I’m a great lover of the western genre and have been ever since I was a young boy. There’s just something nostalgic yet eternally heartrending about vast open plains or riding off into the sunset. I think for me it signifies a longing for something that can never be, but you still devote yourself to attaining it. Last evening I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which has become what I will not hesitate to claim my favourite western movie of all time, surpassing even Sergio Leone’s three-hour epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The characters of Assassination are deeply moving, troubled, conflicted and larger-than-life, while remaining truly human and relatable. Filmed in the gorgeous wildlife and sprawling vistas of Alberta and Manitoba, Canada, the film could not have been more superbly picturesque. A true western masterpiece. All done with no bullets.
Well, there were bullets of course, the title contains the word assassination and it’s spoiler alert: carried out with a gun. But the film omits the commonplace stereotypes of flashy gunfights, bank heists and stolen damsels. This got me thinking about some of my other favourite dramas in the western genre and how they follow this same pattern, ultimately prompting me to think about what a “western” truly is. Is it the setting of the wild west that counts? The inclusion of cowboys or natives or railroads? Road-agents or heroic sheriffs? I don’t really know the answer and those are purely rhetorical questions, anyhow. When I watch a western, I expect the same thing from any other movie: excitement and drama. For some reason, westerns just seem to incite a feeling that society was simpler and all they had to worry about was the next sunrise. Though that isn’t the case: they’re humans, just in a different time, with different conflictions, turmoil and longing for idealism.
Unforgiven was the first western film I watched where I realized gun smoke wasn’t needed to sustain a powerfully dramatic film about the “wild west”. It was just a deeply moving story, with painful and saddening characters, all without the common stereotypes and tropes of the popular western genre. Then along came Deadwood–which I consider potentially the most exciting depiction ever of the wild west and its culture and evolution–and while very heavily historically fictionalising the place where it got its namesake, Deadwood did the same thing with a grand total of two gunshot kills throughout 36 hours of programming.
I feel when I watch a truly wonderful western, I discover myself loving or hating characters, or envying or pitying them. It makes me wish I could feel the wheat fields on my palms or breathe the fresh, ethereal air of the open plains. A great western doesn’t just entertain me, it makes me want to live in that era, that world that once was. And it makes me write ruminating blog posts about it. So please do yourself a favour if you enjoy western films: watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.