Western movies bit the dust several decades ago, but now Hollywood is saddling up to resuscitate the long-moribund genre in unexpected ways. Aliens, zombies, a politically correct Lone Ranger and a gunslinger tangling with monsters and mutants all feature in a posse of reconstituted westerns already on the screen or due for release within the next year or so.
“People love the idea of the Old West gunslinger reaching for his gun, but they need a new twist on the story,” says Gore Verbinski, one of the pioneers of the new-look western with his animated epic Rango. A box-office hit earlier this year, it featured the voice of Johnny Depp as a spirited, scrawny lizard which finds itself wearing a sheriff’s badge in a tough outpost known as Dirt.
“Hollywood has been afraid of straight genre westerns, so we’re seeing a lot of ‘genre splices’,” says Verbinski.
He is currently preparing to direct a new version of The Lone Ranger, which will once again team him with Depp who, instead of portraying the title hero as most people would expect, has opted to take the role of his trusty sidekick, Tonto. Depp’s Tonto, however, will be very different from the one portrayed in 20 previous Lone Ranger films going back to the Twenties and by Jay Silverheels in the popular television series that ran from 1949 to 1957.
“The idea of Tonto being the Lone Ranger’s sidekick is out of the question,” says Depp, who has a tattoo of a Native American on his right bicep. “I want to try and pay homage to the umpteen thousands of films that have been made about Native Americans over the past 100 years or so in which they never got their due or were treated as some sort of cliché.“We’re going to turn the thing on its head and drop the bottom out of the Lone Ranger. It’s going places westerns don’t usually go.”
The success of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which won an Oscar nomination for best picture and a best actor one for its star, Jeff Bridges, undoubtedly had plenty to do with the renewed interest in westerns and although it was based on the 1969 movie of the same name, it had a different twist to it, too.
“I had talked with the Coen Brothers years before about maybe doing a western but True Grit seemed like an odd choice,” says Bridges. “They said they were not doing a remake of the previous movie but were doing it as a whole fresh thing.”
As played by Bridges, the central character, Rooster Cogburn, originally played by John Wayne, is far removed from the strong, silent type of western hero. “He’s really a kind of bore,” laughs Bridges. “He’s very verbose and talks all the time.” True Grit shocked the film industry by piling up nearly £200 million in worldwide box office takings, the second biggest total of any western in history, trailing only Dances with Wolves.
One of the most eagerly awaited movies of the summer is Cowboys and Aliens, a story that lives up to its title, with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford aiming their six-shooters at extraterrestrial marauders in the Old West. Although the film’s title has elicited some chuckles, director Jon Favreau has reportedly come up with an intense rawhide adventure with no comedy or winking at the camera.
Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a hard-eyed loner who arrives in the town of Absolution with no memories and no idea how the strange shackle came to be on his left wrist. Harrison Ford is Col Woodrow Dolarhyde, the cruel master of dusty Absolution.
“It was a fascinating experience,” says Ford. “First of all it was a real cowboy movie and very attentive to that genre and then aliens come and stuff happens and even after stuff happens, it doesn’t change, it’s still a cowboy movie. It’s a clever script.”
Ford, whose last western was the genre-bending The Frisco Kid back in 1979, a movie that paired him as a bank-robbing bandit with Gene Wilder as a Polish rabbi, adds: “What’s incredible about Cowboys and Aliens is nobody’s done it before. It’s new territory.”
Ron Howard who, with Steven Spielberg, is one of the producers of Cowboys and Aliens, was initially dubious about being able to persuade Ford to join the cast but was delighted when he agreed. “For years I’ve thought the western needed this guy because he has the persona that fits the [genre],” he says. “In a way he was a cowboy in American Graffiti and Star Wars and when you see him on screen in this setting it feels just right.”
Howard will be sticking with westerns for his next project, although, like so many other filmmakers, he is splicing its DNA with different genres. He will be directing The Dark Tower, an adaptation of Stephen King’s fantasy novels about a nomadic gunslinger named Roland Deschain, who tangles with magic monsters and mutants in a surreal landscape. The film is planned as the first of a trilogy that begins in 2013 and will also tie in with a television series.
The start of filming has been put back because of budget delays and script developments, but Howard is pressing ahead with casting the movie. “I can’t really say who’ll be in it yet,” he says, “but Javier Bardem has shown a great deal of interest. We’ll know by the end of the summer.”
Video games, too, are taking up the western cause after last year’s Red Dead Redemption, which has sold more than eight million copies and is the most acclaimed game in years. On television, Timothy Olyphant is starring as a Kentucky lawman in the Old West update Justified and The Walking Dead series has Andrew Lincoln as a lone lawman on horseback, involved in a zombie catastrophe.
As Gore Verbinski says: “The western will always be with us although sometimes it might be a bit difficult to recognise.”