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A scene from "Hell on Wheels"
A scene from "Hell on Wheels"

Movies

Westerns: Back in the saddle, but with angst Add to ...

In the not-so-wild west of the Fairmont Banff Springs, some big guns from Hollywood are talking cowboys and engines – and zeitgeist.

It’s standing room only at the Banff World Media Festival sneak peek of Hell on Wheels, the Alberta-shot drama set to premiere on AMC in November. On the crammed stage, a group of well-heeled entertainment executives is recounting how the series was born: a pitch by Joe and Tony Gayton for a new series; a suggestion on a Friday at 5 p.m. that they come up with a western instead; an early-morning call to AMC the following Monday with a proposal: How about something set post-Civil War, with the building of the first transcontinental railroad as a framing device? Bull’s-eye.

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Hell on Wheels, described at that same Banff session in June as a “modern thriller,” is, like many westerns before it, revenge-driven. Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, is out to avenge the death of his family, and, to facilitate his quest, seeks a job helping to build the railroad.

Following the success of its 2006 miniseries Broken Trail, AMC was on the hunt for an original western; its director of scripted programming notes that it’s a “comfort food” genre that AMC’s audience loves. “It was a no-brainer,” said Owen Shiflett in a recent interview. “The fact that [ Broken Trail]was a western and it was being told with a modern sensibility and point of view; I think that ... tapped into something.”

From HBO’s much-missed Deadwood to the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake to the acclaimed video game Red Dead Redemption to this year’s animated Johnny Depp vehicle Rango and Jon Favreau’s western/sci-fi mash-up Cowboys & Aliens, the western is back in the pop-culture saddle, capturing the attention not only of traditional fans but of a wider, less conventional audience. Not to mention the critics: The Sisters Brothers, a western written by B.C.-born novelist Patrick deWitt, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; True Grit was nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year, including best picture.

“The success of True Grit is definitely something we’re going to use as a selling point [for Hell on Wheels] to say look, there is a huge resurgence, interest in westerns and you’ve got to just sort of step back from your preconceived notions,” says John Morayniss, the Toronto-born, L.A.-based CEO of eOne Television, which is one of the series’ producers.

Those preconceived notions may evoke visions of a straightforward, even simplistic morality tale. But the contemporary western can be a more complex, character-driven art: as much salon as saloon. Those 10-gallon hats are not all black or white; those wide-open skies are, metaphorically speaking, increasingly grey. And the current fascination with the genre may have as much to do with 9/11 as the Vietnam War had to do with the western’s decline decades ago.

The western has long been a vital (if cyclical) player in American film, going back to the silent era. But around the 1960s – and the Vietnam War – the genre underwent a major shift.

“Things were really bad in the sixties because of the war, and people didn’t want films that extolled American values or manifest destiny, because Vietnam was such an excoriating experience,” says Colorado College professor John Simons, who co-authored the recently published Peckinpah’s Tragic Westerns: A Critical Study. “The cynicism about America was so great … westerns are almost innately optimistic, and people just couldn’t stomach that.”

That societal cynicism was reflected in Vietnam-era films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. And in some ways, observers say, the darkness of these films helped viewers make sense of uncertain times – which could also explain the western’s resurgence now.

“It’s like we need something and the western is inching forward,” says Garry Leonard, an English professor at the University of Toronto who is working on two books about the film genre. “Can it save us again? It has so many times. Arguably it helped us through Vietnam. Can it help us through 9/11?”

The terrorist attacks of almost a decade ago certainly seemed to give the U.S. permission to celebrate itself, even as they created the need to do so. And unlike Vietnam, where deep cynicism about the war poisoned American sentiment for its soldiers, post-9/11 there is widespread domestic support for the troops, says Simons, if not the battles they’re fighting. This has allowed for the quintessentially American genre of the western to return, guns blazing.

But while the western is riding high again, it’s a more complex beast in terms of storytelling and characters. Think the Coen Brothers’ True Grit versus the 1969 True Grit, starring John Wayne – especially the second outing’s darker ending, which was more true to the novel.

