The Western was Hollywood's dominant action movie genre from the 1920s through the mid-1970s -- which was right around the time a space cowboy opera called "Star Wars" reoriented the industry toward science fiction.
Although they never regained the popularity they once enjoyed, there have been sporadic revivals of what were called "oaters" in subsequent decades, most notably in the early 1990s when Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" each won Best Picture Oscars.
That scenario could repeat this year when Christmas Day will see the L.A. release of two frontier sagas from major filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" and "The Revenant" by "Birdman" Academy Award-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
These prestige productions follow a flurry of recent indie oaters: the Euro-Western "The Salvation," the almost as European (but filmed in New Zealand) "Slow West" and the classic in a "Searchers" kind of way (until it takes a turn into cannibal territory) "Bone Tomahawk." Early 2016 will see the release of the Scott Eastwood-starring "Diablo" and, maybe, Natalie Portman's problem-plagued, femme-focused "Jane Got a Gun."
To say the least, the new Westerns all sound like pretty distinctive takes on the genre, ones that leave cliched old notions about white hats and black hats in the dust.
"Intriguing characters and an exciting setting," Stacey Sher, producer of "Hateful Eight" and Tarantino's 2012 blaxploitation/Western hybrid "Django Unchained," says are requisites for good horse operas nowadays. "Audiences will go anywhere when character and voice are really successful."
There's no mistaking Tarantino's distinctive voice. And Inarritu is a capital-A art filmmaker, so much so that no one associated with "The Revenant" wanted to comment for this article for fear their movie might be associated with anything as downmarket as a Western.
Despite the fact that it does involve horseback-riding native peoples and cavalry soldiers, but OK. "Revenant" is primarily a frontier survival-and-revenge story, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life 1820s fur-trader Hugh Glass, whose companions abandoned him in the wild after he was mauled by a bear. The story was the basis for the not very good 1971 film "Man in the Wilderness." With multi-Oscar-winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki having shot the very expensive and difficult "Revenant" production in all-natural light, this one will obviously be in a much different class.
Not to be outdone, Tarantino and D.P. Robert Richardson filmed "Hateful Eight" in a widescreen celluloid format, Ultra Panavision 70, which hasn't been used since the mid-1960s (and with lenses from the 1959 "Ben-Hur"). Sher promises that the post-Civil War, snowbound bounty hunter mystery will be more historically plausible than the fancy flights that were the director's last two features, "Django" and "Inglorious Basterds."
But, you know, still Tarantino-ish, with a voluble cast that includes such previous collaborators as Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Kurt Russell. The last of whom was also in "Bone Tomahawk" and promises an even more Western mass of facial hair for "Eight."
"It just happened that 'Bone Tomahawk' got off the ground just before 'Hateful Eight,'" reveals Russell, who made dozens of TV Westerns as a child and young adult actor and limned an iconic Wyatt Earp in the 1993 "Tombstone." "So there I was, doing them back-to-back when I hadn't done a Western for 20 years. They're real Westerns, though two very different types of Westerns, and they're both stylized.
"I literally finished shooting 'Bone Tomahawk' on a Saturday morning at around 10 o'clock," Russell recalls. "I had the rest of that day and Sunday off, then I went to rehearsals for 'Hateful Eight' on Monday morning. So it was straight into that, and I had six weeks of rehearsal and two weeks off, so I had about eight weeks to continue growing my mustache! I didn't want to have the same look in both movies, the characters were quite different. But I wanted ["Eight" character] John Ruth's mustache to be epic. Really, it says who he is. It's big!"
On a less muttonchoppy scale, "Diablo" endeavors to add something new to that old "Searchers" paradigm. Scott Eastwood (yes, The Man With No Name's son) plays a veteran of Sherman's March whose wife is kidnapped from their Colorado Territory home. Setting out to find her, he suffers from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder from his Civil War experience.
"Diablo" director and co-writer Lawrence Roeck, whose movie won the top narrative award at the San Diego International Film Festival last month and hits L.A. theaters on Jan. 8, explains the creative dance it takes to make a classic Western story relevant.
"The most important thing to do when making a film like 'Diablo' -- one that wants to stay true to the conventions but also tries to have a fresh approach -- is to honor the previous films, but also to find your own way through the storyline," Roeck says.
"In order to honor guys like Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, you want to not copy them, but try to find the bloodline of what they did and see if you can bring forth a new, fresh iteration of that," Roeck continues. "If you just go out and copy them, you're adding nothing to the filmscape. But if I can find a way to redefine it, give people a real reason to care about the film and also to think about why there care about Westerns, for me that's exciting territory."
Or, as Sher might put it, make the thing your own. She proposes that, of the thousands of Westerns that the studios used to pump out, the ones that still stick with us were made by the Inarritus and Tarantinos of their time.
"The greatest of the Western genre also became auteur movies," Sher observes. "Modern Westerns: 'True Grit' is a Coen Brothers movie, so it has their voice and that's the twist on the subject matter; 'Django' and 'Hateful Eight' have Quentin's personality and his passion for the genre. And if you think back, a Howard Hawks Western is different from a John Ford Western. So the classic Westerns that we all love are also what are coming up in the modern time, which is the auteur Western."
Beyond that, there's just something special about the genre that it shares, unsurprisingly, with the one that replaced it.
"There are two genres, I find, that you can ask big questions in, that other genres don't allow you to do," Russell reckons. "Westerns and science fiction allow you to do that, to look at things in a big but almost simplistic fashion that, yet, allows you to tell a complex tale. I love that about Westerns." ___
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