All of that is gone now.
Little of the genre still stands today. The Western can only be seen occasionally in The Museum that is known as Cable Movie Networks. It is only spoken of by The Old Ones, overheard in a coffee shops and bars debating the merits of someone called The Duke over someone called Gary Cooper. Sometimes The Western will attempt to emerge from the sacred ground in which it is buried. A 3:10 to Yuma or an Alpaloosa will stick its head out of the sand. Even when well received, these films do not stay out in the light for long. People like Clint Eastwood and Kevin Kostner have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to keep the genre alive. The Western even manages a small but stable existence in Direct To DVD Valley and in Animated Comedy Gulch.
The genre met its apocalypse some time 30 or 40 years ago. Back in the 70's The Western experienced The Great Deconstruction. The myths of violence and racism that kept the genre alive for so long were challenged and taken apart by men like Sergio Leone and Eastwood. Once the public had glimpsed behind the curtain of The Western, it could do nothing but collapse into itself.
The Western does still thrive. Some of its elements escaped to live and flourish in movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Today The Western is present in action movies that star the likes of Jason Statham,or just about any other action movie that centers around the struggles of one exceptionally powerful hero to overcome the powers of darkness.
Today, the Western also very much survives in a Post Apocalyptic world.
The Post Apocalyptic Sci-Fi action movie is a genre that is still with us today and it is a place where the genre of The Western has laid down its stakes.
I'm gonna ditch the post apocalyptic movie mythospeak narration now, k?
The genre of the Post Apocalyptic Western is quintessentially displayed in the 2010 film, The Book of Eli. The movie stars Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis. It was directed by the Hughes Brothers of Menace II Society and From Hell fame. Not far into the movie there is a scene where Eli, the amazingly skilled loner swordsman who roams the vast post apocalyptic wasteland that was once the USA, is hassled by a gang of bad guys in run down old saloon. As Eli starts taking he baddies out with lightening speed and skill, it suddenly becomes very clear that we are looking at a Western.
The Book of Eli has many of the points that 9 out of 10 film academics agree makes a Western: the heroic loner with incredible fighting skills, the struggle to establish civilization out of lawless primordial chaos and the mentoring of the next generation's heroic loner with incredible fighting skills who will carry on said fight to maintain law and order.
Eli, played by Denzel Washington, is the heroic loner. As alluded to earlier, Eli's skills are not with a gun, the traditional Western weapon of choice, but rather with a sword. It is a choice of weapon that suggests overtones of Akira Kurosawa's amazing Samurai take on the Western, Yojimbo (later remade as A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood) and its follow up Sanjuro (also later remade as For a Few Dollars More with Eastwood).
The struggle to establish, or re-establish in this case, civilization is against the powerful post apocalyptic warlord Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. Carnegie wants to re-establish civilization so that he can he can rule over it. The next generation of the heroic loner whom Eli reluctantly mentors (mentoring is always reluctant in these films) is Solara, played by the wonderful yet underrated Mila Kunis. An African-American frontier lawman mentoring a woman to uphold the law of the west? Tremors are being reported around D.W. Griffith's grave as we speak.
The Book of Eli takes place thirty years after an unspecified, possibility religious, war has all but laid waste to the USA and, presumably, the rest of the world. Eli has in his possession a certain mythical book that will help reshape the world into a civilized moral order once again. The powerful Carnegie wants the book as well. He sees it as a means to power and conquest.
If you're like me watching the movie early on, you have no doubt figured out that book is The Bible. To be fair, it's not like the film is trying to keep that a mystery or anything. Personally, I'd make my post apocalyptic Western the other way around: it's the bad guy who has The Bible and the good guy wants to get it away from him so as to prevent more future social, political and cultural strife. I think that's my inner John Lennon speaking.
The Book of Eli is an engaging and well directed movie. The cinematography in combination with some amazing CGI creates a post apocalyptic landscape unlike any we have seen before.
A great cast really helps too.
The Book of Eli is certainly not cinema's first post-apocalyptic Western. It's a genre that at least goes back to the 70's....
