This week, 3:10 to Yuma hits theaters, telling the story of a cash-strapped rancher (Christian Bale) who volunteers to help escort a train robber (Russell Crowe) to federal court; what follows is a battle of wits in which the normal bounds of good and evil fall by the wayside. Thus, Yuma joins a long line of Westerns that explore the complexities of human nature against the unforgiving backdrop of the frontier.
In the mid-1960s, filmmakers began to move away from the black-and-white morality of earlier Westerns in order to explore some of the darker aspects of the frontier. That’s not to say that earlier films didn’t delve into the complexities inherent in the form; High Noon (95 percent on the Tomatometer), from 1952, presented a skeptical view of the nature of heroism, and John Ford‘s 1964 drama Cheyenne Autumn (63 percent) took a more sympathetic view of the plight of Native Americans than did his previous works. But it wasn’t until later in the decade that Westerns began to depict the frontier in a more complex, ominous light: as a place of dirty living conditions, changing political and economic climates, and the razor-thin line between lawlessness and order.
Duck, You Sucker remains one of Leone’s least-seen films, but it’s got a number of the same elements that make Leone’s westerns so memorable: breathtaking vistas, explosive battle sequences, a haunting Ennio Morricone score, and oodles of moral ambiguity.
Coburn doesn’t match Eastwood’s iconic, tight-lipped gunslinger, but he makes up for it with crotchety humor and an air of morality; he’s committed to a cause, but disillusioned with the revolutionary life. And Steiger’s Juan evolves from a selfish thief to a man who realizes his unique place in the midst of historical events. “The combination of Leone’s obsessive close-ups, Ennio Morricone’s melodious music, and the comradely chemistry of Coburn and Steiger ignite an emotional explosion comparable to that of Once Upon a Time in the West,” wrote Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking The Wild Bunch is in any way a slog through the last days of the west. The movie has many moments of melancholy, but it also contains at least three battle scenes with a level of ultra-violence — and sheer awesomeness — that few have come close to matching (although many directors have tried; John Woo and Martin Scorsese have both cited The Wild Bunch as an influence. “The on-screen carnage established a new level in American movies, but few of the films that followed in its wake could duplicate Peckinpah’s depth of feeling,” wrote Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader.
Like the HBO series Deadwood (which owes an obvious debt to McCabe), one of the underlying themes of the film is how the freewheeling, pioneering spirit of the frontier was tamed by economic — and often uncivil — means. But that only goes so far in describing the poetry of this masterful film. You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie more evocatively, forbiddingly atmospheric than McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The harsh environs of the snowy Northwest are so vivid you can practically feel a chill from the screen. In addition, the sepia-like cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond and the elegiac songs of Leonard Cohen create a forlorn, bleak feeling of a time and place that will soon be relegated to history. “Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another,” wrote Roger Ebert. “But one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
The Western has gone through a number of cycles, and though it’s fallen out of favor in more recent times, there are always a few oaters, like Unforgiven (96 percent), Open Range (78 percent), or The Proposition (86 percent) that explore the landscape of human complexity — usually with a shotgun in hand.