With the passing of the great Ennio Morricone, whose evocative Spaghetti Western scores will always be a defining ingredient of the genre, it’s an appropriate time to look at some of the more melancholic movies set on the Frontier.
Submitted for your consideration; eight Westerns that perhaps won’t have you whooping on the good guys – if indeed there are any…
Wild Bill (1995)
This Bill Hickok biopic flop stars Jeff Bridges as the titular character and very good it is to, but by gum it’s grim, as Bill’s impending blindness (the result of a ‘social disease’) and eventual slaying are foreshadowed throughout the movie.
David Arquette, who crops up in another two pictures in this selection, plays Bill’s attention-seeking and deeply annoying killer Jack McCall.
The movie reunited Bridges with his Heaven’s Gate (1980) co-star John Hurt, coincidentally another Western that failed at the box office.
Wild Bill shares some of the DNA of HBO’s excellent Deadwood – of which Walter Hill directed the very first episode.
3:10 to Yuma (Amazon/Starzplay)
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel and filmed once before in 1957, Bale plays an impoverished one-legged rancher paid to escort captured outlaw leader Russell Crowe to the 3:10 train leaving for Yuma, where he’s to be incarcerated at the Territorial Prison.
Crowe turns out to be more honourable than expected – and at least possesses a sense of humour, although that doesn’t help Christian Bale, who is shot to death by Crowe’s gang towards the end of the movie.
Hostiles (2017, Netflix)
Ten years later Bale starred in Hostiles (Netflix), a western that if anything makes Yuma look like a happy-go-lucky romp.
Bale plays Captain Joseph J Blocker, veteran of the Indian Wars and no friend of the Native American peoples.
His last assignment before he retires is to escort cancer-ridden Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and family back to their Montana homeland.
Rape, murder and insanity prove to be the travelling companions to the group, who finally reach the tribal lands only to find that greedy settlers have usurped the chief’s domain and are prepared to kill to keep it…
The Salvation (2014, Amazon)
Another laugh-a-minute, this Danish western (not a western set in Denmark, I hasten to add) boasts a knockout international cast, including Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce, former Man Utd footballer Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt and Douglas Henshall.
Again, rape, murder and outlawry are on the menu, with Mikkelsen’s Danish hapless immigrant Jon being put the through the wringer at the hands of gang leader and budding land baron Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
The Salvation at least has a happy ending of sorts, with Mikklelsen starting a new life with the traumatised mute widow (Eva Green) of the man who raped and murdered his wife.
Who he subsequently killed in revenge.
Bone Tomahawk (2015, Amazon)
One of the best movies in the Western Horror subgenre, Bone Tomahawk pits Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Hunt and accompanying posse against a troglodyte clan of inbred cannibals who inhabit the “Valley of the Starving Men”.
The scalping, bisection (whilst alive) and consumption of their victims appears to be the main pastime of the tribe.
A tiny budget of just $1.8m goes a long way in the picture, with a strong visual style and an amazing cast, numbering Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, David Arquette, Sid Haig and the 80s quartet of Sean Young (Blade Runner), Michael Paré (Streets of Fire), James Tolkan (Back to the Future) and Jamison Newlander (The Lost Boys).
Ravenous (1999, Amazon)
Sixteen years earlier Antonia Bird’s (Priest, Face) Ravenous pursued a similar theme, concerning US troops in a remote Sierra Nevada outpost who have developed a taste for human flesh.
This very black comedy is another Western Horror movie that attracted a stellar cast, including Antonia Bird and starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough and David Arquette (yet again) who must have a penchant for taking roles in cannibal pictures.
Dead Man (1995, Amazon)
Johnny Depp, who’s in the news at the moment for reasons other than his acting, starred in this bleak Jim Jarmusch oater in 1995.
It can’t really get much grimmer, as Depp’s character William Blake (very subtle) travels to the frontier town of Machine to find that his promised accountancy job has already been filled.
Shortly afterwards Depp is shot, with a bullet lodged so close to his heart that he won’t live beyond a few days.
Once again, this kind of fare seems to fascinate name actors, with Robert Mitchum (in his final screen role), Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, John Hurt (him again) Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Jared Harris and Mili Avital all joining Depp in the cast.
I said that Dead Man wasn’t exactly cheery, but then you probably haven’t seen Depp’s sole directorial effort, The Brave (1997, Amazon Prime).
In the picture, Depp stars as Raphael, a Native American who agrees to be tortured and killed in a snuff movie to help provide for his impoverished family. As you do.
Emphatically not a date movie.
The Hateful Eight (2015, Netflix)
Quentin Tarantino’s lengthy Grand Guignol by way of a Jacobean Revenge Play The Hateful Eight is my final selection.
A superb troupe of players, great cinematography (Robert Richardson) and Ennio Morricone’s Academy Award winning score elevates this rather static picture into a very satisfying experience, although an extremely bloodthirsty one.
Standouts? Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth and Bruce Dern all shine in their roles, confirming Tarantino’s famed casting skills.
To see which upcoming Westerns I recommend, read the whole thing here.