Tommy Lee Jones has a new film out this week, the self-directed The Homesman. It stars himself and Hilary Swank as an outlaw and teacher combo trying to ferry three disturbed women to safety out of the old West. Yes, it's a western but clearly of the revisionist kind, meaning it wants to question the traditionally held ideas of the era of gunslingers, cowboys and 'Injuns', as while it was wild, it's debatable if it was 'Wild Wild'.
Despite the masculine title, it's been described as a feminist attempt at the West with its emphasis and the struggles women endured in that period. Of course, this is just the latest in a lengthy line of films demystifying the legends of the West. Directors and writers have been re-examining perceptions for the past 60 years, so let's use The Homesman's release as an excuse to look back at some of the best revisionist westerns out there.
The '60s was certainly when the traditional western finally fell out of favour, replaced by the Revisions and those stylish Spaghettis (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being one example), with the best in my book book-ending the decade.
John Huston's The Unforgiven is the first, looking at a family living on the frontier. The women are stalked by an old soldier who claims to know about a secret the family is hiding, while a local tribal chief bothers them with a curious request. What's notable about the film is its focus on the treatment of Native Americans and also contains excellent performances by screen idol Audrey Hepburn, even if her make up doesn't convince you of her Native heritage.
At the end of the 1960’s, I'm talking about Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Set just before World War I, it follows an aging group (a bunch, even) of outlaws as they attempt a final heist before they are wiped out along with the era they know. It's a fantastic film that was marked out at the time for its gory gun fights, thanks to that technical revelation known as 'exit wounds'. Naturally there's a lot of blood as the men's way of surviving is shown in its true, horrible light. Peckinpah harms his point by being such a fine action director; the movie has two of the best shootouts ever put to film as well as other thrilling set pieces. The Wild Bunch has a sense of farewell to an dying age to it, a love letter to the stories of old.
Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood was attaining stardom with the Dollars trilogy, but they're Spaghettis through and through. His finest work will surely always be Unforgiven, where he stars as a farmer returning to the gun to profit from a bounty. Unfortunately the years haven't been kind to him, leaving him an embarrassment who can barely get up on his horse.
The movie breaks down a lot of Western star legends; the actual gunfights are shoddy affairs where weapons jam, nothing's fair and it's best to surprise your enemy while he's cosy on the crapper.
It's also worth watching thanks to Dumbledore (or, if you prefer, Richard Harris) turning up as a flamboyant killer called English Bob. Come to think of it, Unforgiven has some great names for its characters; "Little" Bill Dagget, The Schofield Kid, W. W. Beauchamp, Skinny Dubois, Strawberry Alice and more beyond that. They're names better suited to a gunslinger's penny dreadful, precisely the type of mythologizing material Eastwood wanted to destroy with the film. He managed it, too.
On to the 21st century then, where it was claimed the western was dead. In a traditional sense, yes… the Westerns released in the past 14 years are all revisionist straight off the bat. The best of them brought something new to the table, often finding new methods to tackle the period and its people.
There Will Be Blood is one such movie, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as a frightening oil prospector with a dastardly ‘tache and a personality to match . He's a man who seeks the oily black stuff purely out of greed but comes up against a dubious preacher (Paul Dano) in his mission. The film is stunningly directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most exciting filmmakers around, while it has a striking score by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood as well.
Released the same year as There Will Be Blood was the awkwardly titled The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Brad Pitt plays the famous criminal with Casey Affleck opposite him as the adoring fan who'll end his life. It's a fascinating film that looks at the cult of celebrity in the most unexpected of settings, beautifully made by Killing Them Softly's Andrew Dominik.
Moving away from the big screen, HBO's Deadwood is an impressive offering looking at a young town formed during the Gold Rush. As well as looking at how a community comes together and society is crafted, it's packed with real life characters such as "Wild Bill" Hickock and Calamity Jane. Oh, and it has the most inventive swearing you'll ever hear, reaching Shakespearian heights. What's most impressive about Deadwood, however, is its ability to both deconstruct and pay respect to the most recognizable genre of them all.
It's that aspect of Deadwood that can be found in all the films I've mentioned; taking recognisable elements and playing with them to reveal truths about the Ol’ Western.
The films above have familiar tropes like ''Injuns'' (The Unforgiven), old gunfighters (The Wild Bunch), notions of honour(Unforgiven), dodgy prospectors (There Will Be Blood) plus famed Wild West personalities and they all manage to use them as a springboard for making reconsider what we actually know about the period. Westerns weren’t all cowboys and mechanical spiders; try watching something from this list to find that out.