Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Will Johnson ""

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Will Johnson

Will Johnson is a writer and actor in Dallas, TX. He can be followed on twitter @BingoLollipop. If you must, you can also visit his semi abandoned blog at . Will is also part of the Cinema Shame project, where penitent film writers watch glaring omissions in their film knowledge for the first time . 

Westerns are one of my favorite genres. Growing up in Texas, my father and grandfathers were huge fans of what I affectionately called "cowboy shows". Below are some of my favorite westerns that I never hear too much about. 

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is probably my favorite western. There’s just something about Redford and Newman in that movie that makes being an outlaw look like a lot of fun. In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Newman brings that same kind of charm to a different sort of character.

When the outlaw Roy Bean comes into Vinegaroon, Texas he is quickly set upon by the resident ne’er-do-wells and robbed of his ill gotten gains. Once he regains his strength, he returns to town and kills everyone who did him wrong and declares himself the Judge of the area. After recruiting a band of outlaws as Marshalls, Bean continues to dispense his hanging justice and build up the little town west of the Pecos.

The film features a great supporting cast including Ned Beatty, RoddyMcDowall, Anthony Perkins, a gorgeous Victoria Principal, and StacyKeach as the albino killer, Bad Bob. Long stretches of the film feel like a collection of vignettes, but it never grows tiresome or feels like it’s spinning its wheels. Of course, a lot of what happens isn’t entirely historically accurate, but as the tagline reminds us, "it should be".

John Huston directs this tall tale of a western, and even appears in a brief scene as Grizzly Adams. All in all, it’s a very fun time and should definitely be better known.

Zachariah (1971)
Billed as the first “electric western”, Zachariah takes Herman Hesse’ snovel Siddhartha and turns it into a psychedelic western fable with lots of philosophical pondering. It is kind of a mess in places, trying to blend the rampant  gunplay of the genre with the pacifist leanings of the underlying philosophy behind the source material. 

That doesn't mean the movie isn't a fun one, however. From Joe Walsh playing electric in a saloon to a young Don Johnson as the angst ridden antagonist, there's a lot to love about this wonderful experiment from an experimental time. I'm particularly fond of Country Joe and the Fish as a group of bank robbers.

The Villain (1979)
I’ll be very upfront about this – The Villain is not a great movie. In fact, it’s not even a particularly good movie. What it is, however, is a showcase of the stunts director Hal Needham learned during his tenure as the hardest working stuntman on western TV. Every scene feels like a setup for the next Looney Tunes style stunt with hit or miss jokes thrown in for good measure.

The Villain is definitely a novelty western, made more so by the fact that it is one of the earliest film roles of a certain Austrian bodybuilder who went on to become more than a little famous. Schwarzenegger plays Handsome Stranger (actual name), a gee whiz good guy who has to protect Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) from the titular villain, Avery Jones (Looney Tunes references abound).

Avery, played by the legendary Kirk Douglas, is the Coyote to the heroes’ roadrunner. He keeps coming up with ridiculous plans, and they always backfire on him – usually with a pretty well done old style stunt involved in the proceedings. You get the feeling that this film wanted to be another Blazing Saddles, but its humor never hits those highs. It is a fascinating watch, though, especially for stunt enthusiasts and fans of the three leads.

The Big Trail (1930)
This is the film that almost made widescreen a thing decades before it finally caught on. For years, I saw copies of this taken from the fullscreen version, and it was a quaint early John Wayne film. The Fox Grandeur widesreen print, which was shot separately and concurrently with the fullscreen version, was made available a while back, and I now regard this film as a fascinating glimpse into an alternate universe of film - a universe where John Wayne became a huge star years earlier, and widescreen epics with casts of thousands were a thing in the very early 30's. Of course, in that universe, the Great Depression never happened. That's what killed Grandeur, a lack of funds to upgrade enough theaters for it to catch on.

The Grandeur cut of The Big Trail is a fascinating watch. John Wayne is sooo young, and the proceedings are sooo big. In the background of almost any scene, there are thousands of extras acting out pioneer living. The scope of it all is just overwhelming for a film from 1930.

Seraphim Falls (2006)
This is a fairly recent film, but it came and went without many giving it a look- which is  a shame. In it, Pierce Brosnan plays the pursued and Liam Neeson plays the vengeful pursuer. The exact reason why these two are chasing each other across the vastness of a beautifully shot West is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, which leaves you to wonder who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. That moral greyness lends itself to an almost biblical western, starting in the white snowy heaven of the mountains and ending in the hell of the desert. 

Dirty Little Billy (1972)
The story of Billy the Kid has been told a million times on screen. Usually, though, they cover the same territory- Regulators, Lincoln County War, Pat Garrett, running from the law, and death (or lack thereof). Dirty Little Billy is different, though. It starts with a young William Bonny coming to New Mexico with his parents and follows him as he rebels and starts hanging out with local hooligans. It’s kind of a “Billy Begins” film.

Michael Pollard gets a rare lead role in this, and his Billy the Kid is different from most takes on the historical character. His Billy is a little more reserved and awkward. The events in the film get him to the point we usually meet him, but it doesn’t go too far into the familiar territory of Young Guns and the like.  Instead, this film is more of a slow character piece, showing us how the man who could "make you famous" started down that road towards Lincoln County.

Skin Game (1971)
Along with the Spaghetti Westerns of Lore, Quentin Tarantino named this film as an inspiration for DjangoUnchained. It’s not hard to see the connection when you watch Skin Game, as it tackles a lot of the same themes that Tarantino’s recent blockbuster touched on.

Skin Game tells the story of two con men who make their way around the slave driven south, duping would be slave owners out of their hard earned money. The game goes like this: James Garner comes into town with Lou Gossett in tow. They make their way to a saloon where Garner announces that he has to reluctantly sell his longtime slave. Gossett begs not to be sold, and the bids start mounting up until Gossett is sold. Garner leaves with the money, then returns to free his friend from his newfound bondage.

This goes well for a while, until they come up against a super evil EdAsner and they have to play the game for one last time with Gossett’s freedom on the line.

Despite the heavy themes, Skin Game manages to keep things fairly light, and a lot of humor is found in the interactions between Gossett and Garner. The real treat in this film, though, is watching Ed Asner go full on Simon Legree. I would be hard pressed to find another film whereAsner is anywhere near this unlikeable. 

1 comment:

SteveQ said...

"The Villain" makes a nice double bill with "Evil Roy Slade." If you like one, you'll like the other.