The Lone Ranger: Masked Eye of the Storm
Hollywood loves trumpeting its failures as much as its successes: 1963’s Cleopatra, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate and 2012’s John Carter were all written about as their production costs soared, long before the branding they received from critics and the box office.
The Lone Ranger is the current symbol for studio excess gone wrong. Johnny Depp, Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Director Gore Verbinski are taking the defensive stance about their Ranger, claiming it didn’t have a chance, because the media reported so much about the budget, everyone was rooting for a bomb.
Arrogant to be sure, their position holds a grain of truth, but not enough to excuse this giant mess of a movie, with a few good things poking out of the rubble. Unfortunately for us Western movie fans, Lone Ranger did not pan out, which gives studio doomsayers yet another excuse not to make a new Western, despite successes like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the Coen Brothers’ True Grit.
However, 2014 is beginning with a Western from a classic source: The Homesman, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, from Glendon Swarthout’s stunning novel. Jones’s stellar cast includes Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank and John Lithgow. Interest in the film is tremendous.
Magnolia Pictures will be splashing the summer screens red, with the Western-Horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, starring Timothy Olyphant and Kurt Russell, and written by the intense graphic novelist S. Craig Zahler. With Gunsmoke, Red Dead Redemption and Blood Meridian in the “almost green-lit” stage, the future looks sterling for Westerns, as the Ranger fades into memory.
Best Independent Western:
Logan Miller’s Sweet Vengeance, with Ed Harris and January Jones, is a violent, and humorous, take on the classic revenge-for-a-killing plot. Harris scores as a beleaguered sheriff caught up in the mix, and he proves again to be a star firmly committed to the Western. The movie found some idiosyncratic fans on the film festival circuit, as Sweetwater.
Best Television Western:
A number of Western pilots were shot, but none reached the home screens, while the veterans continued to kick butt. Longmire, Justified and Hell on Wheels found great strengths in 2013, with Justified taking a chance with its mystery structure (“Who is Drew Thompson?”) for the season, wrapping it up brilliantly. The final show of the year was a killer.
Longmire has been finding its dramatic legs in story lines pursuing darker corners, but AMC’s Hell on Wheels remains the great “traditional” Western, with its broad canvas and some of the most startlingly vicious characters we’ve seen this side of Deadwood. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad is the building of the United States, with stories beside every mile of track, and Hell seems more than up to the task of telling them. It’s our pick as the best of the year!
What better way to honor Elmore Leonard than by watching Criterion’s release of the original 3:10 to Yuma. This representation doesn’t have tons of extras, but the ones it has are top-notch, including a new interview with Leonard. Thanks to Glenn Ford, Van Heflin and Felicia Farr, Delmer Daves’s tough, arid film is still a double-barreled, dramatic blast.
Heaven’s Gate, with all its special features, was a big hint that Criterion had some hit makers coming our way this year; Criterion’s edition of another Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford Western, Jubal, was a close call. Also worth the price: Django Unchained (Anchor Bay), The Big Trail (20th Century Fox) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount).
Best Blu-ray Bargain:
High Plains Drifter (Universal). Clint Eastwood’s ghostly tribute to Sergio Leone has never looked better than in this $15 edition (cheaper in some places!).
Best DVD Box Set:
Western Horizons (TCM/Universal Vault). I wish this set was available in stores, but this collection of five of Universal’s Technicolor Westerns, including Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West, Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan and George Marshall’s Pillars of the Sky, scores high marks for film preservation. We give Universal kudos for the poster and lobby card galleries, but a commentary or two would have made great additions.
A special nod should be made to Warner Archive, which released the Monogram Johnny Mack Brown sets, the Wayne Morris double feature and more than 20 Westerns in 2013 from the Warner Bros., Allied Artists and MGM libraries. The discs are made-to-order with no extras, except a trailer, but their quality is always outstanding.
