The classical western exists as an ideal sandbox for stories of heroism, in which white hats can immediately separate our protagonists from the black-hatted antagonists. Occasionally, though, we have a revisionist western that questions and defies the well-trodden patriarchal confines of the genre, as if looking at an old image from a tilted perspective and finding something new.
Sometimes, the characters don’t fit into the dusty old boxes occupied by so many western heroes and heroines. The hero robs and kills to stay alive, frightened and overwhelmed by this strange, new frontier. Other times, the stereotypical Western landscape disappears, blanketed in snow. Horses drive their hooves through ice-covered puddles. Wind screams past bone-thin trees — manifest destiny frozen over, encasing the American dream in ice.
In the case of Sofia Coppola’s newest, The Beguiled, gender and power roles reverse: an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) turns up at a girl’s school, an arrival which breeds intense sexual tension and rivalry among the women (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning). According to our review, the movie is “primarily based on the 1966 book by Thomas Cullinan,” and “appears, at first glance, to be a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation rather than any sort of new reading of the original text. Coppola, of course, is far too clever for that.”
In celebration of The Beguiled, we’ve decided to take a look at the finest examples of the revisionist western. Enjoy, and please include your own favorites in the comments.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) idolized the legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), growing up hearing campfire stories about the man. Ford loved James so much that he eventually willed himself into the man’s life story. You cannot tell James’s story without also telling Ford’s. These two tragic lives are irrevocably linked by Ford’s betrayal. The film’s dryly antiseptic voiceover narration confides that Ford grew to regret his violent ways. The same goes for James, who at one point beats a child and then weeps into his horse’s neck, unable to live with his own deeds. While James’ propensity for violence is a deeply cut character flaw, Pitt plays the outlaw like an emotionally wounded teenager. His jovial sense of humor cloaks a vindictive and self-loathing interior. Whether Jesse James hurts himself or someone else, there is always a witness looking on with wide eyes. After James’ murder, Ford became a celebrity, touring the country reenacting the shooting. But Ford gained his prominence by killing a beloved folk hero. And so, one day, a man named Edward Kelly walked into Ford’s saloon with a shotgun and took revenge for James’s murder. Unlike the aftermath of Ford’s deed, people leapt to Kelly’s defense, collecting over 7000 signatures for a petition, leading to his pardon. America hated Robert Ford because he killed Jesse James. They loved Edward Kelly because he killed Robert Ford.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s largely forgotten and often funny western about egotistical showman Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman) treats its lead without respect, eagerly mocking him at every opportunity. Known across America as they best tracker of man and animals alive, Cody runs Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a rodeo-like performance of cowboy-feats, ranging from simple rope tricks to the trick-shots of the legendary Annie Oakley. However, Cody is a fraud, a walking accumulation of lies and tall-tales. When Cody gets the chance to hire Chief Sitting Bull, the man who defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn, he’s thrilled, until Sitting Bull refuses to participate in his offensive show. Contrasted with phony Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull drips with dignified authenticity, totally uninterested in living up to the ignorant public’s racist image of his people. While the manufactured “reality” of Cody’s shows gets applause from white audiences, the stoic realness of Sitting Bull initially receives jeers, until something occurs to the crowd: this isn’t showmanship; this is the real thing. Later, when Cody and his gang form a posse, he hastily removes his show attire and searches through his wardrobe, cursing: “Where’s my real jacket?” So utterly consumed by his own public image, Cody can no longer locate his true self. Altman’s film is a rare western with a lead character who never succeeds, changes, or learns from his mistakes, always remaining a hopelessly pompous horse’s ass.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)
As we meet the legendary Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) he’s scoping out a bank, recently renovated to include heavy iron bars over every window and bolted-locks on every door. He asks the guard what happened to the old bank, which displayed such architectural beauty. “People kept robbing it,” the guard says. “Small price to pay for beauty,” Butch replies. It’s a running theme in revisionist westerns to reveal the truth behind the legend. The changing times had rendered bandits on horseback obsolete. But Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) didn’t see the end coming until the future was already upon them. After barely evading a super-posse (to use a term coined by screenwriter William Goldman) led by a ruthless bounty hunter, they escape to Bolivia with Etta (Katherine Ross) Sundance’s girl, where their criminal ways are similarly received. What began as a vacation away from their troubles slowly becomes a permanent getaway run, sowing seeds of inevitable tragedy. Etta sees what Butch and Sundance cannot: the end. “We’re not going home anymore, are we?” Etta tearfully asks Sundance, informing him that she has no plans to stick around to watch them die. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a tearful celebration of a pair of old dogs too foolish to learn new tricks.
