The Weirder, Weirder West

Johnny Depp in white face paint with a bird on his head is enough to scream “eclectic!” His presence is sure to make at least part of the latest incarnation of The Lone Ranger a sagebrush saga that’s, well, a bit off the hoof-beaten path.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Depp tried to put a new face on the genre. Consider his turn in Jim Jarmusch’s 1996 effort Dead Man, playing William Blake (who may or may not be the reincarnation of the dead poet), roaming around the west with a Native-American sidekick named Nobody (Gary Farmer). During his surreal adventures, Blake encounters lawmen named Lee and Marvin, incompetent hired killers, and loads of mystical symbolism. It’s all set to an ethereal Neil Young score, and featuring cameos by Robert Mitchum, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, John Hurt and Alfred Molina.          

There have been other outré oaters, before and since Dead Man.

For starters, there is the notorious Terror of Tiny Town, a 1938 offering with an all-little person cast riding Shetland ponies. Despite its reputation as a cult favorite, I consider the film unwatchable, but our dear Dr. Strangefilm has other thoughts you can check out at: From the Files of Dr. Strangefilm #001: The Terror of Tiny Town

johnny-guitar-posterOf course, Dead Man doesn’t corner the market on symbolism. Nicholas Ray’s Freudian, Joan Crawford-anchored western Johnny Guitar (1954) is a real hoot—enanny and then some—teeming with phallic symbols, overtly butch women and sissy men, perverse dialogue and, of course, metaphors galore for the McCarthy witchhunts not-so snuggly placed throughout the proceedings.

That same year another western saga with a completely different take flew under the radar: Track of the Cat, directed by William Wellman, in which family dysfunction and sibling rivalry between brothers Robert Mitchum, William Hopper and Tab Hunter in a snow-encrusted Northern California farmhouse share the screen with the tale of a large cat–the “killer panther”– that is slaughtering their livestock.  Will the bleached-out colors of Wellman’s palette tell whether it is real, or a Native American legend?

The sixties and early seventies certainly had no shortage of western weirdness. The genre may not have changed all that much, but the approaches to it certainly did, as filmmakers and studios tried to hook a younger generation that turned their backs on John Wayne and other “old guard” western heroes.

Andy Warhol and his Factory crew—Viva, Taylor Mead, Joe Dallesandro, etc.—put their own zonked-out spin on the western with 1968’s Lonesome Cowboys. Presenting the drug-fueled adventures of a group of gay cowpokes and a prostitute, the film is a true product of its time. It was shot by Warhol protégé Paul Morrissey and edited by Warhol as he was recovering from being shot by Valerie Solinas. For better or worse, the film never received an official video or DVD release.

Although it is not currently available, 1971’s Zachariah—billed as “the first electric western”—had its day on DVD. A truly way-out concoction co-written by members of the comedy troupe the Firesign Theater and directed by George Englund  (Cloris Leachman’s hubby at the time), the movie centers on the title character (John Rubinstein) who buys a mail-order gun and, along with pal Don Johnson, sets out to become a gunslinger. During his travels, he encounters a group of outlaws (played by Country Joe and the Fish) and a sharpshooting drummer, played by real-life jazz skins phenom Elvin Jones. Also in the cast of this “acid western” inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha was Pat Quinn as Belle Starr, The James Gang, featuring Joe Walsh, fiddler Doug Kershaw and the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble.    

“Acid western” would also be an appropriate tag for Greaser’s Palace, a 1972 religious parable with Allan Arbus as Jesse, a zoot-suited Christ figure who stops by a desert town while on his way to Jerusalem, where he hopes to become a performing star. Jesse discovers that the town is run by Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson) and his gang, and when Jesse finds out that Greaser had his gay son (Michael Sulklivan) killed, he tries to resurrect him. The satire was helmed by Robert Downey, Sr. of Putney Swope fame.

Perhaps the most notorious “acid western” is Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, a 1972 surrealistic Mexicali spaghetti western dripping with hallucinogenic images, ultra-violence, and religious allegory. The film offended many, thrilled the likes of John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, David Lynch and Bob Dylan, and became a mainstay on the midnight movie circuit.  