Best TV Show DVD Set:
Has to be a tie between a champion of old and a new contender. Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season is the season where Anson Mount truly becomes Cullen Bohannon, giving the show its great, dramatic center. This set offers excellent behind-the-scenes extras as well.
Shout! Factory has released all eight seasons of The Virginian in collectible tins, including The Men from Shiloh season. The shows have been restored to their pre-syndication glory and look as good as they did when they first aired on NBC. Documentary extras, or commentary from cast, including stars James Drury and Clu Gulager, are sadly absent. But if you just want great copies of these shows, you couldn’t do better.
Movie Book of the Year:
The year 2013 was a fine one for books on cinema history. The top shelf was crowded, but leading the pack is Glenn Frankel’s passionate The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury). This work can be seen as perhaps the best primer anyone can have for Director John Ford’s classic work, devoting itself to the history behind Alan LeMay’s story, as much as the movie’s production.
For star biographies, Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press) is a tough look at one of our toughest, and finest, actors.
Johnny D. Boggs’s excellently researched and finely written Billy the Kid on Film, 1911-2012 (McFarland) not only traces the history of the famed outlaw in the movies, but also the coming-of-age of American movies, from silents to the present day. We also highly recommend Bob Herzberg’s Hang ’em High: Law and Disorder in Western Films and Literature (McFarland). Herzberg takes on a huge subject, looking at the portrayal of the law in Western movies, its abuses and absurdities. Herzberg knows his subject well and imparts great insight into his conclusions. Both McFarland volumes belong on the shelf of anyone who loves Western movies.
BEST WESTERN FILM FESTIVAL:
Western movie fans love their nostalgia, and two annual Western film festivals stand above others. The Memphis Film Festival in June is always a favorite, with a great line-up of guests and a focus on honoring Westerns of yesterday. It’s fun, but always with a touch of genteel respect for the films that have come before, and for the men and women who made them. If you’re a memorabilia collector, the dealer’s room features poster sellers from the East Coast, with often stunning material.
The Western North Carolina Film Festival in Asheville had to sit 2013 out, but we hope it will be back in full force in 2014. This film festival embraces all genres, with a leaning toward Westerns, particularly from 1950s and ’60s television.
Both of these festivals are glorious reminders of the past, but the best of the best is Spain’s Almería Western Film Festival, held in October and a film festival in the truest sense, with new Westerns from around the world screened in competition, plus showings of classic Euro-Westerns with special guests. Almería was the primary location for hundreds of Euro-Westerns, including the best of Sergio Leone, so where else to hold this amazing event? Expert panels and the audience judge the films, leading up to an awards ceremony on the final night, which includes the induction of one person into the festival’s hall of fame. Past winners, and guests, include Fabio Testi, Aldo Sambrell and Eugenio Martín. The festival is only a few years old, and still growing, but it’s the only one of its kind, with an emphasis on new Westerns, and not just looking back at what’s come before.
***Best of the West Movies, TV Series & DVDs 2014***
Best Western Film Festival
Editor’s Choice: Almería Western Film Festival (Spain)
Reader’s Choice: Lone Pine Film Festival (Lone Pine, CA)
Best Independent Western Movie
Editor’s Choice: Sweet Vengeance
Reader’s Choice: Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink
Best made-for-TV Western
Editor’s Choice: Hell on Wheels (AMC)
Reader’s Choice: Lonesome Dove (CBS)
Best DVD Box set
Editor’s Choice: Western Horizons (TCM/Universal Vault)
Reader’s Choice: Monogram Cowboy Collection series (Warner Archive)
Editor’s Choice: 3:10 to Yuma (Criterion)
Reader’s Choice: (Ties) The Searchers (Warner Home Video); Tombstone
(Hollywood Pictures Home Video); Wyatt Earp (Warner Home Video)
Best Movie Book
Editor’s Choice: The Searchers by Glenn Frankel (Bloomsbury)
Readers’ Choice: The Searchers by Glenn Frankel (Bloomsbury)