When it comes to Quentin Tarantino, one of the things I've long pondered and have recently been writing about, is the way his films exemplify an "incarnational aesthetic." It's not that they are about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ explicitly; but that their bodily, sensory, cultural preoccupations reveal a reverence for incarnational, embodied existence in a manner that helps the viewer re-sensitize to the physical, fleshy world in which Christ lived, breathed, died and rose.
So I just saw a press screening of 3:10 to Yuma, which comes out in a couple weeks. It’s really good, and reminded me just how much I love the western genre. I love the “West” in general—the vast, dirty, sagebrush majesty of it all. Ansel Adams, Indian reservations, turquoise bolo ties, duststorms, Lewis and Clark, stretches of highway with “no services for 80 miles” signs. Since moving out to California I’ve had the luxury of being able to occasionally drive the 2000 or so miles back home every now and then—which for most people probably sounds horrific. But for me, the West is like this infinite, untouched wonderland, full of myth and mystery and thrilling uncertainty. “Going west” is the ultimate American mythos. You gotta love manifest destiny.
Anyway, as a tribute to the West, and because I’ll be in Billings, Montana and Jackson Hole, Wyoming next week, here’s a brief list of some films (both proper “westerns” and films that are just about the west) that I think capture the roughshod beauty and scalawag history of the American West (by no means is this any sort of authoritative top ten):
Dances With Wolves (1990): Say what you want about this Kevin Costner epic, but you can’t deny that it’s pretty stunning on several artistic fronts—namely the cinematography (shot in the beautiful Badlands National Park) and the unforgettable score by John Barry.
Don’t Come Knocking (2005): Wim Wenders’ little-seen 2005 film was probably more “road-movie” than traditional western, but Sam Shepherd’s character plays an aging Hollywood western star, so there’s some interesting genre reflexivity going on.
Fort Apache (1948): This John Wayne / John Ford classic was loosely inspired by Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, which is the historical high-water mark of “wild west” lore. Featuring trademark shots of Monument Valley and the great Ford horizons, as well as a teenage Shirley Temple, Apache is a very satisfying western. The Grapes of Wrath (1940): John Ford is the western genre, and his adaptation of John Steinbeck (the literary voice of the west, in my opinion), is pretty wonderful. The story of the Okie family Joad and their precarious journey west during the Depression is both quintessentially American and stridently western.
High Noon (1952): Gary Cooper exudes boot n’ spur cowboy vigilance as the lone defender of a pansy town awaiting the arrival of a revenge-seeking outlaw on the noon train. The recurrent theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me” is unforgettable, as is the famous four-count rhythmic editing sequence at the film’s climax.
The Proposition (2006): Even though it’s technically about the Australian frontier and not the American West, this film wins a spot by sheer fact that it is an incredible, unsettling and unrepentantly stark portrayal of the unruly Australian outback. Plus Nick Cave does the music, which is wonderfully dark and droning.
Ride With the Devil (1999): This is Ang Lee’s other (and better) western, which is really a Civil War film about the border skirmishes on the western frontier (Missouri-Kansas). Tobey Maguire shines, as does Jeffrey Wright and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as the despicable bushwhacker villain). Oh, and Jewel (yeah, the singer) is the female lead.
A River Runs Through It (1992): Robert Redford loves the American west (Sundance, Utah is a testament to that), and River is his best cinematic homage to the frontier. Based on a classic book by Norman Maclean, the film tells a simple story about family and fly-fishing in the pristine mountain rivers of Montana. Not really a “western” proper, but for capturing the spirit of the West, this film is hard to beat.
Unforgiven (1992): Films don’t get much better than Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist western—which re-frames the genre’s mythos in terms of probing psychological and spiritual questions about human nature. Truly a masterpiece.
The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah’s crowning achievement, Bunch is an uber-violent tale of a grizzled band of aging outlaws during one last “score” as the wild west gives way to a more modernized, tamer society. See if you can spot all the things that influenced later Tarantino films!