REVIEW: Deadwood (TV series 2004-2006) – David Milch, Timothy Olyphant

Deadwood distinguishes itself in a number of ways. Firstly, it bases itself fairly closely on real events, in the frontier town of Deadwood when it was an outlaw gold rush settlement on a Lakota reservation on the fringe of the Dakota territory. Secondly, it is full of complex, memorable, and richly realised characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen and Calamity Jane, an even greater achievement when its conformity to actual biographical details is taken into account. Perhaps most compellingly, Deadwood manages to say something about the very nature of civilisation in a more complete and satisfying way than any other Western.

The series opens in 1876, with Montana Marshall Seth Bullock under siege by a lynch mob, who want his prisoner for themselves. Bullock, despite his well-advanced plans to leave for Deadwood, refuses to compromise on his duties, holding the mob off at gunpoint while he hangs the prisoner himself, ‘under colour of law’.

Bullock, the unbending lawman, contrasts sharply with the villainous saloon owner Al Swearengen, who in just the first episode is arranging to sell salted claims to rich fools with gold fever, arranging the murders of failed miners returning in frustration to the territorial United States, and disposing of the body of a violent john slain by one of his prostitutes.

Traditional Western logic would indicate that the two would be destined to eventually confront and destroy each other. Deadwood, however, has something more to say. Producer David Milch knows that civilisation is built not when natural enemies destroy each other, but when they compromise and build together, which is so much of what Deadwood is about.

At the time of its first run, Deadwood was better known for the extraordinary profanity of its language than for the complexity and subtlety of its storytelling, which is a real shame. Cut short at just 36 episodes, possible new life in telemovies was briefly on the cards, but the plans fell into development hell before the sets were broken down and put in storage in late 2007.

Deadwood Swearing (language warning, obviously)

Deadwood holds a lot more for viewers than anything normally within the bounds of the Western. It’s graphic, harsh and certainly not suitable for shrinking violets, but for those willing to look past that, it’s a human drama of rare depth and genius.

Get the first season here, or the complete series here.


NEWS: Leonardo DiCaprio possible villain for Django Unchained

DiCaprio on the set of Inception

Deadline is reporting that Leonardo DiCaprio is in early negotiations to play the villainous slave owner in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Spaghetti Western Django Unchained. According to Deadline, DiCaprio would play Calvin Candie, the owner of a club called Candyland where female slaves are used for sex and male slaves are pitted against each other in gladiatorial contests.

The role would be a significant break for DiCaprio, who despite his many spectacular starring roles as gritty and morally ambiguous protagonists, has yet to play an outright villain. It’s hard to see how a role like this would leave any room for the last of DiCaprio’s boyish Titanic-era charms, however. One thing is for certain, along with DiCaprio’s work with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, his long-running association with Martin Scorcese and his lead role in the Clint Eastwood-helmed J. Edgar Hoover biopic currently in production, he has become the

In other Django news, the search for the titular character goes on, with Will Smith named as the front runner but not expected to commit, with other names such as Idris Elba, Jamie Foxx and even Chris Tucker in the mix. This at least puts paid to earlier rumours that Franco Nero, the original Django, might reprise his role.

It’s very difficult to imagine how a film with this sort of casting could possibly work, and the lurid, exploitative plot details leaked thus far sound abominable. However, subverting expectations and casting against type has been one of the trademarks of Tarantino’s career, and if he made a concept as bizarre and offensive as Inglourious Basterds work, who’s to say what else he can and can’t do?

PREVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens (2011) – Jon Favreau, Daniel Craig

Cowboys & Aliens, the only Western on the major release calendar at this stage, has generated a lot of internet buzz. Based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name, it promises to combine gritty Western action with a spectacular science fiction extravaganza.

In 1873 Arizona, a man wakes up in the desert with no memory of his life or identity, and a strange shackle around his wrist. When he enters the town, he is arrested, and learns that he is an infamous criminal known as Jake Lonergan. However, when aliens attack the town, he finds that the mysterious shackle is a futuristic weapon capable of shooting down the aliens’ ships.

But will it be any good?

Director Jon Favreau certainly has his merit badges for action, special effects and comic book adaptation, with the excellent Iron Man and disappointing-only-by-comparison Iron Man 2 under his belt. He has an ample USD 100 million budget to work with, and some real talent in the cast, including Daniel Craig in the lead and Harrison Ford and the underrated Olivia Wilde in support.

