There’s something about cowboys that makes them irresistible- whether it’s the extravagant facial hair, or the super-machoism, or all that tarnished leather, there is certainly an unspoken desire in most men to be a bona-fide Wild West, six-shooter slinging cow boy. I remember, even up to my late teens, whenever I was asked what I aspired to be when I grew up I always went for choice number two- modern society just wouldnt have understood my burning desire to round up cows, wear chaps and chew tobacco. They would snear when I quoted my life influences as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood (before he hung up his cowboy boots) and Gary Cooper, and I would be pushed to the curb, forced to live life as a castaway, in my adult-sized Woody costume from the Disney Store. But the cowboy life is not one to be sniffed at- I mean, how else do you get someone like this to look at you without stirrups and a stetson…?
Sadly, in reality my life is a relatively barren wasteland of normality, robbed of the warming feeling I’m sure I’d get from a soundtrack of horses’ whinneys and the pings of a spitoon orchestra. What a liberating relief, then that Hollywood and video game makers still count the Western genre as a bankable one, even in the light of huge technological advances that some might have thought would spell the end for retrospective pieces in favour of the pomp and circumstance of CGI-heavy futurist projects.
Recent films like The Assassination of Jesse James, and 3:10 to Juma might offer revisionist takes on the genre but they still channel the exact same spirit, while mad-cap offerings like The Good, The Bad & The Wierd and Sukiyaki Western Django make sure that the horribly named Noodle Western sub-genre does its own bit to keep that spirit alive. And they must be doing something right for films like Cowboys and Aliens, and Jonah Hex to be considered big enough prospects to warrant tent-pole release, and of course there’s the small matter of one half of Pixar’s world-seducing double act being a cowboy. I just hope these projects kick-start a passion within the film-making community for making Westerns, just like the vampire genre has found new blood to take over in the past few years.
Just for your consideration, my top five Westerns:
- True Grit
- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
- The Searchers
Over the weekend, my love of the Old West spilled over, and I was forced to organise an impromptu gathering of like-minded cowboys and girls to celebrate our love together. It was also a massive excuse to take advantage of Red Dead Redemption coming back into stock at my local Blockbusters, which I saw as a momentous occasion, and one worthy of group celebration. To further enhance the enjoyment of the night, and to help get everyone in the mood, I also took advantage of being a T-Mobile customer and their link-up with Blockbusters to get a film alongside the game for a fiver.
The offer’s a cracker, if you’re on the network and since its launch I’ve now texted “NIGHT IN” to 3000 almost every weekend, mostly to test-run games before buying them, and rediscovering films that I had either forgotten or those which I had weighed up adding to my already bulging DVD and Blu-Ray collection. For a fiver, I couldn’t really go wrong, especially since the offer includes three other items for the money from the Blockbusters’ snack bar.
So, anyway, back to my cowboy night…
The film? Unforgiven. Had to be. It’s one of the most affecting Westerns ever committed to film, and it is vintage Clint Eastwood at its very best. Dark and somber in thematics and visuals, Unforgiven strips away the years of gloss that Hollywood has applied to the genre, and is a deeply personal work for director and star Clint Eastwood. He uses the film as an utterly compelling study of violence and its destrcutive influence, of the rule of the strong over the weak, with strong themes of courage and cowardice throughout, and also to desconstruct his violent filmic image and is the first step to Eastwood’s long on-screen apology for that violence that currently shapes every film he makes.
That the film was shot a long time after the Western genre’s heyday, and that it is revisionist do not spell trouble for Unforgiven- it is an incredible cinematic journey, hinged on a compelling retelling of traditional Western motifs and fantastic performances by Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. It is also a million dusty miles away from the frivolous, sometimes camp feel of some earlier generic examples, with the impetous heavily leaning on the idea of difficult morality, remorseless violence and a dark tone that is almost difficult to take at times, but it is still hugely entertaining, and an enormously rewarding film experience.
So, we sat down, our merry band of five wannabe cowboys to watch Eastwood scowl and shoot his way through his best film to date- a bag of popcorn, another of Starburst and a bottle of Coke making up the five items for a fiver from the TMobile/Blockbuster offer, though not exactly making good substitutes for authentic Western snacks. Some two hours later, a more sombre mood had landed on our prairie, and the time was definitely ripe for the appearance of Red Dead Redemption, the Western game that has been astounding critics and gamers alike since its release earlier this month. What better way to counter a self-reflective commentary on the nature of violence than spending a frankly appalling amount of time riding through open-world wilderness and cowboy towns shooting the blazes out of every bandit and wrongun?! I can think of none better.
Of course, this being Blockbusters, the offer only lasted two days, and I sadly had to return the DVD and the game- but have subsequently gone out and bought not only Red Dead Redemption and Unforgiven (which I was disgusted with myself for not actually owning yet), but also a raft of other Western titles, including Shane, The Shootist, A Fistful of Dollars and An American Tale: Fievel Goes West. Now, to get my chaps out and knuckle down for some more cowboy action.
It’s all got me suitably excited at the prospect of seeing Jonah Hex as soon as it hits British shores: it might not be the revisionist masterpiece of Unforgiven, but it will surely be close to the unbridled joy of Red Dead Redemption thanks to its comic book heritage. If you have a spare few hours, you could do far worse than revisit Unforgiven, the experience is its own reward.
For more information on the TMobile Night In offer, which I took advantage of to get my cowboy on, visit the phone company’s official page. Remember, the offer’s only open to TMobile customers though.