While technically the Western as a literary genre predates cinema, what with all the cheap, thrilling dime novels that made the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp famous, Westerns are synonymous with cinema. Like jazz, the Western is a true American art form, and even works in the genre from other countries acknowledge that. Also like jazz, while there are formal limitations and recognisable tropes, there’s lots of room to experiment within them.
That’s part of the reason the Western remains popular; it’s always ripe for reinvention and reinterpretation as our own mores change; the black and white morality plays of the ‘30s gave way to the psychological dramas of the ‘50s, the wild Italian horse operas of the ‘60s, the revisionist counter-culture offerings of the ‘70s, and so on.
So if you think you know the Wild West, know that there’s always unexplored territory just over the horizon. Don’t believe me? Try these…
Monday 4 October – Sweet Country (2017)
Warwick Thornton’s searing meat pie Western is set in the Northern Territory of the post-WWI era and sees non-professional actors Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber as Indigenous couple Sam and Lizzie Kelly, who are forced to go on the run in the outback after Sam has to kill Ewen Leslie’s alcoholic war veteran in self-defence. Bryan Brown’s local cop raises a posse in pursuit, while Sam Neill’s altruistic preacher counsels mercy. A scenic, deliberately paced historical tragedy, Sweet Country asks us to contemplate the personal price of colonialism.
Sweet Country airs at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Monday 4 October. It is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Tuesday 5 October – The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hillcoat and with a script by gloomy songster Nick Cave, this is a biblical morality play set in 19th century Queensland. Guy Pearce is bushranger Charlie Burns, who is offered the titular proposition by Ray Winstone’s beleaguered cop, Captain Stanley, after he is captured: to hunt down and kill his brother, the marauding Arthur (a feral Danny Huston) by Christmas day, or else his younger brother, the simple-minded Mike (Richard Wilson), will be hung. So unfolds a bleak but beautiful tale of violence, horror and retribution, with Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis providing the sonic backdrop, while David Wenham, John Hurt, Emily Watson, Tom E. Lewis, David Gulpilil, Noah Taylor and Tom Budge round out the ensemble.
The Proposition airs at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Tuesday 5 October.
Wednesday 6 October – Never Grow Old (2019)
Westerns that deal with Irish diaspora are a small but fertile subgenre – perhaps the name Potato Western will catch on? Here, Emile Hirsch is Patrick, an Irish undertaker working in a small, pious Californian town who finds business starts to boom when outlaw Dutch (John Cusack playing very much against type) sets up shop and decides that whiskey and whores sound like more fun than communion wine and hymns. Dutch takes a shine to Patrick, but as his transgressions worsen and the town turns into a 19th century Gomorrah under his influence, it soon becomes apparent that the soft-spoken coffin-vendor will have to take action. A downbeat drama punctuated with grim violence.
Never Grow Old airs at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Wednesday 6 October. It is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Thursday 7 October – Red Sun (1971)
There’s always been plenty of cross-pollination between Westerns and samurai cinema, and in 1971 they gave rise to this hybrid. The great Toshiro Mifune is samurai escorting the Japanese ambassador across the West to Washington to give the US president a rare Japanese sword. When their train is robbed by Alain Delon’s smooth criminal and the sword stolen, he must team up with Charles Bronson’s amiable outlaw to retrieve the blade, or be forced to commit ritual suicide. That sounds good to Bronson, but unfortunately Mifune has sworn to kill him first before spilling his own guts, which means the samurai and the six-shooter are stuck together for this rousing cross-cultural adventure. And if Mifune, Bronson and Delon aren’t enough, Ursula Andress is on hand as Delon’s duplicitous lover. An absolute gem.
Red Sun airs at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Thursday 7 October.
Friday 8 October – True Grit (2010)
One of the greatest Westerns of recent years, True Grit sees the Coen Brothers adapt Charles Portis’ classic adventure novel. After her father is gunned down by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), steely frontier tween Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld in her debut role) seeks a bounty hunter with “true grit” to pursue him into Indian Territory and enact violent justice upon him. What she gets is one-eyed, hard-drinking, tough-as-old-leather marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in one of his finest roles). Also along is Matt Damon’s cocky Texas Ranger. The Coens eschew irony for a straight up classical Western that’s even better than the 1969 John Wayne original (which you can catch at SBS On Demand).
True Grit airs at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Friday 8 October. Compare it with the 1969 John Wayne original, now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Plus, now streaming at SBS On Demand...
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone’s sweeping epic sees him graduate from the fun savagery of the Dollars trilogy to undertake an ambitious tale of the price of civilisation. Set against a backdrop of rapid and ruthless westward expansion, Once Upon a Time in the West uses a battle over a small but valuable water source as a microcosm for the bigger picture. After cold-blooded hired gunman Frank (Henry Fonda) murders the owner and his children at the behest of a rail baron, framing bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the killing, he doesn’t count on former prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) inheriting the land, nor mysterious gunman Harmonica (Charles Bronson) tracking him down for the murder of his brother. A lot of blood must be spilled in the course of building a new country, and Leone captures every drop with operatic grandeur.
Once Upon a Time in the West is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
S. Craig Zahler mixes Western and horror tropes to excellent effect in this gory oater. After a rancher’s wife is abducted by Indians, her husband (Patrick Wilson), the town sheriff (Kurt Russell), his deputy (Richard Jenkins) and a shady shootist (Matthew Fox) set off in hot pursuit. Unfortunately for them, they’re not chasing Apache or Comanche, but Troglodytes – a degenerate cannibal tribe right out of a Wes Craven shocker. What follows is a gruesome, harrowing descent into hell, as our hopelessly outmatched townies enter the belly of the beast and very few make it out intact. Not for the faint of heart, Bone Tomahawk is nonetheless a fantastic genre crossover – make it a double feature with Near Dark at SBS On Demand.
Bone Tomahawk is now streaming at SBS On Demand.