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
The gorgeous and haunting Dead Man opens with a soot-faced Crispin Glover trilling as he points out the window of a train: “They’re shooting buffalo,” he cries. “Government said, it killed a million of them last year alone.” The American machine greedily consumes the landscape, leaving smoldering devastation in its path, while a stone-faced accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels to the hellish town of Machine, where he’s promised a job. Unfortunately, there’s no job at the end of the line for this seemingly educated man, blissfully unaware of his namesake, the poet William Blake. After taking a bullet to the chest, Blake wanders this dying western landscape as if in a dream, guided by Nobody (Gary Farmer) a Native American raised in England after getting kidnapped and paraded around as a sideshow attraction for whites. At one point, Blake stumbles upon three hunters by a camp fire, one of which, played by Iggy Pop, wears a muddy dress and bonnet like a twisted schoolmarm. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s twist on the western (accompanied by Robby Müller’s flawless cinematography) hums with textured period detail and vivid costume design, the accumulation of which achieves an eerily stylized tone.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
The spirit of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in the sequence scored by Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” Django (Jamie Foxx), now a free man, removes the old saddle from his horse’s back, a saddle originally procured by a white slaver, the animal’s previous owner. He then mounts in its place, his own saddle personalized with an embroidered D. His freedom is still new and unfamiliar but, Django is more than willing to grasp those reigns. What works best about the film is how Tarantino’s screenplay embraces the politics of the Antebellum South in a fashion carefully ignored by every other western of its time. The dialogue, Tarantino’s most applauded talent, wheels a careful turn between a sly comedy-of-manners and a bluntly provocative historical indictment, always landing on a shameless exploitation cinema influenced need for violent catharsis. Tarantino’s channeling of Spaghetti Western violence, with the gore cranked up to a level far beyond that of even Sergio Corbucci’s bloodiest work, delivers tenfold on that catharsis, splattering the pristine white walls of Candyland plantation bright red.
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Dripping with transgressive and bizarre imagery, El Topo embraces every taboo imaginable with a breathless zeal. Existing somewhere between Midnight Movie oddity and art-house epic, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s second feature envisions the west as an unknowable landscape, dotted with peculiar and grotesque characters, such as a legless gunfighter who rides around on the back of an armless man. Describing the film in narrative terms, beat by beat, would be pointless, although we follow a rider in black, the titular El Topo (which means The Mole) who crosses the desert with a naked boy on the saddle. Though we spend more time with El Topo, his son is the heart of the film, this warped and subversive pseudo-fable exploring the cyclical nature of life. Jodorowsky’s painterly eye for composition lends individual shots with arresting and breathtaking resonance. With less than subtle biblical imagery scattered throughout, including a marvelous sequence involving a religion based around the game of Russian Roulette, Jodorowsky’s film feels at times like a twisted celebration of mysticism, sampling notes from Catholicism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s ending, a chaotic, dream-like burst of violence, adds a scathing gut-punch to an already overwhelming experience. There is no other western quite like El Topo, to say the least.
The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
A bleak and frigid take on the genre, The Great Silence drains away any hope its protagonists may hold for their future. Echoing so many traditional horseback heroes, Silence is a mute gunfighter who keeps the country safe by provoking evil men to draw their guns so he can shoot them dead. Containing all of the tropes and accoutrements of Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns, including the dizzying close-up shots and his obsession with the castrating disfigurement of hands, the film stalks slowly toward a bloody finale, leaving a towering body count. Silence’s foe, a psychotic bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) hardly needs to raise his voice to evoke fear in the trembling townspeople. The dubbing of Kinski’s voice in every version is the only regrettable drawback to the actor’s mesmerizing performance. It’s worth noting that Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight owes a towering debt to Corbucci’s film as The Great Silence’s three leads meet in the back of a stagecoach, topped with a few frozen corpses, much in the same way Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins meet each other.
Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino)
Notorious for all the wrong reasons, Heaven’s Gate is a masterful film with an unfortunate box office reception, which caused a subsequent financial fiasco for its studio. This controversy offers no indication of the film’s stunning quality. A version of the infamous Johnson County War, in which accused immigrant cattle-rustlers received barbaric treatment from American farm owners, the film’s romantic surface details nurse a grim interior. Early on, a hard-working Irish immigrant laments: “If the rich could hire others to do their dying for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.” A lush, sweeping western epic with the cloudy tint of an old photograph, Michael Cimino’s film bears the heart of an optimist and the mind of a pessimist, a struggle which tears the lives of its protagonists apart. Cimino undercuts the romance between Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert at every turn, holding on their last dance at Heaven’s Gate roller rink before painfully reminding us of her heart’s bifurcation. She also loves Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) a murderous mercenary who claims he can keep her safe. Heaven’s Gate’s all-encompassing beauty strengthens the vicious final blow of Cimino’s fatalistic portrait of the American West with a devastating impact.
Johnny Guitar (Nicolas Ray)
“She’s more man than most men,” someone says of Vienna (Joan Crawford) as she descends the trademark staircase of her saloon. What begins as a love triangle between Vienna, the outlaw known as the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) an unarmed enigma who just rolled into town, slowly mutates into a love square. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) takes the fourth corner, an embittered land baroness (though she’s oddly referred to as a land baron), who despises Vienna and secretly harbors affection for the Dancin’ Kid. Vienna and Emma’s intense glares smolder with a buzzing sexuality. While Emma’s secret passion for the Dancin’ Kid inwardly disturbs her, her feelings for Vienna equally unsettle her hard-nosed demeanor. Johnny Guitar’s political subtexts are as subtle as its aesthetic, the venomous bile of the McCarthy-era witch hunts echoing through the film, done up like gaudy melodrama. Nicholas Ray’s film treats these characters with a brightly stylized sincerity, allowing the narrative to emotionally transcend melodramatics.
The Long Riders (Walter Hill)
Walter Hill’s The Long Riders divides itself between a yearning for classical western thrills and a resign for the self-destructiveness of its outlaw heroes. In a remarkable move, Hill cast James and Stacy Keach as the James brothers, Keith, Robert and David Carradine as the Younger brothers and Dennis and Randy Quaid as the Miller boys. Even Nicolas and Christopher Guest show up as Bob and Charley Ford. What seems like gimmicky casting on the surface plays out with unexpected poignancy. There’s a futility to the actions of these famed outlaws, losing even when they win. The gang experiences moments of catharsis and elation, but Hill chooses not to wrap up the story there, instead concluding where all stories eventually end. The influence of Sam Peckinpah’s films, in particular The Wild Bunch, on Hill’s use of slow motion during the final shootout comes through as not just affectionate homage, but thematic punctuation. Whether it’s fate or the irrepressible defiance of male ego, these legends can’t help but sleepwalk, drunk and laughing, toward their deaths.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
The chilly, anti-romantic tone of McCabe & Mrs. Miller finds warmth, if only briefly, in unexpected places: a fiddler’s tune or a drunk’s joke. Little warmth exists for the characters in Robert Altman’s film, who brave the frozen air for a drink of whiskey or the fleeting company of a prostitute, if they can afford it. While John McCabe (Warren Beatty) runs a whorehouse in the town of Presbyterian Church with the worldly Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) an old codger slips on the ice and cracks open his skull. They pick up his head and gawk at the patch of blood beneath. Death comes easily in this cold place. Soon, men in suits arrive and offer to buy McCabe’s stakes in the town. He turns them down, all the while Mrs. Miller warns him of his close proximity to the abyss. If you don’t sell out, you die, and when the gunmen come for McCabe, there’s no posse to protect him. The townspeople are too wise to risk their lives against something bigger than themselves. Fighting for survival with a gun we’ve never seen him employ, McCabe even dishonorably shoots a man in the back, a pathetic gesture, which cements his shabby anti-hero status. Even at the end, Mrs. Miller withholds her feelings, her opium addiction creating a wall between her and cold outside, knowing that just as she arrived in Presbyterian Church, she will soon have to leave.
The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman)
William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident is a harrowing cautionary tale, exposing the simmering dangers and fatal permanence of mob violence. A blistering dissection on one of the genre’s most beloved tropes, the posse, the film reveals a seething ugliness in the long-held tradition of mob justice. After a group of cowboys in a saloon get word of the murder and robbery of a local rancher, the room explodes in outrage. The men load guns and ready for the chase, intending to catch and hang the murderers. At the center of the chaos, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) attempts to reason with the gang of would-be-avengers, even as the evidence continues to mount in the posse’s favor. Maybe the men they catch really are guilty. Or maybe not. All of this plays out mostly without score, stark diegetic whimpers dominating the soundtrack. The accused men, played by Anthony Quinn, Francis Ford (Director John Ford’s elder brother), and Dana Andrews (whose tender performance shines as the emotional heart of the film), stand trial in the moonlight beneath a skeletal tree, hung with three swaying nooses. The Ox-Bow Incident is a powerfully engrossing work, which also has the distinction of being Clint Eastwood’s favorite movie.
