Westerns, like sci-fi, work best when they are used as settings for analogous stories. One uses an imagined past, the other an imagined future. Both genres fall in and out of fashion and have both been blamed for producing the biggest flops in Hollywood history, on a seemingly regular basis. And it seems that Disney has been recently been responsible for the two biggest failures in both genres, with John Carter and now The Lone Ranger. What makes this even harder to comprehend is neither of these films is as bad as the box-office figures would suggest. In fact, John Carter was better than many of its contemporary sci-fi cinema blockbusters. Ironically, one of the main criticisms was that it was too much like other sci-fi films, when in fact, the John Carter stories are the father of all the sci-fi films we have seen over the last three decades (and longer). And yet, the two biggest sci-fi films in recent times (Avatar and The Matrix) are possibly the most derivative films of the genre, with Avatar having more than a passing resemblance to another Disney “flop” – Atlantis.
What is more surprising is that a uniquely American genre, the western, should do so badly in its homeland. The daddy of all western flops has to be Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which has just been restored to all its original glory by Criterion Collection, those guardians of cinematic history. Yes, it has a tendency towards artistic self-indulgence in places, but it is epic storytelling on the same scale as Lawrence of Arabia, and it moves at a similar pace, from long, drawn-out sequences to spectacular action scenes. With the Director’s Cut of Heaven’s Gate coming in at just over three-and-a-half-hours, it is not for those with a short attention span, but it is no longer than the average Bollywood movie. However, length should not be a deciding factor as to whether to see a film or not. Sure Heaven’s Gate could be shorter, and has been released in shorter versions over its checkered history. The full-length version of the Indian gangster film The Gangs of Wasseypur is close to five-and-a-half hours, and every bit of it is riveting. Heaven’s Gate is equally engrossing for its portrayal of a little-known piece of US history, as well as the stellar performances of the cast made up of youthful John Hurt, Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges.
A possible reason for the general derision of Heaven’s Gate could be the fact that it does not paint a pretty picture of the frontier that most Americans have grown up with. It wasn’t a revisionist cowboys and indians movie, but one that showed the atrocities meted out to new immigrants by cattle barons, as the corporate cow punchers objected to the influx of new European emigres taking “their” land, the land they stole from the natives and wanted to use for their cattle. Like many sci-fi films, such as Independence Day, it was essentially about stopping an alien invasion. It’s as if the American collective psyche lives in fear of the karmic retribution for what it did to the native population.
Surprisingly, for a Disney film, this is an issue that is also addressed in The Lone Ranger, as corporate America, in the guise of the railways, schemes to remove the natives and their natural resources, in the name of progress and “civilisation”. The film starts off as a sort of Little Big Man Lite as Johnny Depp’s Tonto is now an old man relegated to being a sideshow totem, as he begins to recount the story of the Lone Ranger to a precocious kid dressed as (in)famous masked man. Of course, old Tonto’s recounting of the legend is somewhat fanciful, which his audience soon begins to question, in a similar manner to Princess Bride. This being a Disney film it doesn’t get quite as graphic as Little Big Man or Soldier Blue, but it doesn’t shy away from the genocide either.
Apart from the familiar characters, the film is quite far removed from the original TV series, with its subversive themes and off-kilter humour, which even addresses Tonto’s rather insulting name (by a strange coincidence, Depp has the same meaning in German as Tonto does in Spanish/Italian). Speaking of Depp, while he is being berated for what some are calling his now commonplace schtick, he does a great job as the eccentric native, with his performance and much of the film’s humour being a homage to Buster Keaton, with some brilliant sight gags (as well as excellent one-liners) that supply much of the movie’s entertainment. The chemistry between Armie Hammer and Depp is also great, with Hammer reminiscent of Brendon Fraser’s wide-eyed naivety circa George of the Jungle and The Mummy. There are plenty of other casting surprises including William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, and Ruth Wilson in a role far removed from her Alice in Luther.
Westerns may not be as popular as they used to be but Heaven’s Gate and The Lone Ranger are two great – if polar opposite – examples of the genre that have been unfairly ignored by the public. Don’t believe the negative hype (just as you shouldn’t believe any other hype) and see both of them. You will get plenty of screen time for your money as well as films that have something more to say than most of this summer’s destruction-porn blockbusters as well as being entertaining.