movies_tvs_documentaries_independent_westerns_rangoOne film that touched everyone—from the kiddies to us grizzled veterans—was 2011’s Rango.

We enjoyed it more because we understood all the inside humor. From paying homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” to the dozens of Western heroes encapsulated in the lizard Rango, the CG-animated flick could be a game for who can figure out the most Western movie references. Its success—the movie was a box office winner in both the United States and the UK—has cleared the path for its Rango star, Johnny Depp, to remake The Lone Ranger. For more on Rango and this year’s biggest Westerns, read on.

Television and Westerns are back in the line dance together, at least for the next year or two, as several series and movies are in production or planning stages.

Hell on Wheels is the frontrunner, beginning its run on November 6. It’s the story of a lone ex-Confederate soldier, working his way through a list of the men who killed his wife during Sherman’s March. The trail leads to the ever-moving construction site of the Union Pacific, as it works its way West.

TNT’s anticipated series Gateway has a revenge theme as well, but it’s also a brother story—three brothers, actually, coming to the Colorado town where their sheriff father has been killed. The responsible party is looking like the local land-and-power hungry cattle baron.

We’ve also heard rumors that former teen idol Shaun Cassidy is pitching an 1840s-era series called Frontier. Ex-Star Trek: The Next Generation writer/producer Ron Moore has a made-for-tv movie and potential series called Hangtown. ABC is working on Gunslinger, featuring a doctor and a marshal who solve crimes in the wooly West.

Ron Howard told Howard Stern this January that the Stephen King Fantasy Western, The Dark Tower, will be a six-hour mini-series, with Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Viggo Mortensen (Hidalgo) being considered for roles. Howard is working with HBO on another series, about Doc Holliday (see Mary Doria Russell).

Justified is the best Western on television, although it doesn’t hail from the West, or the past. The FX series takes place in the back roads and hollows of southeastern Kentucky, and it was created by Elmore Leonard, who got his start writing top-dollar Westerns like Hombre and The Tall T.

At heart though, Justified is a family story, about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), and the people who live in his old Kentucky home. Justified is good because, like Leonard’s best writing, his characters are deliberately silly or downright diabolic, some are sexy, and others are casually murderous.
As for officer Givens, he’s inclined to be more than a little confused, personally and ethically, but he usually gets the job done, which is why he wears the white hat.

AMC won four Emmys for the last Western that gave the cabler record ratings—the 2006 miniseries Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. In the winter 2011, AMC brought us a series, Hell on Wheels. The verdict is still out on this one…we’re hoping the writers pick up some steam and give these characters relationships with each other (a la HBO’s character-driven Deadwood), instead of just having them flail about from one plot to the next. We have enough faith in this cast and in AMC that we are excited to see where this ride will take us in the coming year.

Luke Perry and Jason Priestley, first brought together in the teen phenom TV series Beverly Hills, 90210, joined up to film a Western based on a character dreamed up by Perry, John Goodnight. In the Priestley-directed film, Perry plays Goodnight, a circuit judge who is tormented by the lawless folks rampaging through Wyoming territory, reminding him of the outlaws who murdered his parents. The Western turned out to be Hallmark Movie Channel’s #1 movie of all time; the highly-anticipated sequel came out in early 2012, entangling the justice in a murderous bank robbery involving the son of a former flame of his, with another movie on the way. On p.30, Perry reveals how Eastwood has inspired his work in Westerns.

Looking ahead, Tanner Beard, fresh off his Legend of Hell’s Gate film, is at work on his next film, about Henry Starr. The legendary outlaw-turned-actor portrayed himself in the silent movie, A Debtor to the Law. Starr’s criminal history includes being convicted of murdering a deputy marshal in 1892 and twice being sentenced by Judge Parker to hang for murder (a fate he escaped). Beard tells us the film is due out in 2013.

This is a slow, deliberate, independent picture, and it’s not at all what Western audiences generally look for in a Western. Kelly Reichardt’s film is more an experience—you can feel the grit and the pain, and the fear swallowing the hopes that had brought these families to travel westward in the first place. Forget Conestoga pioneers singing “Red River Valley” around a campfire; this tale trails these desperate emigrants, led down an untraveled shortcut by the real-life Stephen Meek in 1845, as they put their faith in an Indian who they can’t understand, hoping he will lead them to water. We never know if he does—in fact, the inconclusive ending may bother some—but it all makes sense; the pioneers didn’t understand, yet they followed anyway. And so do we. This Venice Film Festival favorite is more artsy than some of the classic Westerns we love, but it’s worth a shot to see if the movie suits your tastes.

This is no leather and feather epic (the top awards from the Red Nation Film Festival last November help attest to that). Writer Lenore Andriel’s fictionalized Black Paw tribe is emblematic of the American Indians living in California who vanished after the Gold Rush. The tale follows a cowboy posse that solicits the help of a former lawman and a tribal doctor to help them find their lost brother and nephew in the Black Paw’s territory, and then the lead starts flying. Western film buffs will be pleased to see actors Michael Biehn, Peter Sherayko and brothers Michael and Eddie Spears (Eddie is currently portraying Joseph Black Moon in AMC’s Hell on Wheels).