Brent Strang, an Edmonton academic studying American film in New York, is careful to point out that the westerns of decades ago were not completely devoid of sophistication and moral complexity. “There’s schlock today; there was schlock back then.” But, he says, there’s been an important shift in the portrayal of the protagonist.

“What was central to Deadwood for me was that it’s a completely different type of western, and one that we have seen more of in the last 20 years,” he says. “And that had to do with problematizing the western cowboy in very interesting ways, where the hero doesn’t win any more. It’s his time to lose, and he never loses more so than when he wins, in a strange way.”

The western has always worked as a parable. Today, it reflects the instability of our times. The chaos encountered by the stranger riding into town cannot necessarily be eliminated; often, there is no order for that cowboy to restore.

“If you look at No Country for Old Men, the final note is confusion, anxiety and despair,” says Strang. “And I think looking at the London riots or the Vancouver riots and terrorism and so forth, most of us are absolutely befuddled. ... Something’s not right; something’s not working. The western used to be a corrective to that feeling, which soothed that somehow, and reset that unrest. But it no longer is.”

At the same time, Leonard says that in periods of crisis there is a desire for the comfort – and fantasy – of the obvious, easy solution offered by the western. “I don’t know what the cowboys would have done to Lehman Brothers, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.”

It was, in fact, early during the Iraq war that the idea for The Mountie started percolating in Wyeth Clarkson’s film-fortified brain. The son of former Telefilm head Wayne Clarkson, he was raised on westerns, and bemoans the dearth of the genre in Canadian culture. “I wanted to see myself on screen, really,” Clarkson said from Toronto this week. “I want to be 20 feet tall with the gun, going ‘freeze’ to the bad guy.”

Released last month in selected North American cities, The Mountie is set in Yukon just before the gold rush, where a mysterious community of Russian immigrants clashes with a lone, brave Mountie (Andrew Walker).

It’s not the only Canadian take on the western out this year. The idea for The Sisters Brothers began with a phrase deWitt wrote in his notebook: “sensitive cowboys.” Like other contemporary westerns, his novel offers a complex portrayal of the man behind the six-shooter: DeWitt’s narrator protagonist is another example of Strang’s “problematizing” cowboy. Eli Sisters is a gold rush-era cowboy assassin with issues. His neurotic ambivalence about his life choices, his desire to shed a few pounds, and his fantasy of opening a little shop run contrary to the sure-footed bravado of the celebrated western hero.

“I started thinking of it as a western for people who don’t like westerns, or people who aren’t familiar with them, thinking of myself, mostly,” says deWitt, whose first novel, Ablutions, and his screenplay for the film Terri – opening this weekend – bear no resemblance to a western.

“I had a suspicion that people who liked westerns were going to rip it apart; I thought they would look at it and scoff, because I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do or whatever. But I’m finding that that’s not true at all,” adds deWitt, who now lives in Portland. “So that’s a relief.”

The Sisters Brothers is no dime-store novel, and Hell on Wheels, which is scheduled to wrap production in the Calgary area next week, is no Bonanza. “We’re obviously shooting for a level of sophistication and quality that will stand apart from a more traditional, older-style western, or the western that you used to see on television years ago,” says Morayniss. Shiflett likes to say that Hell on Wheels shares more DNA with 24 than with Deadwood – although that profanity-laden HBO series, along with True Grit, paved the way for the western’s resurgence.

If Hell on Wheels achieves the sort of success AMC has enjoyed with other dramatic series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Morayniss predicts it will spawn a crop of new shows. “Every network will start to develop their period western,” he says.

At U of T, Leonard will be watching closely to see what impact that may have on the evolution of the genre. The western, he says, “will both be evolving and will have to be what it’s always been. It has to be a balance, or it’ll disappear. If they tried to remake Shane now, it would bomb abysmally. But if they try and remake a western now that has no discernible connection to what westerns have been, it would also bomb. You’ve got to somehow use the old to make sense of the new.”

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