I had previously spoken about The Revival of the Western, and how I was excited for the upcoming Western, Appaloosa, written, starring and directed by Ed Harris. Peter Travers reviews the film in this month’s issue of Rolling Stone. It’s not currently posted on their website, but Travers gave the film three and a half stars, and seemed to have a lot of praise for it. Gritty, extremely well-acted, hearkening back to the roots of the Western from directors like John Ford. If it’s any credit to the trailer, that’s precisely the way I felt when I watched it. For once, maybe they got it right? Though I have yet to see the film itself, I am now more excited than ever for it to come out.
As I said, there’s a real revival going on in the genre. Can Westerns these days actually go wrong? I don’t know. It’s difficult to judge, since I have yet to see one that was bad, and honestly, of the ones I mentioned in my previous post, they were well above-average. I personally don’t know exactly what to make of the swing of very good Westerns recently. The ability to discuss and dissect aspects of good versus evil, morality, human nature, and other such deep-rooted themes, is a natural aspect of most of the best Westerns. Even ones that break tradition from the classic law-dog type, such as Brokeback Mountain for example, are very easily able to discuss and define stark moral contrasts.
Of course, I think that part of what makes the idea of these dark, gritty Westerns so appealing is that in the environments in which they take place, there are to the people, very clear ideas of right from wrong, just from unjust. The fascination comes when those ideas of morality and justice go astray.
Take The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, for example. Jesse James is Robert Ford’s hero, and yet he struggles with the idea of killing him, and after the deed is done, the ideas of what was moral, and right and just become skewed. Jesse James was a bad man, but did Ford have the right to kill him?
In 3:10 to Yuma, a scene at the end of the film tests the the characters’ ideas of what is right, and just, and moral under the situation. Was it right to allow Ben Wade to live in the first place? Given the circumstances of the characters, such questions are inevitable to them, but more importantly, the audience as well.
Even in a more unorthodox Western, like Brokeback Mountain, these same ideas pervade. Take the idea of homosexuality as it was understood in 1960s Wyoming (and Texas). When their love affair starts, the moral implications of the circumstances become all the more clear, and it’s impossible to avoid questioning the two men, as they’re both married while having the affair, which also has difficult effects on their families.
I think that perhaps this is the root of the success of the recent Westerns, and in fact the entire genre itself. We as the audience indentify immediately withthe idea of good versus evil, and the moral complexity of actions taken by these characters. In a way, though the setting may be different than our every day lives, the weight of their decisions, and the consequences as a result, are things that we invariably relate to.