Traditionally, the Western genre was restricted to the classic, but fairly limited shit-kickers in which Cowboys and Indians would square off, or 'frontier justice' would be delivered by a nomadic figure in a Stetson at some point in the mid-to-late 19th century in some town or another in the 'Old West'. But the genre grew into something that came to represent more of an aesthetic or symbolic set of characteristics, rather than representing any one particular point in history or geographical location. The Western, under the umbrella of any of its many sub-genre titles, began to signify the confrontation between different belief systems, regardless of the location of the plot or the motivations of its characters.
Released this week, Nottingham director Sam Masud's My Pure Land, which is set and filmed in Pakistan, tells the story of three women defending their home from the armed men who want to take it from them - a plot that would sit comfortably in the traditional Western genre, despite taking place 150 years and 8,000 miles away from the Old West. To celebrate its release at Broadway Cinema this week, we take a look at ten more alternative Westerns:
The Proposition (2005)
Australia. What fresh hell is this?
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
In the dusty wild lands of Victorian Australia, Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley, a British lawman, is ordered to apprehend the notorious Burns gang – three brothers responsible for the rape and murder of a pregnant woman. Capturing two, he offers Charlie, the middle brother, a proposition: he has nine days to kill his older brother Arthur (the leader of the gang), or else he’ll hang his younger brother Mick. A grimy, atmospheric masterpiece from John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) that benefits from a note-perfect score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Piss on you! I'm working for Mel Brooks!
Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman
For my money, Mel Brooks' gleefully crude satirical take on the social and racial attitudes in the 1960’s and 70’s set in the Old West is the greatest comedy film made since the silent era. A corrupt politician, who has his sights set on ruining a Western town, hires a black sheriff to offend the local population and cause general chaos, leaving the landscape free to build his railroad. Sheriff Bart – played brilliantly by Cleavon Little – has other ideas, overcoming every obstacle sent his way before the film descends into utter insanity. The racial attitudes lampooned throughout Blazing Saddles continue to this day as, even now, when the film is shown on American TV, the scene in which several cowboys break wind around the fireplace is cut down for taste and decency purposes, despite the word ‘nigger’ and its derivatives being used incessantly from start to finish.
7 Women (1966)
Don't worry. She'll be as good as any man.
Director: John Ford
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton
As the undisputed master of the Western, John Ford showed all aspects of the Old West, from the Golden Age (The Searchers, My Darling Clementine) to the less heroic lamentations for the death of the traditional West (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Set in China in the 1930’s, Ford’s 7 Women is the story of a group of dedicated missionary women defending themselves against the a barbaric Mongolian warlord and cut-throat militia. Anne Bancroft’s Dr. Cartrwright, a chain-smoking New Yorker who doesn’t wear dresses and hates religion, takes control over the mission amid rumours the notorious warlord is getting closer, as well as an outbreak of cholera. Still comparatively unknown in Ford’s huge canon, 7 Women is a hard-hitting and fascinating celebration of the strength of women in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)
Must they adapt, sir, to the point of their own extermination?
Director: Yves Simoneau
Starring: Adam Beach, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi
The HBO film adaptation of Dee Brown's exquisite book is about as comprehensive a take of the plight of the Native Americans as has ever been filmed. Starting with General Custer's demise at Little Big Horn and ending with the assassination of Sitting Bull and the massacre of nearly 200 men, women and children at Wounded Knee in December 1890, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a haunting exploration of the implementation of the Dawes Act, during which Native Americans lost over 90 million acres of land (rendering 90,000 people landless), countless were killed and the Native American way of life was effectively decimated. Through the character of Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a young, mixed-race Sioux doctor educated in white universities, we see the devastating impacts on forced assimilation, as countless young men and women are forced to choose between survival and their spiritual and cultural identity. Also starring Wes Studi as Wovoka, August Schallenberg as Sitting Bull and Gordon Tootoosis as Red Cloud, it's tough, but essential viewing.