The Ultimate Warrior takes place in a post global pandemic New York City in the year 2012 (start packing that bottled water and those canned goods now, folks, we're just 9 months away). The crammed claustrophobic urban spaces of a burned out NYC is not exactly the wide open Western plains of The Searchers or Stagecoach. But wherever there is a world where civilization has broken down and lawlessness reigns, the Code of the West stands firmly in place.
A group of nice, peaceful survivors has set up a small fortified area in NYC. The group is led by Max Von Sydow (who, at the time, was still busy vying for The Most Diversified Actor's Resume of All Time Award by turning up movies like this, The Exorcist, Three Days of the Condor, Flash Gordon and Strange Brew). It seems that Von Sydow and his crew have come up with seeds for crops that able to grow in the post plague-infested world of one year from now.
A group of ruthless bad guys (led by the guy who played Falcon Eddy and Conan The Barbarian's dad) are keen to get the seeds for themselves. This gang of bad guys are very clear on the function of the villains in the narrative structure of The Western.
Enter Yul Brynner, the silent shirtless powerful stranger in the classic Western loner hero mold or, as the title of this film prefers to call him, The Ultimate Warrior.
Take a look at this scene and tell me that we don't have some classic Western archetypes happening here.
The Ultimate Warrior is a more entertaining than you might expect. It features a suspenseful game of cat and mouse and some extremely well shot and edited fight scenes. Along the way, Brynner gets plenty of opportunities to show off his ideal-for-the-pre-Schwarzenegger-generation physique.
The Ultimate Warrior has an absolutely unforgettable climatic fight scene that, really, makes the film. It's also a scene that is eerily similar to the quintessential post apocalyptic Western that would follow just four years later. We're talking about a movie that would forever define the genre and at the same time set off a majorly successful action movie trilogy...
Despite the genre's many successors and predecessors, Australian director George Miller pretty much defined the Post Apocalyptic Western with these three films...well...at least in the first two anyway...
The fist film, Mad Max, introduced a young and (at the time) sane Mel Gibson to the world. It takes place in a world where some kind of ambiguous disaster had brought civilization to its knees.
Mad Max is a classic Western story. It's got all those necessary elements: a lawless frontier, ruthless bad guys and the loner lawman trying to settle down and fit it to the society he has always stayed aloof from in order to protect it. Throw in Max's young son, who represents the oft repeated Western theme of the male hero bloodline and we got us a Western, fellas.
Max also exists in a cinematic era that is post Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and all those 70's exploitation movies that Quentin Tarantino seems to have grown up on. The bad guy's treatment of innocent people in general and women, in particular, displays some of the most sadistically psychotic behavior this side of Straw Dogs.
Almost all of the action in Mad Max takes place out on the road where motorcycles and cars have replaced horses and stagecoaches. Many of the incredible car stunts were -amazingly- shot on remote Australian highways that the production had no permission to film on, let alone permission to perform the extremely dangerous stunts on.
The movie also boast that Ultimate Warrior like climax that the makers of the Saw movies openly admit to being an influence on their later torture porn series of horror films (notice how I'm carefully not giving anything away here).
Mad Max was a big hit in Australia and internationally but it did not do so well in North America on its initial release. This is most likely on account of the fact that Mel's Aussie accented voice in the film was re-dubbed for US audiences by Lyle Waggoner. Yes. Lyle Wagonner from Wonder Woman and The Carol Burnett Show.
Mad Max's failure to see the kind of US box office success it saw Down Under is the reason why Mad Max 2 is still, to this day, better known on this continent as The Road Warrior.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (as it is now always listed on the program grids) picks up the story some time after the end of Mad Max. The Road Warrior ramps up the high octane highway action of the first film big time.
Gibson's Max has now almost permanently settled into the western heroic loner character. The first few scenes of Max and the Gyro Captain are practically right out of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Of course, it's not long before Max comes across good peace loving people who are limited in their ability to defend themselves.
It seems that there is this gang of super sickos with Mohawks, loin clothes and hockey masks that are determined to take away the nice people's gasoline by force. There ain't much gar around, you see, and everybody needs the stuff in order to carry on with their high speed car chases and stunts.
