I’m a big Western fan, and I like nothing more than a strange, or off-beat, or left-field Western. And let’s be clear here that by “Western” I mean a film set in the (Wild) West of what we now call the USA, sometime in the 19th century, so no Proposition or Once Upon a Time in the Midlands okay?
Let’s start with South of Heaven, West of Hell, because really there is no weirder Western. It has Pee Wee Herman in it, for a start. Okay, it has Paul Reubens, the actor, not playing Pee Wee Herman, but it’s still weird seeing Pee Wee in a semi-serious, if bonkers, western, just as it’s weird hearing Gandhi (i.e. Ben Kingsley) saying “cunt” a lot in Sexy Beast. I’m sorry, I just have difficulty distinguishing reality (i.e. actors) from fantasy (i.e. the characters they play).
I’ve already touched on South of Heaven in an earlier post (about Matt Clark, the great supporting actor of the 70s) but I neglected to mention that it was directed by and stars C&W singer Dwight Yoakam, which is strange enough, but it also manages to shoe-horn in Bridget and Peter Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton (sporting long blond hair) Vince Vaughan (revelling in a larger-than-life bad guy part) and a cross-dressing sidekick for Yoakam. Alas, the cross-dressing doesn’t quite achieve the intended effect of detracting from Yoakam’s zombie-on-prescription-drugs performance, but the presence of cult cowboy actors Clark and Luke Askew does. There’s cartoon violence aplenty, a highly dysfunctional family dynamic, curious and narratively redundant dialogue (a recurring feature of strange westerns) and a total (but possibly intentional) lack of tonal consistency, as the film lurches from love scene to revenge-by-castration to literally explosive comic climax. Critics dismissed it as a vanity project, and South of Heaven grossed a mere $28,000, leaving Yoakam some $4 million dollars out of pocket. Shoulda stuck to self-publishing like me, Dwight! It’s cheaper.
The strange western South of Heaven reminds me of is The Missouri Breaks, which also features a cross-dressing cowboy, in this case Marlon Brando, giving a somewhat over-the-top performance (Brando giving an over-the-top performance? Shurely shum mishtake, Sherlock?) Other than that, it isn’t really that strange, merely oddball. Much more out-there, structurally, stylistically and performance-wise, is director Arthur Penn’s earlier Western, Little Big Man, which has Dustin Hoffman raised by Native Americans and surviving the Battle of Little Big Horn, among myriad other adventures. As with South of Heaven, the tone is all over the place, veering from light “comedy” to bloody battle scenes and massacres, but these abrupt shifts come across as more intentional (and possibly more successful) than they do in South of Heaven, as do the mannered performances of Hoffman and, in a career high, Richard Mulligan playing an egotistical, borderline psychotic Custer. Thankfully, there’s Chief Dan George on hand to anchor the whole mess with his compassionate if folksy wisdom and even a gay “Indian” who’s in love with Hoffman.
Another fine mess is the first studio version of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid, which mutilated the master’s vision and created a fragmented dog’s dinner of jump-cuts which render the story almost incomprehensible, and all the better for it. Pat Garrett was scored by Bob Dylan, who appears in the film as Alias, the fictional knife-throwing sidekick to the Kid (played by Kris Kristofferson). It’s hard to say who’s worse in Pat Garrett, Dylan or Kristofferson. Two country/folk singers trying to act? Critics went for Dylan, but he did turn in an awesome soundtrack. Kristofferson is worse because there’s so much more of him. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the studio cut) is a great film IN SPITE OF Kristofferson. It’s great because of the music; because of John Coquillon’s photography; because of James Coburn’s world-weary Garrett and the presence (in a minor role, as ever) of Matt Clark; because a Hollywood exec stopped Peckinpah padding out the movie with explanatory flashbacks, Mexican whores and Mariachi players, and gave us instead an endless parade of characters, introduced in one scene only to be killed off in the next, a series of human tableaux, as if Sergei Paradjanov had gone to Hollywood and shot a western. None of it adds up to anything, narratively speaking, but the overall impression is clear. We are all going to die, one way or another, and we must learn to accept the fact. This message is encapsulated in the film’s greatest scene – one of cinema’s greatest scenes – when, to the strains of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Slim Pickens wanders dying to the edge of the river, followed by his Mexican wife. Pickens has a far-away, almost gleeful expression on his face as he confronts death. His wife screws up her face in pain and empathy. They exchange glances. It is just a moment, but then (as Roy Ayers sings so eloquently) life IS just a moment.
Other, lesser strange Westerns include Barquero, which is mainly weird for having a dope-smoking villain played by Warren Oates and for being a largely successful Hollywood stab at the Spaghetti Western. It was directed by the extraordinarily prolific journeyman Gordon Douglas, who also made the awesome giant ants movie Them and may yet get his own Plankton post. In Barquero, Lee Van Cleef plays a boatman taking on Oates and his gang of thieves. The (day for night?) cinematography and Oates’ usual intense, brooding performance are what create the strange, dark, befuddled atmosphere in this film, one which brings to mind the strange, dark, befuddled atmosphere of Georges Franju’s La Faute d’Abbe Mouret (not, alas, a Western, but worth watching on YouTube, if you can follow the unsubtitled French.)
Then there’s Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar, which among other expressions of barely repressed hysteria has a cowboy reading a book, and how often do you see that in a Western? Not often, is the answer, although it’s treated seriously, and at length, in both Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven and in the western/horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, for which you’ll need a strong stomach. Yet according to the Wild West’s greatest historian, Dee Brown, people read voraciously back then, and even carried libraries in their wagons as they crossed the plains. Life in the West wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, you see. Fllms like The Hired Hand (again with Warren Oates) show people going about the tedious business of building log cabins and tending the land, even if it doesn’t exactly make for gripping viewing. Kid Blue, meanwhile, is played for counter-cultural laughs by its maverick cast (Dennis Hopper, Peter Boyle, the ubiquitous Oates, the supremely dignified Ben Johnson.) Trouble is, it all comes across as self-consciously “wacky” in the way that the awful Channel 4 racing pundit John McCririck and the marginally less awful swashbuckling fashionista Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen come across as self-consciously wacky when they are really just right-wing squares in eccentrics’ clothing. It doesn’t fool anybody. We want the car-crash weirdness of jarring juxtapositions that South of Heaven and Pat Garrett provide.
Alas, I can’t produce a post about strange westerns without mentioning El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal and freaktastic “hippy” Western, which I read about in Bristol Central Library aged about ten and got all excited about. Dwarves. Nudity. Shaven heads. Self-immolation. Then I saw it. I’ve always thought that Jodorowsy’s films were a bit like the films Klaus Kinski would have made if allowed to, and I haven’t changed my mind in over forty years.
PS If this has whetted your appetite for more Strange Westerns, check out the wonderfully titled Song of the Loon, a hard-to-find gay Western avant Brokeback Mountain, namechecked in the IMDB list below….