There is a caveat, however – Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci are also aboard. Without intending to offend fans of those two films, seeing these two writing for a film with some potentially tricky expositional challenges should ring alarm bells.

There’s potential dynamite in the concept. After all, what were the white settlers to the native American tribes, if not invading aliens with superior technology? The second trailer suggests that the filmmakers are keenly aware of this and will be working it in explicitly. However, as always in film, the winning factor is not concept but execution. Look for a review closer to release.

US release: 29 Jul 11

Australian release: 18 Aug 11

Complete list here.

NEWS: Gunsmoke star James Arness dead at 88

James Arness, star of Gunsmoke, has died in his Los Angeles home of natural causes.

Gunsmoke, the longest running live-action primetime drama TV series in American history, began as a radio series running from 1952-61, and is still cited as a canonical example of the radio play. With its gritty, realistic tone and attention to detail, it was one of the first cultural turning points leading to the darker and more complete Western we know and love today.

The series was brought to the screen in 1955 with all roles recast, and with Arness in the lead role of Marshall Matt Dillon. Arness, a two-metre giant with a lifelong limp from injuries received in World War II, was already a well-established actor with 30 films under his belt.

The Gunsmoke of TV was of necessity less brutal than its radio counterpart, and whereas the Marshall Dillon of the radio series was portrayed as almost as damaged as the criminals from which he protected Dodge City, Arness’ Dillon was a kinder, gentler Marhsall.

The series, which ran on CBS for 20 seasons and 635 episodes, ended in 1975, but Arness reprised his role in five made-for-TV movies between 1987 and 1993.

Arness was nominated for three separate Emmies over the run of the series, and was forever associated with his character, despite numerous other film and TV appearances, notably the miniseries How The West Was Won, and a starring role as a police officer in the short-lived TV series McLain’s Law.

Arness retired from acting in 1993 at the age of 70. He released his book James Arness: An Autobiography in September 2001.

REVIEW: Red Hill (2010) – Patrick Hughes, Ryan Kwanten

Red Hill theatrical poster

It’s a complaint about Australian film that never goes away – thoughtful, some would say pretentious, dramas can get funding, but no one wants to watch them. Well-executed genre films can pull in the punters, but can’t get funding. The accusation is that arts funding is controlled by snooty inner-city elites, who know what movies they want made in Australia but happen to disagree with 90% of the viewing public.

No film is cited more in the debate than 2005’s Wolf Creek, written and directed by Greg McLean. The brutal but compelling and brilliantly executed film, loosely based on the killings of serial killer Ivan Milat, gave Australian film a stunning commercial success that also made waves in the UK and North America, while telling an authentically Australian story in an Australian voice.

This is perhaps the best starting point to talk about Red Hill. Like Wolf Creek, Red Hill borrows genre conventions and slick execution, but is telling a story with its roots deep in Australian culture.

The film follows a young police officer, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), on his first day working in the eponymous small town of Red Hill. Cooper is treated with open contempt by his new boss Old Bill (Steve Bisley), but is soon drafted into service when the town gets news that Aboriginal convicted murderer and former local Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) has escaped from prison and may be on his way to town.

There’s endless potential in combining Australian elements with Western conventions, as Nick Cave’s The Proposition showed in 2005, and Red Hill writer and director Patrick Hughes is clearly keenly aware of this. Shooting in Omeo, Victoria, a town which once had a population in the thousands and now has less than 500 residents, he blends themes of rural decay and isolation with the hot-button issue of Aboriginal revenge, to make a tight revenge thriller with a cathartic conclusion

The production values are fantastic, considering Red Hill’s AUD$3 million budget. The performances are all compelling and convincing, although some of the scripting feels slightly contrived and hokey, and the town hall scene early in the film feels particularly clunky, underwritten and undershot.

These are minor quibbles. Red Hill is both compelling and enjoyable, and tells a story that deserves a hearing at the same time. A worthy use of time for any Western fan, and a must-see for anyone with an interest in the direction of Australian film.

