Destination: The American and Canadian West and Australia
Movies: Modern Westerns
by Jane Louise Boursaw
This month, in keeping with our American Western Road trip, Jane Boursaw brings us five modern Westerns. If the scenery lures you, however, be advised that Brokeback Mountain was filmed largely in Canada, as well as scenes in New Mexico and in Wyoming, while Unforgiven was filmed entirely in some very enticing Canadian locations. Quigley Down Under, of course, was filmed in Australia–another tempting location for a road trip.
Most of us are familiar with the classic westerns starring the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Then came the era of the spaghetti westerns — Sergio Leone films starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Terence Hill.
But my favorite westerns are more recent, made in the past 20 years or so. I guess you’d call them modern westerns, though they don’t all take place in modern times. But these are films with a little more depth and emotion than the classic cowboy themes. Let’s take a look at five of my favorite modern westerns.
1. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood seemed all but done with westerns, and then along came Unforgiven. He stars as William Munny, a retired killer who turns to fatherhood and farming, two things he’s ill-suited to do. When his wife dies, he decides to take one last job and return to the only thing he truly knows how to be: a cold, heartless killer who sips whiskey for breakfast. This internal struggle between good and evil is what makes Unforgivenmore than just your classic western, and no one does conflicted like Eastwood. Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Frances Fisher, and Jaimz Woolvett round out the brilliant cast.
2. Quigley Down Under (1990).
Sometimes a movie just gets in your soul and won’t let go, even as the years pass one into the other. That’s how it is with this western starring Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley, a Montana sharpshooter who’s hired by an Australian rancher. But when Quigley arrives Down Under, things are not as straightforward as they seem. Alan Rickman sealed his place in cinematic history as the quintessential bad guy, and Laura San Giacomo is both sweet and loopy as Crazy Cora, turning in my favorite performance of all of her films. Gorgeous Australian locations, beautiful original music by Basil Poledouris, and a mystical storyline about the Aborigines make this one of the most soulful westerns ever made.
3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007).
This remake of the 1957 film finds Russell Crowe in the Ben Wade role originated by Glenn Ford. The story seems straightforward enough: A small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. But it’s the battle of the wills wherein the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher that turns this into a full-fledged drama like no other. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma makes it clear that no one is either all good or all bad, but rather somewhere in that misty gray area in between.
(Note from ATL. Curious about the Yuma Territorial Prison? You can visit when you take a road trip through Arizona.)
I interviewed Powers Boothe a few years ago and asked if the cast realized they were making something very special. “Having grown up in Texas, to be in any western is a dream come true for me, particularly if it turns out to be a huge success and, indeed, a classic like Tombstone,” said Boothe. “The cast are all my heroes. I was amazed that we were able to assemble all that talent in one movie. I think that, because the script was so brilliant, anyone wouldn’t resist trying to be a part of it. It is absolutely one of my favorite experiences in my career.” That pretty much says it all, but I’ll add that Val Kilmer as the alcoholic Doc Holliday is surely one of the great western movie roles of all time, and had some of the best lines, as well.
(Note from ATL: Much of the movie actually made in Tombstone. When you visit, you can grab this Tombstone walking guide by Jane Eppinga)
Yes, it’s known as the “gay cowboy movie,” though in reality, they were sheep herders. But by the time I got to the end of this film, I was practically crippled with emotional pain. I realized that I’d spent the entire 134 minutes hunched over in agonizing tension. Look, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to watch Brokeback Mountain ever again, but I can’t deny that this heartbreaking western starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as gay lovers still haunts me to this day.