Taking a cue from the mind-expanding movies of yesteryear is 2004’s Renegade, based on a comic series co-created by Jean “Moebius” Girard, the artist responsible for design concepts in Alien, Tron and others.  Originally called Blueberry, this topsy- turvy horse opera boasts Vincent Cassel, a marshal raised by Indians, who faces off against ornery prospectors and a killer out to steal mystical powers from a Native-American tribe.

While the film has its violent altercations and an extremely offbeat cast (Ernest Borgnine, Michael Madsen, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Izzard and Geoffrey and Juliette Lewis—singing, no less), its Renegade’s trippy, New Age-y vibe, and expensive CGI trip sequences that truly make this a one-of-a-kinder that harkens back to the sixties.   

Several western films of the ’60s and ’70s used elements of their films as metaphors for the war in Vietnam.  Among the most memorable is Soldier Blue (1970), ostensibly about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory, but filled with savage imagery and horrifying violence that reminded viewers of the then-recent My Lai Massacre when it was released in theaters.

Marlon Brando in a dress?! The idea is enough to elicit chuckles. Place him in a western opposite Jack Nicholson, directed by Arthur Penn of Little Big Man and Bonnie & Clyde fame, and, well, then, you really have something, don’t you?

That’s what the movie studio thought when they issued The Missouri Breaks, written by award-winning novelist Thomas McGuane. The pairing of the superstars—Nicholson as the leader of a pack of livestock thieves, Brando as an eccentric regulator hired by a wealthy ranch owner to track him down—was the big draw, but Brando’s outlandish antics (dressing like  a granny in makeup, talking to his horse, affecting an Irish brogue) put a bizarre spin on the project. When it opened, The Missouri Breaks tanked at the box-office and sent moviegoers to the exits scratching their heads, thanks in part to Brando’s out-there acting. Today, it’s a genuinely fascinating curio to be appreciated for all of its enjoyable eccentricities.

duck_you_suckerSpaghetti westerns were the source of many unexpected takes on traditional westerns. Sergio Leone, the pasta poobah, who gave us Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” and a gangster named “Noodles” in “Once Upon a Time in America,” went el-flop-o with Duck, You Sucker! (A Fistful of Dynamite) when it was issued in theaters in 1971. Neither audiences nor the studio knew what to make of this peculiar blend of historical epic, western action, goofy comedy and political message movie, so the studio cut out footage, retitled it and hoped for the best.  The best never happened.

Years later, however, Leone fanaticos got the gist of what the film was about and, when the edited footage was put back in, the film—originally titled Once Upon a Time…in Mexico, with Peter Bogdanovich directing and Leone producing—garnered a solid cult following.

The plot has Irish Republican Army explosives expert James Coburn, on the run from the British, joining forces with bandit Rod Steiger in 1913 Mexico. The two decide to rob a bank, but after the pair discover the bank is being used as an army prison—and release a score of prisoners—they’re hurled headfirst into a conflict they initially had little interest in.

Duck, You Sucker! shifts quickly from light moments, to thrilling battle set pieces, to classic sagebrush motifs, with the bickering characters played by the twinkly eyed  Coburn and sweaty, salt-of-the-Earth Steiger leading the charge. Helping the film transition so well is Ennio Morricone’s magnificent multi-faceted score, which moves from stirring to eerie to breezy at the drop of a hat.  

Anyone who says they don’t make movies as good—or at least as strange—as they used to, should check out 2010’s The Warrior’s Way, a movie that mixes the wild west, martial arts and Indiana Jones-style adventure into a visual stew that mixes death-defying wire sequences and inspired action choreography in front of a blue screen.

Got all that? Korea’s Jang Dong-Gun is a sword wizard (and single father to an infant) who heads to a small American town to make a life for himself. Unfortunately, “The Colonel” (Danny Huston) and his outlaws terrorize the town, causing problems for his new romantic interest (Kate Bosworth). Moreover, he is being sought by his blade-wielding former mentor.  

As Variety’s reviewer Joe Leydon called it: “The Warrior’s Way is a visually inspired multi-genre amalgamation, a borderline-surreal folly that suggests a martial-arts action-adventure co-directed by Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini.”

In other words: Weird. In a good way.