Zabriskie Point (1970)
There's a thousand sides to everything - not just heroes and villains.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin
An overwhelming commercial failure that was brutally received by most critics at time of release, Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point has recovered in reputation to achieve something of a cult status for its use of cinematography and representation of a defining cultural crossroads in American history. Located just East of California’s Death Valley, Zabriskie Point is visually every inch the Western backdrop, and the location where two complete strangers, Mark, an idealistic undergraduate and Daria, a young hippie, meet and begin an uninhibited romantic relationship. With its sparse, sprawling aesthetics and similar themes to those present in the Westerns exploring the end of the traditional Old West, it can be classed as an alternative Western.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
People must know that they're going to die, and yet they live as though they never will. Hilarious.
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung
A thief (The Weird), a hitman (The Bad) and a bounty hunter (The Good) all hunt for an elusive map that could lead to buried treasure from the Qing Dynasty against the backdrop of the desert Wilderness of Manchuria in the late 1930’s. As their pursuit escalates, they are joined by a rival group of Manchurian bandits, as well as the Imperial Japanese Army, who need the map in order to “save the Japanese Empire.” Owing more than a little to its (almost) namesake Spaghetti Western, the trio overcome a series of graphic shootouts and chase scenes, ending in a spectacular Mexican stand-off. Winning several awards for its cinematography, The Good, The Bad and The Weird remains amongst the highest grossing Korean films of all time.
Dead Man (1995)
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne
Jim Jarmusch’s ‘acid Western’ follows accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) on the run after murdering a man. Encountering a mysterious North American named simply ‘Nobody’ (Gary Farmer), Blake finds himself being prepared for his journey into the spiritual world. The plot anchors on Blake’s namesake’s writings on Innocence and Experience, as the protagonist is thrust further into this strange frontier, integrity and virtue are destroyed in place of ignorance and brutality. Arguably Jarmusch’s most impressive film, Dead Man is a lyrically minimalist update on the Western genre that provides a unique take on the myths of the old West.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements but because of the idiots.
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox
What starts out as a fairly traditional Western narrative soon takes a sharp right turn into distinctly Horror territory in S. Craig Zahler's directorial debut. An unlikely team of gunslingers, led by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), set out to rescue the settlers kidnapped from their small town of Bright Hope. They soon realise that their adversary is a savage tribe of ruthless cannibals, putting both the mission and their survival itself in serious jeopardy. Whilst it's a genre-crossover that won't be to everyone's fancy, Bone Tomahawk is a slow-burning story that, once it explodes into life, is action-packed and gripping, combining the best tropes from both the Horror and Western genres.
¡Three Amigos! (1986)
Director: John Landis
Starring: Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short
The jerks at Rotten Tomatoes might have only awarded it a score of 44%, but ¡The Three Amigos! remains one of the better comedies from that golden generation of Saturday Night Live alumni. Three recently fired silent movie stars (Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms and Ned Nederlander) are hired to defend a Mexican village from the infamous El Guapo, under the mistaken assumption that their on-screen exploits are real. After one of the pampered actors is shot with a real bullet during what they mistakenly thought was a matinee performance with the bandits, the trio decide to stay and help the village for real. An adaption of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, the pairing of Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short work perfectly together under John Landis' direction - and it's got a singing bush played by Randy Newman, a melodic turtle nailing back-up vocals and Jon Lovitz for Christ's sake. What more could you want?
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
You don't know much about women, do you?
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano
Loosely based on an historical incident on the Oregon Trail in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film follows a wagon train, led by frontier guide Stephen Meek, on an ill-fated odyssey through the untamed West. Reichardt’s faultless sense of pacing delivers a film patiently mesmeric, starkly realistic and relentlessly kinetic. There are no traditional Western heroes, no romance on no frontier mythology; just the brutal, unforgiving elements and an foreboding sense of doom that builds and builds. The startling dichotomy between its stunning cinematography and the cruel severity of the travellers' fates makes viewing at once agonizing and hypnotic. An unforgettable masterwork.