Return Of The Western?

We’ve watched every episode of Yellowstone, we enjoyed 1883, the first of the Yellowstone prequels (which apparently is returning for a second season), and we are caught up on 1923, the newest Yellowstone prequel. We figure 1903 can’t be far behind, and there are many more tales to be told of the rambunctious Dutton clan and their constant battles to hold on to their beautiful spread in the wilds of Montana. (Don’t be surprised, for example, if there is a 2063, about future generations of Duttons.) With the success of the Dutton shows, you have to wonder: will westerns finally be making their TV and movie comeback?

It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of television, westerns dominated the network programming. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel, and The Rifleman dominated the nightly programming and the ratings. Westerns were so popular for so long on television that variations on traditional westerns, like Branded, about an unjustly accused soldier, and The Wild, Wild West, with its newfangled gadgetry, were introduced. During those same decades John Wayne and other stars were churning out westerns at the cinema, producing classics like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the movie industry also made its share of non-traditional westerns, like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It’s not hard to see why westerns dominated popular entertainment during those years. The western genre was very elastic, and accommodated simple good guy versus bad guy tales and much more nuanced and complicated stories that left you wondering about who really was the hero. Westerns were cheap to make, with the sets for most TV westerns found on a Hollywood studios back lot, and even “on location” shoots occurring within only a few hundred miles of studio headquarters. And, in America, there always has been a certain romance about the west, and a fascination with the gunslingers, sheriffs, and train robbers, the wars with native Americans, and the many hazards and rough justice of frontier days.

At some point in the late ’60s, though, westerns suddenly vanished from the TV screen, and movie westerns largely disappeared only a few years later. Perhaps Americans had just had their fill, or perhaps westerns just didn’t fit with the then-prevailing notions about the world, or perhaps science fiction films and TV shows co-opted the standard western plots and threw in some cool special effects, besides. Since the demise of the western genre, there have been predictions about its renaissance–in the wake of TV shows like Lonesome Dove and movies like Young Guns and Silverado–but those forecasts have proven inaccurate.

Could now be the time when American viewers are ready to return to the western, and an era when problems seemed less complicated and a simple showdown on a dusty street was seen as a way to actually solve a problem, once and for all? With Beth Dutton’s two-fisted approach leading the way, who knows? We may see a lot more horse operas in the future.

A New Weather Name, Awfully Late In The Game

Until a month ago, when severe thunderstorms and strong wind gusts devastated electric power service to most of Columbus, I’d never heard of a “derecho.”

It turns out that a derecho is a line of thunderstorms that produces widespread, damaging “straight line” winds.  Today, when another black, gusty thunderstorm cell rolled through town, people were talking about derechos again.  (Whether Columbusites are pronouncing the word correctly is another question.)

Isn’t it kind of late in human history to be coming up with new names for weather?  I’ve lived in the Midwest for most of my life, and severe thunderstorms are not uncommon during the summer months.  Until now, they’ve just been called severe thunderstorms, which seems like a more than adequate descriptive phrase.  Why not stick with that, rather than coming up with an unpronounceable, unknown term?

And while we’re at it, why do new weather systems always get Spanish-sounding names?  First El Nino, then La Nina, now derecho.  It sounds like the name of John Wayne’s ranch in The Sons of Katie Elder, or perhaps the moniker for a new Taco Bell faux Mexican concoction.  A derecho probably would involve browned meat, smoked bacon, Velveeta cheese, habanero sauce, and ranch dressing, sprinkled with crushed Doritos and wrapped in a soft taco shell.

No doubt some college student would drive hundreds of miles, through countless severe thunderstorm cells, to give it a try.

True Grit

It was cold in Columbus today and the Browns were getting their asses kicked by the Steelers, so it was a perfect day for a movie.  I’d heard good things about True Grit, so that is what we saw — and the positive word-of-mouth turned out to be right on target.

Who would have thought that they would remake any John Wayne movie, much less True Grit?  Have they remade Sands of Iwo Jima, or The Searchers, or for that matter The Sons of Katie Elder?  Wayne was such a huge personality that it often was difficult to separate him from the story.  The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, took on that challenge, however, and the results are strikingly good.  It is a beautifully photographed movie, with an excellent soundtrack and a stunning script.  To me, the biggest star of the movie is the English language.  Were the mud-spattered, tobacco-crusted residents of the old West really so articulate, with vocabularies as sweeping as the broad western vistas?  Whether they were or weren’t, it is a pleasure to listen to the actors speak the lines and appreciate the expressive richness of the spoken word.

The acting is pretty good, too.  Hailee Steinfeld, who plays precocious and iron-willed 14-year-old Mattie Ross, has a breakout performance.  The remake succeeds, in part, because the focus of the film is on Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge her father, and it wouldn’t have worked if the actor playing Ross had not delivered.  Steinfeld does, in spades.  Jeff Bridges has by now perfected the grizzled, whiskey-soaked hero role, and he is terrific — funny, pathetic, maddening, and then awesomely heroic when the chips are down.  Matt Damon is excellent as LaBoeuf, the talkative Texas Ranger.  Watching Damon convincingly playing a man of the frontier, you realize that he is developing a portfolio of fine performances in a wide variety of roles.  Damon is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and this film gives him another chance to display his talents.  There are a number of other great performances; my personal favorite was the beleaguered stable owner who comes to regret negotiating with the single-minded Mattie bent on properly settling her dead father’s affairs.

In modern Hollywood, westerns have been a neglected genre.  True Grit shows that timeless westerns can still be made, and enjoyed.