The larger budget benefits The Road Warrior greatly. Every stuntman in the Australian stuntman's union was reportedly booked on MM2. Miller certainly put them through their paces. There are some stunning stunts in The Road Warrior.
Once the action hits the road, Miller's camera never stops moving. The film also boasts one of the greatest action movie scores ever. The movie was scored (oddly enough- like the first Mad Max) by Brian May of Queen. Why didn't this guy score more movies?
At the heart of MM2:TRW is Max's journey back from the abyss. This Post Apocalyptic western drifts into the classic Western Shane territory. Max slowly and reluctantly regains his humanity. His budding paternal relationship with the boomerang slinging feral child is the restoration of the heroic bloodline. That bloodline, of course, was (SPOILER ALERT) lost with the death of Max's young son at the end of the first film.
The Road Warrior ends, needles to say, with the good guys victorious. The victory comes at a cost. Like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, Max stands alone in the barren desert; forever separated from the society he risked his life to protect.
Pretty hackneyed stuff, these Westerns, huh?
The next film was unconfusingly titled Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
I remember when this highly anticipated third entry into the series first came out. It's rare that sequels pull off a consistently good trilogy and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is no exception. Back in '85, me and some of my pals watched the first two Max films on video and then went to the theatre right afterwords to see MMBT on its opening day. I highly recommend doing this if you want to be sure that Beyond Thunderdome delivers maximum disappointment.
The gladiatorial style fight scene in the Thunderdome of the film's title is the best part of the movie. Actually, correction: the fight scene in the Thunderdome IS the movie (I have friends who still quote the line, "Two men enter. One man leaves." on a regular basis). The whole film pretty much falls apart after the Thunderdome.
That said, where do I start?
Firstly, there is a huge premise shift in the world that these films take place in. There are frequent references to a nuclear war with lines like "Where were you when the Big One dropped?". There was never any reference to a nuclear war in the other two films. Such references were specifically avoided, in fact. It could be that the "Big One" was dropped between movies but that makes no sense because no one in the this third installment talks about the Big One dropping as being a recent thing. It is also inconsistent with the series' pre-established internal logic.
However, that's super picky stuff next to Beyond Thunderdome's bigger issues. One such problem is the sudden change in tone of the series. In what was previously a nihilistic, violent, Peckinpahesque series of films, we are now treated to scenes of cartoon-like wacky mayhem. There is a scene where one of the Mohawk loin cloth-wearing thugs comes flying out a massive explosion with a slightly blackened face (not unlike every cartoon you've ever seen in your life). He then lets out his best 70's live action Disney movie "Wwwwaaaahhhhh!".
I'm sorry but at what point did Herbie The Love Bug join The Interceptors and the souped-up Mack Trucks on the post apocalyptic highways of Australia? It's too bad that Dean Jones wasn't available to replace Mel Gibson as Mad Max. And why not recast Tina Turner's role with Suzanne Pleshette while you're at it?
The biggest problem by far with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the lack of any kind of engaging coherent narrative.
Maximum disappointment ensured.
There is a ray of hope for the series.
George Miller has decided to abandon movies like Happy Feet 2, the Babe franchise and the long rumoured Justice League movie to make another entry into the Mad Max series. Miller was supposed to start shooting not one but two new Mad Max movies back-to-back this month. The recent floods in Australia, however, have pushed the production start date back TO 2012. Most likely, we will not see Mad Max: Fury Road until at least 2013.
While it certainly would have been interesting to catch up with a 60ish year old and now insane Max, Mel Gibson turned down returning the to the franchise that made him a star. I guess the movie didn't have enough insert joke about potential antisemitic plot line here in it for him.
Max will now be played by Tom Hardy of Inception fame. Hopefully, with the invigoration of a new leading man, Miller will be able to forget the family-friendly-make-tons-more-money approach of Beyond Thunderdome and get the series back to basics.
After all, isn't the Post Apocalyptic Western all about redemption, salvation and rebirth?