When we hear the word “Western,” certain images and storyline tropes come to mind: cowboys riding their trusty steeds, epic shootouts with rolling tumbleweeds in the background, and the fearless exploration of uncharted territory. We challenged the movies to a duel to identify movies that may not come to mind when you think of Westerns, but are significantly influenced by or are tributes to the gun-slinging films your grandpa can’t get enough of.
From talking bugs to space pioneers discovering a mysterious native population, we present ten movies that take Western themes far away from the Wild West.
A Bug’s Life
How’s this for a cow-opera plot: a greedy gang comes to town and threatens to steal everything from its docile citizens. Sounds kind of like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, albeit without the whorehouse.
Wait, there’s more: one resident decides to stand up to the bad guys by rounding up a posse and staging a daring defense of the community and all it holds dear. The Magnificent Seven you say? Well, sorta. A Bug’s Life doesn’t have horses, spurs, saloons, or duels at high noon, but in its broad outline, it’s an oater through-and-through.
Wait, wait, hear me out on this one. An idyllic community is threatened by a deadly outside force, so it’s up to a motley crew of locals – including a grizzled old guy and a young upstart – to band together in order to save the town. Just substitute Massachusetts for South Dakota, and the giant shark for Lee Van Cleef, and boom – you’ve got yourself another oater.
Of course, you’d have to change some of the dialogue, but that wouldn’t be too hard: the characters could say stuff like “That’s some bad ten-gallon hat, Harry,” or “You’re gonna need a bigger six-shooter.” Still not convinced? Well, there’s a scene in Jaws that’s cribbed practically shot-for-shot from The Searchers – though, to be fair, virtually every movie from the 1970s Movie brats (including Star Wars and Taxi Driver) borrows liberally from the John Ford-John Wayne classic.
Assault on Precinct 13
The great Howard Hawks didn’t much care for High Noon — he though it was anti-American, and was rankled by its seemingly impotent protagonist and cowardly secondary characters. In response, he made Rio Bravo, in which his main character, Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) is surrounded by helpful townsfolk intent on protecting their community from goons trying to bust one of their own out of jail.
John Carpenter was profoundly inspired by Rio Bravo when he made Assault on Precinct 13, set in contemporary Los Angeles but telling a similar story of an outgunned lawman who turns to a ragtag bunch – including one of his prisoners – for help in defending his station from a street gang. Though Carpenter updated the milieu for the 1970s – and also drew inspiration from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – he proved that rugged, classic heroism is never outdated, even in a more cynical time.
Starring Gary Cooper in perhaps his most iconic role, High Noon tells the story of a retiring lawman who’s forced to take matters into his own hands when a gang of killers threatens his Wild West town – the populace of which is cowed into submission. Outland is basically a remake of High Noon in space.
In Outland, O’Niel (Sean Connery) is a law-enforcement agent who discovers that the mining company he’s been assigned to police has been forcing mind-altering substances on its employees to increase their productivity. It all climaxes with a big showdown between O’Niel and the company’s goons – just like Cooper in High Noon.
What if you were to plop the Man with No Name or the Outlaw Josey Wales in contemporary Detroit? He’d probably act a lot like Walt Kowalski, a racist, bitter Korean War vet who nevertheless maintains a deep-seated sense of honor – and a propensity for dishing out frontier justice.
When Thao, a neighborhood kid, attempts to steal Walt’s pride and joy – his 1972 Ford Gran Torino – in order to gain initiation into an Asian-American gang, Walt is initially furious. But over time, he warms to Thao and his family, and despite his lifelong hatred of Asians, he decides that he’s duty-bound to rid the neighborhood of its criminal elements.
In broad terms, Gran Torino isn’t dissimilar to Pale Rider, a Western in which Eastwood is enlisted to protect a community of farmers under siege from evil business interests. By placing a classic Western plotline in a modern, big city setting, Eastwood got a chance to riff on his rugged, old-school persona – and make a few points about the current state of American race relations.
Years before The Hurt Locker cleaned up at the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow was a struggling filmmaker who was having trouble getting a movie off the ground. She wanted to make a Western, but found few takers – the genre was considered played out at the time. So she threw some bloodsuckers into the mix, and voila – Near Dark was born.
Set in Oklahoma, Near Dark follows a band of vampires who roam the plains; shootouts, horse chases, and barroom brawls ensue. In addition to acting as Bigelow’s big break, Near Dark inspired other directors to make horror flicks with a Western flavor – most notably Robert Rodriguez, who made the vampire-crazed From Dusk Till Dawn.
The Seven Samurai
In the 1950s, as postwar Japanese directors carved out a distinctly Japanese brand of cinema, the great Akira Kurosawa looked to the West – particularly the Wild West – for inspiration.
Profoundly influenced by the works of John Ford (considered by many film scholars to be the greatest director of the Western), Kurosawa reconfigured a classic Western scenario – that of a town under siege, defended by a loose band of heroes – as a samurai epic.
Western directors would return the compliment – John Sturges remade The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven, and Sergio Leone’s A Fistfull of Dollars was a loose reworking of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. But The Seven Samurai‘s influence extends far beyond the Western genre – it’s considered by many to be one of the first modern action movies, and many of its elements – a motley group assembled to undertake an impossible mission, a leader who doesn’t play by the rules – have been endlessly imitated.
But there’s nothing quite like the original, which turns feudal Japan into one big town without pity, and contains action sequences of bracing, immediate power that remain thrilling even to folks who tend to avoid foreign films.
The Road Warrior
It’s not surprising that Australia has produced its share of quasi-Westerns. Oz has a wild, untamed, mysterious frontier, and because it was used by the British as a prison colony, it produced some legendary outlaws – Ned Kelly, anyone?
In The Road Warrior, George Miller inverted the basic plotline of the Western classic Shane – instead of being unable to leave his violent past behind, Max (Mel Gibson) is a cold-blooded killer who finds he can’t escape his fundamental morality. In this post-apocalyptic, distinctly Australian action flick, tribal warfare has erupted in the wake of a worldwide fossil fuel shortage, and Max, who is haunted by the death of his wife and child, finds himself in the midst of a deadly conflict.
As with any great Western, the environment is practically a character itself, and in The Road Warrior, the foreboding beauty of the desert is as evocative as anything this side of Monument Valley.
Strip Avatar of its CGI, its outer space milieu, and its tall blue people (difficult, I know), and you’ve essentially got the plot of Dances with Wolves.
Both tell the tale of an outsider attempting to learn the ways of native peoples – be they Native Americans or Na’vi – while defending them from aggressive outsiders – in the form of the U.S. military and/or a private security firm called Spec-Ops. Some conservative pundits objected to the Avatar as anti-American, while liberal types found the Na’vi to be one-dimensional savages – in other words, the kinds of for/against arguments that cultural critics have been making about revisionist Westerns for years.
Of course, audiences ate it up, and who can blame them? By wedding the latest in moviemaking technology to age-old Western tropes, Cameron was able to wow us with remarkable visions without upsetting our need for classic storytelling.
We obviously couldn’t leave Serenity off this list, because we knew the fanboys and girls would throw a fit if we did. Serenity (and Firefly, the TV series that birthed it) was feverishly adored by a cult audience and widely praised by critics, but it never quite won over the mainstream.
The film chronicles the adventures of a roving band of outcasts, who traverse the galaxy aboard the Serenity, which is essentially a stagecoach in space. Now and then, they stop off in various one-horse towns (er, spaceports) and haul freight and/or contraband to various destinations – kind of like the railroads did in olden times.
And if there was any doubt, the Firefly intro features a twangy country tune and lots of horses.