Doc Holliday, Quanah Parker and John Wilkes Booth are weaved into this tapestry created by director, writer and actor Tanner Beard. Firefly fans will be excited to see Summer Glau again, while E.T.’s Henry Thomas shines as Booth and John Wayne’s grandson Brendan joins the ensemble cast (he also acted in Cowboys & Aliens). Beard’s story takes us to 1876 Texas, as three outlaws’ tales of thievery and betrayal carve the legend of how the rock formation at Possum Kingdom Lake got its demonic name.

Those of us who love terrific Westerns were delighted when the independent movie Blackthorn came aboard. This rethinking of Butch Cassidy, who somehow managed to stay alive in Bolivia after a barrage of bullets put the Sundance Kid in his grave, is a smart, romantic and melancholic take on the famous Western outlaws. And no one could have done a better job than Sam Shepard as Cassidy, with a number of flashbacks that served to remind us why we liked Butch, Sundance and Etta Place in the first place. It’s a movie worth savoring, and it just gets better with repeat viewings.

The passionate, driven folks documenting today’s Western culture and lifestyle got a big boost when one of its own kind, 2011’s Buck, made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards. As a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society, our film editor Henry Cabot Beck was one critic who cast his vote for Buck to get a gold statuette.

Some folks we think should be next on the documentary list: the revered cowboy bootmaker Paul Bond (he celebrated his 96th birthday this past December), the Texan tintype cowboy Robb Kendrick and esteemed National Park historian Robert Utley, whose body of work includes the national park creation of Fort Bowie, Geronimo’s surrender site, and helping the town of Tombstone gain its national landmark status.

Cindy Meehl’s profile of horse whisperer Buck Brannaman landed on the Best Documentary shortlist for the 2012 Academy Awards. Most folks first found out about Buck after watching 1998’s The Horse Whisperer; author Nicholas Evans cited Buck as one of the horse trainers who inspired his character played by Robert Redford. In Meehl’s film, we learn how the abuse Buck suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father led to his empathy for whipped and “broken” horses, which he has harnessed into a career in which he travels the country hosting horse clinics. The film makes its most poignant point about how impactful human empathy is on all of God’s creatures when Buck tells the owner of an improperly raised horse: “The horse didn’t fail us. We failed him.”

Written by the famous Billy the Kid historian Frederick Nolan, this film dramatically re-creates the true story of New Mexico’s 1878 range war. Director Andrew Wilkinson skillfully brings to life these legendary and intriguing characters: William Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid), ranch owner John Chisum, Englishman John Henry Tunstall, businessman L.G. Murphy and New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace. After being filmed in UK’s Pinewood Studios, the documentary was released on DVD late last year.

Western movie buffs have had three big reasons to go to movie theaters in 2011: the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-nominated True Grit, the controversial Cowboys & Aliens and the unexpected surprise hit of the year, the animated Rango, starring Johnny Depp as the voice of the lizard sheriff.

Looking ahead, Quentin Tarantino’s “Southern” Western is finally going to hit theaters at the end of this year. Django Unchained will star Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Foxx, as Django.

Meanwhile, Brokeback Mountain Oscar screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana are adapting S.C. Gwynne’s blockbuster history of Quanah Parker, Empire of the Summer Moon, with an anticipated release in 2014. The duo is also adapting Paulette Jile’s The Color of Lightning, about the real-life Britt Johnson, a freed slave who pursued the Comanches and Kiowas who had abducted his wife and daughters.

Last, but not least, it turns out Gore Verbinski will bring The Lone Ranger to the big screen after all. The cast is solid, with Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, joined by Dwight Yoakam and Tom Wilkinson. Watch for this picture in May 2013.

By its second weekend, ending January 2, 2011, True Grit had earned $87 million, making it the Coen Brothers’ highest-grossing film, surpassing the $74.3 million made on No Country for Old Men, another Coen Western. Even though the movie failed to win any of its 10 Oscar nominations, True Grit brought new fans to the Westerns genre and even earned a spot in the hearts of folks who love the John Wayne version.

Why Did Cowboys and Aliens Fail…or did it?

When the animated Rango came out in the summer, mainstream critics were befuddled by its success. We knew our fans would love it—the film is chock-full of hilarious references to classic Westerns, one of the funniest being Timothy Olyphant showing up in a golf cart as Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character. The film was a cross-genre winner with audiences, both young and old. The producers laughed all the way to the bank, with a domestic box office take of $123 million.

In a year that saw the transcontinental railroad serialized on TV (see our entry on AMC’s Hell on Wheels), the National Film Registry announced it would preserve John Ford’s epic silent Western, The Iron Horse. We can see why this 1924 film was chosen; the visual impact alone makes it worth watching. Ford’s cast numbered roughly 6,000, as the director wanted to portray the Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroad. The inclusion of this Western classic was a fitting end to the year.

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