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.