The Shooting (Monte Hellman)
An existential mind-fuck with a Roger Corman aesthetic, The Shooting is all muscle and no fat. A futile mission out in the wilderness becomes a death march which drives two innocents to violence miles beyond the edge of civilization. A mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) appears with a dead horse, hiring two men (Warren Oats and Will Hutchins) to lead her to the town of Kingsley, deep in the desert. These hardened cowboys are hardly accustomed to working for a woman. Nor are they accustomed to her high demands and insulting nature. As this sparring trio creep closer to Kingsley, they notice a rider in black following close behind them. Is the woman communicating with him? Our heroes trudge mindlessly forward, seeped with dread and confusion, manipulated into their own destruction. The film’s narrative, scripted by Carol Eastman, strips the story of any genre trappings, endowing the modestly budgeted work with an austere sense of minimalism. There’s a ghastly inevitability to the fate of these people, who fail to find any meaning in their lives, and find as much in their deaths.
True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)
What may appear from the outside as a classical western tale, a young girl named Maddie (Hailee Steinfeld) hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) an aging bounty hunter to help track down her father’s killer, plays out with a far more subversive edge than its previous iterations. Instead of aggrandizing its male leads (in the 1969 version, the killer perishes at the hands of a valorous male savior) Joel and Ethan Coen push the tension for our heroine, dividing her gang of three before the final showdown. While Bridges’ Cogburn indeed whisks Maddie to safety after her encounter with a rattlesnake, the Coens never paint Maddie as a damsel-in-distress. Instead, this sequence plays out as a desperate race against the dark. In this young girl, an old drunken cowboy sees an indomitable fury, which masks a hopeful innocence. He knows that in saving Maddie, he’s preserving something more important than his own life; something better.
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
We learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that “when the legend becomes fact, always print the legend.” But if you’re unlucky enough, a legend might walk through the door and point a gun at your head. Director/ star Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, former killer of women and children, a vicious outlaw, whose wife reformed him, curing his evil ways. Years later, the mutilation of a prostitute by a drunken cowboy draws the attention of hired guns across the state, hungry for the bounty placed on the guilty man’s head. Called to arms by an old friend (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s retirement temporarily ends, sending this aged gunman out for one more run. While fellow famed gunfighter English Bob (Richard Harris) brags, exaggerating tales of lawlessness for effect, Munny plays down his vicious deeds, horrified by his own savageness. The paperback writer (Saul Rubinek) who recapitulates these cowboy legends witnesses a yawning disparity between what he’s heard and what stands before him. For some, like English Bob, the legend is a half-truth mired in boastful morbidity. Munny hears stories about himself recounted and quietly corrects them, seeped with regret: it was three men he gunned down single-handed, not just two. Unforgiven offers nothing for thrill-seeking audience members, instead exposing the sorrow and ugliness behind the myths.
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah’s elegy for the west opens with the immortal line, barked by William Holden’s Pike, as his band of outlaws robs a bank in the town of Starbuck: “If they move, kill ‘em.” This aggressive coldness masks a tender disposition in these killers, the oldest of friends, who see the end of the line in the distance. Reflecting the same baseness and cruelty they see in the world, the gang tear through this town, blasting their way to freedom, planning for their retirement. It’s not long before they witness a man violently dragged behind an automobile; the first car they’ve ever seen. “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns,” Pike says. “Those days are closing fast.” While critics frequently reflect on Peckinpah’s use of hyper-stylized bloodshed, they less often focus on his attention to the bitter consequences of these deeds, executed with a selfish carelessness. Old Man Sykes casually asks Pike how his boy handled the Starbuck robbery. Pike turns, shocked and replies: “Your boy?” The gang intentionally abandoned the aptly named Crazy Lee, Sykes’ grandson, which allowed them only a short head start on their pursuers. A life holds little value for these men, save for what they can gain from it, and only now, when it’s too late, does that dawn on Pike.
The Beguiled opens on June 23.