REVIEW: Young Guns (1988) – Christopher Cain, Emilio Estevez

Young Guns - image property Lionsgate

Young Guns… just doesn’t work. Loosely based on the events of the 1878 Lincoln County War, this high concept blockbuster fills a roll of doomed outlaws with shallow young actors who were the time’s teen heartthrobs. It shoots for something between an action movie and a buddy comedy, but misses both marks and fails to hit any sort of happy medium.

The film opens on the ranch of English rancher John Tunstall (Terrence Stamp), who we are to believe is some kind of benevolent collector of lost boys. This group of supposedly loveable misfits, including actors Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips, call themselves The Regulators and act as cattle guards for Tunstall, who treats them as family he must educate and civilize.

They are joined by budding young outlaw Billy the Kid, Emilio Estevez at the height of his brat pack-era success and good looks.

Estevez and his character are the biggest problem with the film. Estevez’s Billy the Kid is clearly a psychopath, gleefully escalating their situation at every opportunity and executing armed and unarmed men alike. It seems there is an erroneous presumption that Estevez himself has the charisma to make the character relatable, but he’s never even close to making it work.

This wouldn’t be so bad if Young Guns aspired to be a grittily realistic period piece, but a sense that it thinks of itself as a light-hearted romp, a kind of Mighty Ducks with guns, runs disturbingly throughout, even in scenes where major characters are being shot down like flies. The horrible ‘80s rock soundtrack does nothing to help, with some truly inappropriate musical cues.

Overall, while some might look to Young Guns with a certain amount of nostalgic affection, it is not a movie which will make a substantial contribution to anyone’s life, and should be avoided if possible.

REVIEW: Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman

Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.

– William Munny, Unforgiven

Unforgiven. Image property Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood has made a lot of grim Westerns. His entire career was built on grim. So you’ll understand I mean something when I say Unforgiven is a whole new kind of grim.

Only the third Western to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, Unforgiven deconstructs many of the agreed conventions of exactly the terse gunfighting films that Eastwood made his name in.

Eastwood’s character, William Munny, plays a “known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”, who settled down as a farmer after falling in love and getting married. Years later, his wife is dead, and theKansaspig farm he depends on to support his two children is failing.

In these dire straits, when a young braggart styling himself the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) comes to enlist his help collecting a $1000 bounty on two cowboys who cut and disfigured a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Munny refuses at first, but eventually enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to take the job.

In Big Whiskey, however, town sheriff and former gunfighter Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is determined to maintain the peace, no matter who he has to brutalise or kill.

At its core, Unforgiven is an indictment of the conventional Western’s portrayal of violence. There are no clean, fair fights in this film, and the losers do not simply drop out of frame with a pained expression – nor do they generally deserve to die. Morality is always ambiguous. For example, of the two cowboys Munny set out to kill, only one actually disfigured the prostitute, while the other actually tried to stop him, and is genuinely remorseful, trying to give her a prize pony to make amends. He, of course, is the one who dies the ugliest death, with a bullet through his belly, screaming at first for water and then just from pain. The message is that vigilante justice is sloppy justice, and doesn’t deserve the glory it has been assigned.

An inspired element is the inclusion of Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp. Beauchamp is a chubby, bespectacled writer who has come from the east with fanboyish stars in his eyes for the Wild West of the dime novels. Initially following gunfighter English Bob as his biographer, he soon loses his innocence about the noble duels he had expected to see, and is too terrified to ever touch a gun himself, which could itself be taken as a rebuke to Western fans.

The film also uses Beauchamp to explore an element of human nature often ignored in the Western – the natural inhibition against killing. This is a point the film makes again and again, as often the difference between living and dying is simply the reluctance to kill another human being. At Unforgiven’s heart is the overwhelming weight of taking another human life, a weight which settles heavily on all the film’s characters.

Clint Eastwood actually saved the concept for Unforgiven for over a decade, and has said it “summarised everything I feel about the Western.” It is certainly a great achievement, with a cutting edge production and shooting style for its time that presaged The Proposition, Deadwood, and indeed all recent Westerns with any gravitas.

The question is should Unforgiven’s devastating deconstruction of the Western affect our appreciation of the rest of the genre? It’s worth remembering that Eastwood did some of his best work knowing that Unforgiven was in his future. As much as it has something important to say about mortality, about guilt and the value of human life, that’s not to say it should detract from the escapist value of the Western in general. Still, Unforgiven is a must-see for any Western fan.