than life Wade.
Bale plays against type rather well, Peter Fonda has a nice supporting role, but best of all is Crowe as the condescending villain, who sees something in Dan that he admires and begins playing along—gunning his own men to death! Maybe the first part of this movie could have moved a bit faster, but the last half more than delivers the goods.
2007 round-up: Brilliant Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee based on Dee Brown’s 1970 book spotlighting The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.
Serenity (2005, sci-fi Western)
In the future of 2517, a fascist government known as The Alliance has taken over most of the populated universe. Mal Reynolds, a former soldier, and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) operate a spaceship called Serenity (shaped like a firefly), and both act as pirates of sorts (shadows of Han Solo abound), agreeing to fly cargo for a price and no questions.
The eclectic crew is made up of Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), pilot of Serenity and Zoe’s hubby; a prostitute (Morena Baccarin) who is in love with Mal; a loose cannon (Adam Baldwin) that’s really not to be trusted; a mechanic (Jewel Staite) with a heart of gold; a preacher (Ron Glass) who is probably anything but; and a brother (Sean Maher) and sister (Summer Glau) who are running from the government, effectively putting everyone else in danger.
Funny, smart, and edgy (watch as Mal sacrifices an innocent to cannibalistic Reivers) film that picks up where the television series created by Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers) left off. Firefly (2002-2003) remains one of the top cult shows ever created—only fourteen episodes of the sci-fi-Western hybrid were filmed before myopic network nitwits yanked the show.
You would think the creator of the hugely successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel would have been given the respect of at least a full season to gain an audience. Thankfully, Serenity served as a closing chapter of sorts.
2005 Round-up: Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rango (2011, animation)
When newbies to the genre ask me what Westerns I’d recommend, I tell them that Johnny Depp, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, and Ned Beatty made one of the finest Western movies evah! The befuddled looks over this missed computer-animated film that won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature are comical.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), Depp voices Rango—a pet chameleon with a penchant for theater who becomes lost in the Mojave Desert. In the town of Dirt, he is elected sheriff after he accidentally knocks over a water tower killing a nefarious hawk that had been terrorizing the animal community.
However, his troubles are only just beginning, because with the hawk gone, the deadly Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy)—a ruthless gunslinger—will return, challenging the cowardly lawman.
Amusing and intelligent storytelling that kids will enjoy and parents will appreciate even more with its sophisticated approach similar to that of Toy Story (1995). Favorite line by Rango: “I will blow that ugly right off your face!”
2011 round-up: Cowboys & Aliens, starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, needs to be watched once at least. Not great, but passable rainy day fare. (Goes without saying that the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg is essential reading.)
Slow West (2015)
A refreshing start to a Western, with a Scottish(!) protagonist, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) navigates the treacherous Old West (“a jackrabbit in a den of wolves”) of the 1850s on horseback, in search of Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Through flashbacks, we learn Jay was in love with Rose, but his father disapproved of mingling with lowly peasants. In a move to defend his daughter’s character, Rose’s father pushed Jay’s father to the ground, where the man died from his head striking a rock.
In America, Jay runs into gunslinger Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who, for a price for protection, becomes his guide through the lawlessness. Told from dueling points of view, we learn that Selleck is also in search of Rose, for the $2000 bounty that is on her and her father’s head, and Jay is the unknowing Judas Goat leading the way.
Besides the outstanding cast that also includes Ben Mendelsohn and Madeline Sami, this reflective story benefits greatly from Robbie Ryan’s cinematography—shot in New Zealand (filling in for Colorado) and coupled with the picturesque Scottish Highlands.
The trailer to this movie had one of the best come hither tags: “In a land beyond law, the most dangerous are the last to fall.”
2015 round-up: Check out my review of Bone Tomahawk in part one of Under Burning Skies.
David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.