Published on December 4th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Seen All the Clint Eastwood Westerns So Many Times
The spaghetti western has all but disappeared from modern movies – unless you know where to look.
It’s been so hard to make a good, old fashioned western for the last twenty years that when the mighty Walt Disney Pictures made The Lone Ranger (2013), it sucked, flopped and nobody cared. Tarantino took a couple of whacks at it with Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) but neither are even close to his best work. Django (1966) with Franco Nero, the movie that inspired Django Unchained, is better than both of them. The Coen Brother’s True Grit (2010) was pretty good, but there hasn’t been anything great since HBO’s Deadwood (2004). And warning! Deadwood isn’t for all western fans. It’s a filthy fucking show, and that’s as gently as I can phrase it.
So, no more westerns. We are firmly planted in the era of superhero movies. Before that was zombie movies and preceding that was disaster movies and prior to that it was gangster movies. Once Hollywood figures out where the money is coming from, that’s all they make. And before I forget, do you remember (*snicker*) Wild Wild West (1999)? So, no more westerns.
But western movies were once the backbone of American cinema. Good, white, wholesome stories about a handsome sheriff in clean pressed clothes, protecting a town of good Christians from the evil villain. They had lonesome, acoustic guitar ballads in them and were sung by the likes of Elvis, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They had shiny rings and gleaming pistols, polished boots, tassels, and patterned shirts with scarves. It was High Noon (1952) or Rio Bravo (1950) or The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Then, right around the time that the Beatles started to get big in America, Clint Eastwood headed for Italy and Spain to start making western themed movies with Sergio Leone. This was a turning point in genre. Eastwood wasn’t a good guy or a bad guy; he was an anti-hero, a bounty hunter, a man as interested in his own personal gain as much as that of justice. It was a grittier, dirtier world, and not all the men were handsome. Clothes were ripped and filthy, dust flew, lips chapped. The movie score was not the triumphant orchestra of happiness and glory brought to you by Elmer Bernstein, but the haunting tension and anxious gallop of Ennio Morricone’s horns, piano and thundering drums. And you know that whistle. It’s the sound you hear as the town streets clear out and the building shutters get slammed shut in anticipation. Stoic figures with squinting, darting eyes stand defiantly in the hot sun. Their nervous hands sweat in mid-air above the handle of a pistola.
Eastwood made three movies with Leone before beginning to produce and direct them himself – a total of twenty-something in all. He made one of the best westerns of the 80s, Pale Rider (1985) and the 90s, Unforgiven (1992). The latter earned him a golden statue for best picture and another for best director. Sometimes, it’s not a specific Clint Eastwood movie, but a mood that we crave. And once we see a scruffy drifter in a saloon eating stew with a wooden spoon out of a stone bowl, we know we’re in the right town. There will be matches lit on boots and the stubble of faces, barroom brawls and shootouts in town. Whiskey will be drank. Perhaps there’s even a bounty out for a wanted criminal, dead or alive, or an evil villain from the local mining company might try to steal the town’s land. What matters most is Eastwood himself – narrow eyes, cigarillo, deadpan rasp for the few lines he delivers – and the ensemble of characters around him that makes these movies so delicious.
But you’ve seen all these westerns so many times and, as we have already established, there are no great new ones being made today. Then, just as the bank was about to foreclose on your mortgage of love for old Clint Eastwood westerns, a new hero emerges. A man of principles and courage, a man of his word (as few as they may be). He’s a deadly hero with a lightening fast pistol, an intimidating stranger in a helmet they call The Mandalorian.
Disney launched its latest Star Wars spin-off in November last year. You’ve seen the Baby Yoda somewhere – some coffee mug or toy store or FaceBook meme – but a previous understanding of the Star Wars universe is not a prerequisite here. It requires zero background knowledge of the characters you meet to be swept up in these new adventures. In fact, titles of episodes suggest that it will matter little if these stories take place on Tatooine or in Mexico or in California: The Sin; Sanctuary; The Gunslinger; The Prisoner; The Reckoning; Redemption, to name a few. And we all know that certain reaches of the galaxy are havens for wretched hives of scum and villainy. Hell, if Han Solo isn’t a space cowboy (goddamn it, Steve Millar – how did you make that cool phrase sound goofy?) then I don’t know what is. Star Wars has always been a combination of old westerns, samurai movies and science fiction. The Mandalorian simply concentrates its best efforts to the western aspect far more than anything else.
Our hero isn’t Blondie or Preacher or Bill or Joe. It’s Mando, a term used like a slur as much as a name. His draping cape, low slung pistol and bandoleer are all reminiscent of Eastwood’s trademark look. A mask hides the expressions of his face, but that voice beneath is nearly an impression of Eastwood. Mando wanders the land (galaxy) on his horse (speederbike or ship), collecting bounties and searching for both his people (the Mandalorians) and those who are the rightful guardians of his temporary charge, a baby he simply refers to as The Kid. Week to week is a new adventure, each one seeming like a step closer to something, but it really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
There are canteens and saloons, desserts and howling winds, villages that need protection and greedy criminals to be thwarted. Mando can bring you in warm, or he can bring you in cold. The choice is yours. And if it’s a nasty villain that you like to see, then Werner Herzog should do the trick. He’s so sinister that I really do think we should keep Herzog strapped to one of those Hannibal Lecter dollies, leather muzzle and all. We can untie him for movie appearances only. Carl Weathers can be your Tuco, and you can eat beef jerky while you watch.
The Mandalorian is to the western what Reservoir Dogs (1992) is to a bank heist movie, a new cocktail from an old recipe. Some of you will be caught surprised that Star Wars is providing mini western movies as a new series, some of you will want to correct me that, technically, they are samurai stories that influenced westerns that influenced these space sagas. Perhaps, yes, but samurai movies were not the forefront of American cinema the way the westerns were. Plus, I’m sure there’s a very attractive woman named Kimiko, somewhere in Japan, writing an article called Because You’ve Seen All the Kurosawa Movies So Many Times. She’s writing it top to bottom, right to left, and doing a much smarter job of it than I ever could.
In 1985, Pale Rider was dubbed “the next great American Western”. Once into the 90s, the genre started to fade until only a handful of filmmakers would (or could) dare to try and get this dead horse back on its feet. In the wake of mostly failures and disappointment, Jon Favreau has cunningly snuck the style of the spaghetti western back into a place on television most people would never think to look – the Star Wars universe. The man with no name is back, now as the man with no face. This is the way.