Everyone loves a western surely? From John Wayne being an all American hero in John Ford's early classics... to Jimmy Stewart as the 'Naked Spur'... Late sixties revisionist years with Leone's Dollars Trilogy, 'Once Upon A Time in the West' and Peckinpah's 'Wild Bunch'... and rebirth with Eastwood's 'Unforgiven'. So many timeless classics to wile away an afternoon or evening on the delights of DVD players. Around similar era's are some 'lost' western classics that for one reason or another aren't held in the same universal regard or even heard off. Theyre usually met with western anoraks like myself with critical acclaim as some of the best ever made in the genre. So, below is what I believe to be the Top 5 'Lost' Western Classics.
5. Heaven's Gate
(1980 Michael Cimino) Gasp! Shock! Horror! Not Heavens Gate! Not the film that broke a studio and seemingly ruined the new 70's directors financial independence giving the studios back control?! Oh no!!! People often question if Michael Cimino sold his soul to the devil to make 'The Deer Hunter' and then the devil came collecting for his take on the Johnson County War such is the critical lambasting this epic western originally took on its release. Butchered from 4hours to an incoherent 2 and a half hours, it played and looked like a mess. It earned less than 3million domestically from an estimated budget of 44million. Its often stated that Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing approximately $200,000 per day that must have been allot fun for the offline editors! Yes the film in its original 4hour entirety is over-long, and yes it does loose a cohesive narrative at times where characters appear then disappear for long periods with regularity, and yes it is difficult without subtitle to understand what Kristofferson the king of the mumblers is saying... But my god it's a beautiful shot film - every frame and detail of mise-en-scene should be applauded. As the County War escalates the action sequences are both enthralling and brutal. Kristofferson as Marshall James Averill is great as a man seemingly stuck in time, waiting, knowing the west changing and he can't stop the butchering which is about to happen. He is a true lost soul in this performance, never more so than the haunting and often debated final shot. Stealing the show is Christopher Walken as Nathan D Champion, a friend of the Marshall and enforcer for the landowners, a brutal hired killer. Walken always nails these roles but there's a quiet knowing in his performance - a man whom has accepted death will come soon in a hail of bullets. Friendship and love the treasured memories he wants to take with him to the grave. In the middle of the two men's 'bromance' is Ella, the bordello madam, a 'hit and miss' performance by Isabelle Huppert. Among the support cast are a bearded Jeff Bridges, a snivelling Sam Waterson and a drunken John Hurt (method acting perhaps!). When the script gets its act together there's some great moments with dialogue and silent looks between the three main leads. The story of 125 named settlers to be killed by the Association as they want the land is classic western material the money men behind their suits and desks are more brutal than the actual six-shooter gunslingers as the west develops it becomes a business, money pays and survives.... Not much has changed then really has it in modern times! It's a brave film too as if youre going to fail go for the epic spectacular. Even recently it still divides opinion with Empire voting it the 6th worst film of all time in 2010 but Time Out the 12th greatest western. I say put the critics in a saloon bar and let them shoot it out! Heaven's Gate is my 5th 'lost' western classic. If you get a chance catch it at the BFI but just make sure you exercise your legs during the interval otherwise you will get cramp...
4. Open Range
(2003 Kevin Costner) I'll hold my hand up and admit I was dubious about ever watching 'Open Range' my first thoughts included - 'Costner directing a western? This is the man whom cost the more deserving Goodfellas Oscars with the interesting but overblown Dances with himself, a dog and an Indian' followed by... 'Costner's still making films? Even starring in films?'. But then I saw Robert Duvall's name and anything with Duvall is worth at least reading about before watching. So I checked out reviews and was surprised to see not only mainly positive reviews but also excellent acknowledgment of the two leads performances and Costner's direction. So it was time to stop being a sarcastic idiot and give good old Kev another chance..... ...To say I wasnt disappointed would be an understatement. 'Open Range' is a beautifully shot, directed and acted contemporary western. The story follows loosely the range wars in the late 19th century; men whom lived on the 'open range' and all the freedom the land offered for food and drink - against land barons whom fenced in their land to stop cattlemen moving their herds and thus eliminate their business competition and land freedom. Duvall plays amiable 'Boss' Spearman small group leader of some free range cattlemen. Costner is his hired hand/confident Charley Waite an civil war soldier haunted by his killing days. When entering the local town of Harmonville they encounter ruthless land baron Denton Baxter (played true panto villain style by Michael Gambon) whom runs the town through fear and curroption. Obviously these men are going to conflict against one another and the townsfolk must make a choice to either - stand with the open range men and get out under the foot of Baxter's ruthless domain - or quiver and do whatever he tells them. Romantic interest is Susan the assistant physician, played by Annette Bening whom falls for Costner's Charley (and let's face it we'd all fall for Bening, just ask serial womaniser Warren Beatty, if she can tame him she can tame any man!). It's the two leads Duvall and Costner whom are the true stars of this western. Costner has never been better he plays Charley as a man wanting to come to terms with his personal demons, seeking redemption and ultimately a second chance in life. Duvall plays Spearman beautifully full of subtle gestures, weariness and wise dialogue, realizing his way of work is disappearing and it maybe time to finally put down some roots in a welcoming town. Each scene they are in together is pure understatement and rather than trying to out act each other they're both are very giving in their performances. Costner's direction has some beautiful landscape shots, and the obvious showdown that the script demands is handled with suspense and care. Indeed this is Costner's most mature piece of work. My one criticism of the script ***SPOILER ALERT*** is that I feel in the last reel one of the two leads had to die to really have the baton of the changing of times to fully hit home... But I'm a nihilistic person so don't take my word for it. For modern revitalising of the modern western genre Open Range is my number 4, dont be put off by thoughts of Waterworld!
3. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
(1970 Sam Peckinpah) Often labelled a 'Death of the West' film (the taming of the wild west as it becomes modernized to the protagonists initial confusion and final acceptance usually resulting in death) Peckinpah's little ballad was shot between the more celebrated bloodshed of the 'Wild Bunch' and the extreme psychological and graphic violence of 'Straw Dogs' (I await hundreds of feminists hunting me with pitchforks because I dare to applaud Straw Dogs!). Cable Hogue played by the superb Jason Robards (was this man born with a grey large beard?!) is a failed prospector left for dead in the desert by Taggart and Bowen (played by Peckinpah regulars LQ Jones and Strother Martin). After bargaining with God he comes across water, not just a little but an entire spring lifetime supply between two towns. He immediately strikes claim to this legally by buying the acres of land and starts to build his own water stop-over business. Helped by 'cant keep his pants on' Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (A god fearing David Warner) where they philosophize about life and love together and distracted by town prostitute Hildy (a very busty Stella Stevens). When the town outside the spring becomes more modernized an our of place Hildy comes to live with the like minded Hogue and they begin a gentle romance. But all the time Hogue is praying for vengeance against his two ex-partners whom left him for dead in the desert. Will Hogue get his revenge? Will he walk into the sunset with Hildy? Or will the modernizing of the west with the advent of motorcar as Hogue says well that's gonna be the next fella's worry be the death of Hogue's way of life? I wont spoil it as it needs to be watched!
Peckinpah's direction has never been so calm, so quiet, proving he didnt always need to revert to explicit violence or slow-motion deaths to put his story across. He lets Robards act the story for us in desperation, jubilation, sorrow and acceptance all in equal measure and with no small amount of humour thrown in. The west is changing and both Hogue and Peckinpah pull together a beautiful shot lyrical film about one man's story to make something of himself in his final years. Not just a lost western classic but a lost Peckinpah classic and apparently one of his personal favourite films. I can see why.
2. The Hired Hand
(1971 Peter Fonda) Seeking peace and contenment at number 2 is Peter Fonda directing and starring in The Hired Hand. This little known masterpiece really had disappeared completely from public knowledge and viewing until 2001 when Fonda could finally fully restore and exhibit the film in his desired appearance at a number of festivals where a massively enthusiastic critical response led to an immediate DVD release. I hadnt heard of it myself until reading an article on its re-release and its mention brief mention in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Harry Collings (Fonda) and Arch Harris (king of character actors Warren Oates) are two 'saddle tramps' whom are looking to find somewhere to settle after years of wandering through the southwest. Collings has decided to return to his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) after years on the range. En route arriving in the ramshackle town of Del Norte a pointless gunfight ensues and the young friend of the two is killed for no reason. Living by a code of ethics are two heroes return and cripple the evil town assailants. On returning home Hannah only allows Collings to stay if he becomes a 'hired hand' for her, not a husband. But soon their passion begins to reignite and they make plans for the future. Before they can start again the cold hearted town killers kidnap Harris and Collings 'code' means he must leave his wife once more to face the killers and save his friend. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning, from beautiful green forests to sparkling sun across small rivers. You feel transported directly into a west that seems almost trippy in places hallucinogenic in its mise-en-scene. All the while Bruce Langhorne's music fits the journey of both men and Hannah perfectly. Even the brutal shoot-out with the gang is shot and played out probably more realistic than westerns before and after people miss, they take time to reload, they get wounded stopping their effectiveness. The ending will leave even the most hardened person feeling a tad emotional. Fonda's performance and direction lets the pictures, the gestures, what is not said but what is seen in the frame tell the story. First dismissed as a 'hippy western' its slow pace, pondering of second chances and mysticism of the circle of life was laughed at originally by critics but is now seen as a lost masterpiece with multiple meanings. After repeated viewings the film looks more beautiful, more elegiac every time. Watch spread out on the sofa after a hard days work with a herbal tea if you catch my drift...
1. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
(1973 Sam Peckinpah) Never has a film been seen more as a ballad, a poem to the old passing west, more so than Sam Peckinpahs 1973 classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The story of two once best friends now on opposing sides of the law has been used many times in films but this perfects it with a beautiful visual backdrop of a changing west and the end of the outlaw era into business and money. It is in essence a goodbye, an ode to a once reckless but free way of life. The film has a complicated history stories were abound on set of Peckinpah having had a heart attack and was near death these stories were soon dispelled with a joking published photo of Peckinpah surrounded by the cast and crew with a drip hanging off him and of course a bottle of whiskey. Then came the studio interference in the edit suite - so often a problem Peckinpah faced - coupled with time constraints and not liking or understanding his version of the film. The studio decided to force the great director out of the edit suite and do their own cut. Releasing a version that made little narrative sense to the film we all know now resulting in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being released in a truncated version largely disowned by cast and crew members. This version was a box-office failure and was panned by most major critics. But Peckinpah himself was in possession of his own director's cut, which he often showed to friends as his own definitive vision of the film. In 1988 the film was shown in Peckinpahs uncut version when Turner Home Entertainment and MGM released it on video to the applauds of both audience and critics alike making it the definitive release. Proof of the rumoured lost masterpiece now seen as a modern classic by critics. The basis of the film is the historical telling of Pat Garrett (James Coburn) tracking down and killing his once best friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) for the Santa Fe ring (the landowners and city governors) who had grown tired of both The Kids trouble making and killing but also of his notoriety and fame amongst the public that is stopping their progress. These representatives of Power and Big Business who have sent Pat Garrett on his mission are the real villains of the piece: corrupt, vicious and tainted by greed. The film starts with Garrett himself being shot many years later by these very men who hired him before the opening credits, and then takes us back to 1881 and Garrett informing his best friend that he is now sheriff - giving him two days to leave the territory or hell bring him in. This is the essence of the story - both Billy and Garrett realize the west is changing, but Billy refuses to change with it and awaits his capture and death at the hands of his best friend. Whilst Garrett tries to change with the times believing the lawmans badge and money will let him do so. But the journey he takes tracking down Billys gang and finally The Kid himself makes Garrett see that he too cannot change, he too is part of the dying west only fitting in with his fellow outlaws who he has now betrayed for blood money in essence. The Kid is the man that Garrett could never, ever be. The Kid will die still young and beautiful, his legend enshrined forever. Garrett, on the other hand, will grow old and miserable, eventually being brutally murdered by the same men who hired him to kill the Kid. Power destroys lives and friendships. Indeed it is on killing Billy that Garrett then shoots his own reflection in the mirror - by killing Billy he has in essence killed himself and the true man he once was. Rumour has it the idea for this shot came from Coburn and Peckinpah drunk shooting up an empty bar one day and looking at their distorted reflections in the mirror... only in the world of Peckinpah can such stories be true! The acting is superb from both leads; Coburn as always never gives a bad performance and is the epitome of a torn soul - haunted, embittered and full of self-loathing - a masterpiece of understated acting. Whilst Kristofferson has never been better cutting a wonderfully romantic figure as The Kid - a wild, untameable spirit of the True West. Playing the wild eyed immaturity of The Kid with a personal knowing that his time is up and wanting to live his last days true to the notorious outlaw he has become famed for - combing warmth, innocence and fearlessness. The only drawback is that it's obvious Kristofferson wasnt a 21year old kid at the time of filming but was actually 35. Though within the first few frames of his opening conversation with Coburn this is easily forgotten as he becomes The Kid.
The supporting cast has Peckinpah regulars such as LQ Jones, Slim Pickens and Richard Bright... But also none other than Bob Dylan with a character written especially for him called Alias. He doesnt say much but his character acts as the audience for the film - watching events unfold with us, the man who saw it all happen, the man who is going to take it away and write it all down so that future generations will never forget. The casting of the great singer couldve misfired massively but it works on many levels, not least with his use of music throughout. The soundtrack written specifically for the film works in coherence with the narrative like the perfect twin. The sound of Dylan's poetic guitar work become a major character in itself commenting on the action like a Greek chorus. Typified when Garrett finally tracks Billy down in the dark of the night and walks through the Mexican village - the music a haunting tranquillity to the assassination which itself has haunted Garrett and he can longer put off. Peckinpahs direction is immaculate, it has the typical Peckinpah moments so loved in previous films like the 'Wild Bunch' slow motion killings, bullets and blood. The pace at times feels so tranquil it plays like a ballad slowing telling us a beautiful ode to the passing of these violent times. Its Peckinpahs amazing visualisation of the west and the friendship of Garrett and Billy allowing the actors to pause sombrely within takes as time catches up with them, that is the films strongest point. Peckinpah encompasses a long slow drawn out breath to the end of the west throughout the film creating many memorable vignettes around the central story and paints a dispiriting portrait of the West in the late 19th century: inhospitable, almost third world, and filled with lowlifes who are either waiting to die or get killed. Sam Peckinpah like his films has always divided opinions; some say he was a genius who told visually striking stories making the violent at times look poetic, making all of us look inside our souls and see the outlaw and violence within Others say he was a male chauvinistic who filmed violent self absorbed films that became less and less important the more he engrossed himself in the drinking that would eventually kill him. Personally speaking thats what I love about Peckinpahs films - never a dull moment when one is debated amongst friends or colleagues, and none more so than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.