The Hidden West
The original 3:10 TO YUMA (starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and based on a story by crime-writing veteran Elmore Leonard) might have evaded the eyes of the current generation of movie fans, so what else has been overlooked? Anyone with even a passing interest in westerns should be familiar with the true classics – THE WILD BUNCH, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE SEARCHERS, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, HIGH NOON, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, RIO BRAVO, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, etc. However, rather than just rehash the Top 50, let’s mosey past the obvious essentials, on down the trail less roamed to grab a fistful of the genre’s hidden gems. (Note that this is clearly not meant to be a comprehensive list, just a few of my personal faves.)
A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE
Most people would know director Sergio Leone from Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” trilogy or the masterful ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but I have a soft spot for his “other” spaghetti western, A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (aka DUCK, YOU SUCKER). The flick is set during the Mexican Revolution and stars Rod Steiger as scruffy Mexican bandit Juan, who roams and pillages with his gang of sons. He tricks fugitive Irish demolitionist John (James Coburn) into robbing a bank with him. But Juan discovers he’s the one who’s been conned when he finds only POWs stored in the vaults instead of gold, and upon the captives’ liberation he is suddenly hailed as a hero of his country. Machineguns and TNT provide plentiful explosions and bloodshed, but the film is really more of a whimsical buddy flick with two charismatic, flawed and very different freedom fighters who inadvertently end up on the same side.
One of my favorites in the genre is also one of the few female-fronted westerns: HANNIE CAULDER, a revenge-tale rarity about a woman tracking down her transgressors with ballistic retribution on her mind. The divine Raquel Welch (who, before Lynda Carter jiggled into my impressionable youth as Wonder Woman, first prompted an obsession with the female form) is the title character, a frontier woman violated by three sadistic outlaw brothers (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin). Seeking payback, Hannie enlists the services of a notorious bounty hunter (Robert Culp), who takes her to the Mexican retreat of a gunsmith acquaintance (Christopher Lee) and begins the grueling physical and psychological training she’ll need to slay the villains. Although hundreds of westerns precluded it, HANNIE (made when female-powered exploitation was on the rise) is the first real example of a vindictive and competent leading female rather than the submissive collection of prostitutes most common in the genre. Even with the vile circumstances and predictable story driving her character, Welch is at the height of her appeal: a pistol-packing goddess in tight trousers, poncho and not much else.
In the 90s, not long after Costner and Eastwood played on plains the to considerable acclaim, indie director Jim Jarmusch (GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI) exercised his trigger finger on his own sort of existential western, with Johnny Depp as his titular DEAD MAN. Jarmusch’s highly unconventional and deliberately paced slant on the genre (filled with scene-stealing familiar faces) chronicles Depp’s slow transformation from awkward accountant to wanted man, while a hired killer (Lance Henriksen at his nastiest) traces his steps through the bleak black-and-white landscape. With an Indian named Nobody for companionship on his shadowy spiritual journey, Depp’s William Blake (ostensibly a reincarnation of the English poet and mystic of the same name) travels a quirky and surreal Old West not seen since Jodorowsky overdosed on hallucinogens and put it on film as EL TOPO.
THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER
Long before Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson met, the Shaw Brothers combined Old West comedy and kung fu in THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER, a loopy martial arts western with omnipresent spaghetti-western star Lee Van Cleef and chopsockey master Lo Lieh (from FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH). Van Cleef plays a sly robber whose explosives accidentally kill a Chinaman during a bank heist, and Lo Lieh is dispatched from China to recover his deceased relative’s riches. However, the dead man had tattooed the directions to the booty onto the backsides of several mistresses, so Van Cleef and Lo Lieh basically travel around examining bountiful buttocks in search of the stash. Unfortunately for them, a fanatical gunslinging preacher is also seeking the treasure (and the pertinent ass-maps). Since Lo Lieh is pretty much the only individual in the Old West with crazy kung fu skills, he spends the film walloping everyone (complete with cartoonish sound effects) while Van Cleef nonchalantly offers a gunsmoke surprise for the occasional adversary.
Though it influenced dozens of films and spawned unofficial sequels and spinoffs (including an upcoming remake by Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, of AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER infamy), there’s only one DJANGO. Euro-horror director Sergio Corbucci switched to noodle-westerns for this vicious flick with recurring outlaw Franco Nero as the enigmatic stranger of the title. But there’s definitely something different about this guy (and not just his catchy theme music) – for example, he’s dragging a coffin behind him. While playing rival gangs against each other, Django paints the muddy town a vivid shade of crimson thanks to his ferocious lead-spitting friend he keeps in the casket, racking up a body count to rival the 80s output of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
Director Walter Hill is no stranger to the Old West, having slipped on the Stetson for THE LONG RIDERS, the underappreciated WILD BILL, and LAST MAN STANDING (which, like DJANGO and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, is loosely based on Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO), but he really went all Peckinpah with EXTREME PREJUDICE. This modern-day western stars Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe as former friends now on different sides of the law (and the Mexican border), with one muy caliente chica as the object of both their affections. Things get more complicated – and violent – when a team of secret government operatives (featuring noted character actors like Michael Ironside, William Forsythe and Clancy Brown) arrives to impede Boothe’s narcotics business, culminating in a massive bullet-riddled blowout.
Alex de la Iglesia is probably better known for edgy fare like the fierce PERDITA DURANGO or the devilish DAY OF THE BEAST, but (as Tarantino has done with his odes to grindhouse) he writes his own contemporary love letter to spaghetti westerns with 800 BULLETS. A mischievous young lad ventures out to visit his unhinged grandfather Julian, hoping to bond with the him after learning of his mysterious past as an actor/stuntman in spaghetti westerns. But the boy instead discovers an old drunkard barely making a living performing for tourists in a Wild West stunt show. When Julian’s avaricious daughter-in-law seeks to turn the location into a real estate venture, he and his diverse hermanos take up arms in the name of all that is Clint Eastwood for a last stand. It’s occasionally slow and syrupy, but thanks to a lively cast and charming premise, 800 BULLETS is an affectionate tribute to the poncho-clad gunfighters of the American Old West who arrived by way of Europe.
Tough-guy extraordinaire Lee Marvin pulled his six-shooter in a number of westerns like SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, CAT BALLOU and the perhaps-best-unmentioned musical PAINT YOUR WAGON (ah, the whiskey-tinted melodies of Lee and Clint), but his gruff greatest may be THE PROFESSIONALS, a “manly men on a manly mission” movie that often seems lost in the shadow of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Marvin rounds up an expert horseman, demolitionist and marksman, and they head south of the border to rescue a tycoon’s kidnapped wife from oddly Mexican revolutionary Jack Palance. But all is not what it seems, and what begins as a simple plot reveals more layers than the average shoot-em-up, with a terrific cast and a great balance of action and humor (plus it looks spectacular thanks to late cinematographer Conrad Hall).