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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Western Returns: Five Films That Take Us Back to the Frontier by Beth S Kelly

Sergio Leone and the Wild World of Spaghetti Westerns

A Sergio Leone film is a fusion of drama, action, comedy, history, and music that can only be categorized as a Spaghetti Western. From the opening scene of every Leone film we see the familiar effects that have made him famous: the picturesque setting of an abandoned small town in the west with dirt roads as far as the eye can see, the sound of a gunshot echoes with a new modern intense effect never experienced before, and there is music. The theme music of a quick gun for hire named Blondie, a cool outlaw played by Eastwood. This is a different style of western introduced to us by Leone.

Why are they called Spaghetti Westerns? The reason is that these films are not another Hollywood production with familiar names like Wayne and Cooper. This canvas was painted by an Italian artist from Rome.

In the first film of the infamous Dollars trilogy called A Fistful of Dollars, the film concludes with our hero Eastwood wearing a metal shield over his chest. This is an example of a creative scene idea that Leone became famous for. The superior quality of the cinematography in this film is a work of art. Leone’s film shows us that this Western is unique when Eastwood and his Mexican buddy use dead bodies to fool the bad guys in the graveyard.

Leone’s Dollars Trilogy Westerns were filmed in Western Europe. Sergio Leone introduced us to new techniques never seen before in modern movies in the second film, like the hat shooting scene in For a Few Dollars More. Leone was brave enough to try things not traditionally found in Western cinema. As Lee Van Clef attempts to pick up his dusty hat from the ground, Eastwood shoots his hat showing his enemy his skills as a marksman while the sound of the gunshot relays with a delayed effect that makes one jump out of their seat and think that the sounds are real.

The final scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is great for many reasons (the whole thing is on TMC all the time as well; check your local channels). One reason is the suspense created by having the three men standing still waiting to shoot at each other as Leone’s camera takes turns capturing their expressions. Another reason is the dramatic Italian opera style music that is being played while each man prepares to fight to the death. Good wins, bad loses, and the good shows mercy for the Ugly in the end. The Sergio Leone classic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly raised the standards of movie making for not only the Western Genre, but for all motion pictures.

Music was also an important element in the Leone Westerns. Music was used to capture the emotions of the characters in the film in the final scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. The suspense is terrifying as we watch and wonder who will get shot. Once Upon a Time in the West includes an all star cast and is considered to be one of the last great Western. By this time Leone’s style had become a tradition. When a person hears the music of the last scene and sees the stare down between characters, most movie fans can tell that this is a Leone movie.

In the bridge scene of Duck, You Sucker! Leone explores new territory as we see a machine gun battle in a Western. When you watch a Sergio Leone movie you will notice clever techniques and new ideas brought to the table that make you say “I was not expecting that to happen.” Some directors may have not been brave enough to try new ideas because of the fear of negative criticism. This is the second film in the second Leone trilogy and it is not as well known as his other films.

John Wayne believed that the Leone Clint Eastwood western films were not realistic. Westerns became popular in American Cinema because of legends like Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper, and later John Wayne who cast the mold for others to follow. Some were not quick to welcome Leone’s new approach to Western moviemaking. Leone’s was ahead of his time. His films were more creative than standard old historic Western films. Unlike many old Westerns, Leone intended to entertain people more and recreate history a little less.

Now over 50 years later most will agree than Leone’s westerns are highly memorable, fun enough to watch one more time, and ranked up there with The Westerner and Rio Bravo as some of the greatest Westerns ever made.

The Western Returns: Five Films That Take Us Back to the Frontier

Though the iconic Westerns films we have all come to love are as quintessentially American as baseball and apple pie, they have a tumultuous history in terms of sustained popularity. Children have replaced the plastic pistols and cowboy hats they once donned as a result of the Western’s Golden Age in the mid-20th century with superhero costumes and stun guns.

It may seem as though the era of well-loved western heroes like “Billy the Kid”, “Buffalo Bill”, and Jesse James has finally come to a close. However, recent trends in Hollywood point to the opposite. Here are five Western films that have ushered in a resurgence of classic Western themes, updated for contemporary audiences:

The descendants of Jesse James have claimed this film to be the most historically accurate depiction of his life. Of all the movies Brad Pitt has acted in, this one is said to be his favorite. He starred as the infamous Jesse James in the 2007 release of this story that depicts the last months of his life. Co-starring as Robert Ford, Casey Affleck portrays the man who both idolizes, and then assassinates, the famous outlaw.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Seinfeld star in the 2010 remake of Henry Hathaway’s critically praised 1969 version starring the great John Wayne. Undoubtedly their most successful film to date, the Coen Brother’s hit netted $171 million in US box office earnings for their retelling of 14 year-old Mattie Ross’ endeavor to track down the murderer of her father with the help of a US Marshall with ‘true grit’. While the movie was nominated for ten Academy Awards, it achieved film history for one of the most nominated films never to win an Oscar. While the 1969 version was only nominated for two Oscars, it did win for Best Actor.

A feature at the Sundance Film Festival, this tale is written and directed by Josh Maclean. It tells the story of a 16-year-old boy as he travels across the Civil war-era America searching for his love, Rose. He teams up with Silas Selleck, a mysterious character with ulterior motives, and together they encounter their fair share of “scraggly frontier folk”. It also stars Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rory McCann, and Ben Mendelsohn. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson says of the film, “there’s a whiff of the Coens’ True Grit here” and calls the movie “a small treasure and a great showcase for Smit-McPhee”. Before it even premiere at Sundance it was snapped up by A24 and DirecTV as part of their ongoing relationship to bring indie films to their on demand platform.

This 2012 movie release won 2 Oscars for its portrayal of a freed slave who embarks on a journey to rescue his wife from a viscous Mississippi plantation owner with the aid of a German bounty hunter. Quentin Tarantino both wrote and directed the film that grossed over $162 million. Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio star in the film, as well as Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.

This 2005 film tells the story of a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy entangled in a secret love affair lasting decades. The modern classic features stellar performances by both Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger star in this both controversial and critically-acclaimed story of a secretive and forbidden relationship. Directed by Ang Lee, the movie also stars Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the two men’s wives who find themselves in the midst of an impossible situation for all.

Don’t be surprised if you see neighborhood children donning chaps instead of capes and laying down their light sabers for an old-fashioned toy pistol. A revival of the frontier spirit has returned, and the Great American Western picture is back for new generations to enjoy.  

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