You know what I like? Westerns. I like the isolation of a few men against a great, unfriendly wilderness. I like the savagery that it brings out as the worst of civilization and the wild frontier clash. I like an unflinching look at America’s violent past. I like the making and subversion of our national myths. I like warbling Spaghetti soundtracks strumming away while taciturn killers face off in the sun. I love all that stuff — and I try my best to make it appear in my writing, especially in my El Mosaico series. I like Weird Westerns too, which add the supernatural to spice up a story or reveal some great truth about history.
You know what I don’t like? Big Budget modern Westerns that are made in the past decade or so. There have been a handful of them and they’re, on the average, very bad. I usually end up watching them anyway, sitting in the theatre, equivocating to myself and my friends about their quality and then, a few days later, realizing how bad they are. What’s worse is that most of the modern Westerns are Weird Westerns or Steampunk stories. They throw in the supernatural or science fiction elements with little regard to how they can thematically effect the Western — and they end up being awful. Then, later, when I tell people what I write, I have to say, “um, it’s a bit like that one Weird Western movie — but you know, hopefully, good.” It’s guilt by association, I guess.
Anyway, the time has come to fight back. I’m calling you out, bad modern Westerns! Here’s a list of the latest endeavors in the bad modern Western genre. Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Western writers.
Wild Wild West — 1999
This is probably the Ur-Bad Modern Western. It’s a big Will Smith blockbuster that tries to throw his whacky sense of comedic pratfalls into a bizarre plot about a defeated Southern inventor trying to defeat President Ulysses Grant with, among other things, a giant mechanical spider. Wild Wild West has a lot of hallmarks of the Bad Modern Western genre. It’s based on an existing property (a 60s TV show), it tries to inject a lot of comedy and it attempts to make the Western more palatable to modern viewers by overloading it with action. The end result is unfortunate. I’m not gonna lie — I saw Wild Wild West on TV when I was around thirteen and loved it, but time has not been kind. Wild Wild West is the vulture on the horizon, circling and foretelling doom for all who follow it. However, it does at least have a delightfully catchy rap song.
Jonah Hex — 2010
As a big fan of the Jonah Hex comic , I was pretty excited when the Jonah Hex movie came out. I really like the Justin Gray/Jimmy Palmiotti run for its brutal, done-in-one stories and the surly nature of its scar-faced anti-hero. I liked the dirty, cleverly written Joe R. Landsdale/Timothy Truman story as well (or at least, the one trade paperback of that run I’ve been able to track down). So I kept a good eye on the movie’s development. Josh Brolin? John Malkovich? Fassbender? Michael Shannon? Those guys are great! When the supernatural elements appeared in the trailers, I told myself that it was a change for the better. Then I went and saw the movie (in a largely empty theatre) and I still told myself that, while not a perfect film, it was still a fun popcorn experience. Thinking back, I see how wrong I was. Jonah Hex has too many problems to list, but I’ll try my best: The supernatural elements are shoe-horned in and add nothing to the plot. The movie’s racial politics are problematic, with some Black guy ‘forgiving’ Hex for slavery. Megan Fox reveals herself to be Tallulah Black, a character who is unknown by everyone except Jonah Hex fans (such as me) and is nothing like Fox’s character. There’s an inexplicable mental battle between Hex and the villain as Hex and the villain actually have a physical final battle. The movie ham-handedly seeks relevance by referring to the villains as terrorists. It’s about another plot to attack President Grant — this time with a giant cannon. Okay, I’ll stop now, but you get the idea. Jonah Hex is a bad movie based on a good comic. But at least the Mastodon heavy metal soundtrack is good.
Cowboys and Aliens–2011
I saw this one in theatres too. I even wrote a review for a local paper! I said it was enjoyable and sort of fun — but ultimately forgettable. However, I now find that it gets less and less enjoyable the more I think about it. The obscure comic that it’s based on actually does something worthwhile with the aliens — setting up a parallel between aliens invading the earth and the United States invading the lands of Native Americans. Pretty simple, I suppose, but still effective. The movie, on the other hand, does nothing. The aliens are generic. The Western heroes are generic. It’s got some good performances but a lot of weird choices — aliens going after gold? aliens having a handy button in their chests that you can stab to instantly kill them? Olivia Wilde’s character?– that hamper it. It’s not as bad as Jonah Hex, but it’s not very good either.
The Lone Ranger–2013
I haven’t actually seen this one. I probably won’t, at least not in theatres, but the reviews are savaging it for mistakes in tone, unlikeable main characters, an overly-convoluted plot and jut overall badness. I actually thought it looked kind of cool in the previews, but then I realized that was just my Pavlovian response to sandy deserts, jagged rock formations, six-guns and cowboy hats. I have been fooled enough, I think, and I’ll probably be missing this one.
Meek’s Cutoff — 2010
But I don’t want to end on a sour note and I don’t like imagining that my favorite genre is destined for boot hill, so I’ll close with one of the best Westerns in recent years. Meek’s Cutoff follows a bunch of pioneers traveling across a hostile, open and endless environment, under the care of a guide who might be leading them astray. The long, lingering shots of the pitiless open plains are austere in their beauty and perfectly get across the feelings of isolation and desperation. Furthermore, Meek’s Cutoff actually does something — gasp! — unique with the Western formula. It puts the point of view with the pioneer women, not the rather useless men. That’s what Westerns need to do.
By the way, Meek’s Cutoff isn’t alone. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Rango, Django Unchained, The Proposition, Dead Man, Appaloosa, The Deadwood TV show — all of these and more prove that modern Westerns can still be done and done well. There are plenty of good literary and comic book Westerns as well. And all of them do something different and clever with the genre instead of just amping it up.
We’ve seen John Wayne being tough a whole bunch of times. What we need is stories from other perspectives, incorporating unique points of view and revealing deeper truths about our national psyche. I guess it does seem a little odd or unfair to put the quiet, haunting Meek’s Cutoff against bombastic blockbusters, but maybe that’s the point. All the steampunk/supernatural geek-friendly buzzwords aren’t going to tell a story. Sympathetic characters, important messages, and good storytelling will always win out. That’s what needed to saddle up and ride into the sunset.