Hell on Wheels: The return of the wild west
Big question in a small arena: Are westerns making a comeback? Sometimes it seems to me they’ve been asking the same questions for the last five decades and still haven’t been given a satisfactory answer. But is that because the answer wasn’t satisfactory? Or was it because there just isn’t an answer?
How would you know? Well, poking around the chicken entrails at the beginning of year 2013, a good century after the first movie (a western) was made, things are looking very good indeed, with at least four major movies—Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained; a big-budget remake of the legend of The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp; Val Kilmer (everybody’s screen favourite Doc Holliday) starring in The Hard Ride and not at all least, The Last Duane, a new version of an old Zane Grey novel called Lone Star Ranger (you can see why they changed the title) and – ‘and’ said with awe — the return to our TV screens this coming week of Hell on Wheels, TCM’s epic take on the building of the transcontinental railroad, a rough, ruthless, riveting return to a ‘wild west’ that makes you realise what made it wild.
The western is the oldest movie genre there is: indeed, the very first was a short silent called The Great Train Robbery. It has over the years gone from that flickering start through every conceivable form of rehash, from forty-minute serials starring the likes of Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard or Buck Jones to epics like The Big Country or How The West Was Won, from singing cowboys like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers via “spaghetti westerns” to the Jewish comedy of Blazing Saddles. So can there be anything new to say, anything fresh to look at?
The answer, thankfully, is yes. Yes, there will be more westerns, perhaps even better ones than those unforgettable favourites we’ve all seen—Shane, High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and almost anything with John Wayne in it, And maybe this year’s crop will include such a classic, one of those movies whose lines we can recite as readily as a child recites a nursery rhyme.
At least one of the New Year’s new releases – TCM’s second season of its building-the-transcontinental railroad epic already has a track record – ouch!—for down and dirty authenticity, for complex but believable storylines, for the sheer force of its self-belief. It may not be the wild west you expect, but it most certainly is the way it was and I am unashamedly a fan.
All that apart, another reason for optimism (or should that be hope?) is the fact that after their real-book forebears have become collector’s items, sales of the good old-fashioned westerns we all read once upon a yesterday are being snapped up, or rather loaded down, by the i-Pad and Facebook generation in numbers big enough to have encouraged Amazon to post a list of its 100 Bestselling Westerns.
Is it a trend or a fad? I am optimistic, but like you, I’ll have to wait and see whether younger readers will grow to love novels as different as Jack Schaefer’s Shane and Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (a perfect example of a fine book that became a lousy movie) not to mention zillions of westerns by such prolific practitioners as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, Elmore Leonard (yes, he wrote westerns [try Hombre] and damn good ones they were, too), or even Frederick H. Christian (a nom-de-plume I used back in the day)
Going back to this year’s new movies, I am particularly encouraged by the fact that a director like Quentin Tarantino has taken a shot at a western, albeit not a ‘traditional’ one, and further encouraged by the fact that my son Andre, who lives in Tennessee, tells me it’s ‘awesome’ – praise indeed from someone who, as you might imagine, grew up watching westerns good, bad and/or ugly. I’m prepared to bet that Johnny Depp’s Tonto won’t be anything like the Lone Ranger’s “Indian” sidekick in those Saturday morning matinee serials I watched half a century ago. Val Kilmer is on my wait and see list, but the one I’m really looking forward to is The Last Duane, a remake of a 1941 film called The Last of the Duanes, Starring George Montgomery as Buck Duane, it made enough of an imprint on me to make me “be” Buck Duane in all my cowboy gallops on the rather less than western back streets of Liverpool.
In closing, let me again exhort you to try Hell on Wheels. Interestingly cast, admirably authentic, it’s a bright star in the TV-western sky, and I, for one, aim to follow it.
Episodes 1 & 2 of Hell on Wheels can be seen on TCM 2 on Wednesday at 10pm.
The series continues on Sunday nights on TCM at 9pm.Tagged in: django, hell on wheels, tarantino, TCM, West, wetern films
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