Sunday, July 12, 2020

Offbeat Westerns - Ten Eclectic Picks

By Christopher Robinson

What is a western? Can its defining characteristics be summed up in a concise description to satisfy the label-obsessed or category-inclined?  Like much in our universe, it’s probably exemplified best by what it isn’t.  As the following ten titles will prove in no uncertain terms, the western is anything... but typical.

They may be elusive or even forgotten. Some you might know and some you might not. They’re true westerns through and through yet they march to their own unique beat for their own individual reasons. You may appreciate these movie selections or you may love to hate them. Upon viewing some, you may understand why you had never heard of them the first time around. What one can’t dispute is that they are often surprising, unexpected and ultimately-unique. Their legacy is that they epitomize the wide and diverse range of expression that western films provide.

We will limit the selections to the classic era that concluded at the end of the 1970s, spotlighting a small sampling of anomalies within an otherwise largely conventional and reliably formulaic industry. This will effectively weed out the many ‘intentionally’ strange westerns of the latter contemporary period that are often created to reflect individual artistic and social statements using  the western genre as an unlikely or ironic backdrop.

The following ten titles ride out in their own headstrong direction, bearing an extraordinary brand that’s all their own. Saddle up and see for yourself.

They include:

  1. The Phantom Empire
  2. The Night Rider
  3. Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!
  4. Lonesome Cowboys
  5. Charro!
  6. The Valley of Gwangi
  7. White Comanche
  8. Kid Blue
  9. God’s Gun
  10. The White Buffalo
Editor's Note: Because Christopher's article is longer than usual, we're going to feature half of it now and the other half next Sunday morning, July 19th, at 08:00 ET! (click here) --Al Colombo

1. The Phantom Empire

A 12-chapter adventure that introduced movie audiences to country western singer Gene Autry, this hybrid  horse opera successfully capitalized on two of the popular matinee serials of the Thirties, westerns snd science fiction/fantasies.

The Phantom Empire ushered in the age of the singing cowboy and the recurring gimmick of Autry playing a self-named cowboy hero in a contemporary western setting with emphasis on music, songs and current  issues. Produced by Mascot Pictures, it was a deliberate vehicle for the up-and-coming Autry who was groomed for the singing cowboy role in the wake of John Wayne’s reluctance to lipsynch any more dirges or strum a guitar and warble with his back to the camera. After faking it for a few oaters, Wayne quit the crooning act in favor of a more authentic approach.

Throughout the story, Autry broadcasts a musical show from his ‘Radio Ranch’ which turns out to lie atop the entrance to an advanced subterranean civilization 25,090 feet below the ground called Murania. His underground adventures begin when his kid pals are kidnapped and brought to Murania’s Queen Tika. The action is further intensified when crooked surface dwellers ravage the kingdom for radium and the queen is met with a mutinous rebellion, throughout which Autry encounters death-rays, robots and TVs. All rather ambitious for 1935, you might imagine.

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2. The Night Rider

This teleplay originally produced as the pilot for an unsold anthology series, Gallaway House, starred Johnny Cash and was based on his hit song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” More of a musical vehicle than anything else, it also featured famed country western singers Johnny Western, Eddie Dean and Merle Travis.

As an amusing framing device, the series presentations(of which there would be no others) would be introduced by the Gallaway’s proprietor  while he greeted patrons as they entered his theatre. The Night Rider didn’t gallop away into the dark altogether- it was eventually sold to exhibitors as a handy property to compliment drive-in double feature bills of the 1960s.

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3. Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

Despite touching upon racism,  homosexuality, sadomasochism and fascism metaphors, few confess to understand any underlying message in 1967’s pseudo-western Django Kill. Tomas Milian plays a mysterious character known only as The Stranger( typical spaghetti western nomenclature) who is part of a ragtag outlaw gang that robs an army troop’s gold shipment. Afterward, they doublecross the Stranger, shooting and promptly burying him.

In the gripping opening scene, he crawls out from a shallow mass grave aided by two Indians who collect and melt down leftover gold pieces.

Nursed back to health, the Stranger rides into a corrupt town known as “The Unhappy Place”, ruled by two rival  divisions(another Italian western trope). After most of the gang, who previously rode in, are lynched by the town boss, a flamboyant and sadistic cattleman called Zorro, the Stranger exacts his revenge on their leader, Oaks, wounding him with bullets fashioned from the molten gold(Oaks’ agonizing demise as townspeople gouge gold from his wounds is notorious as the film’s most censored spool of celluloid).

From that point on, it’s a tour de force of everything from scalping, gang rape, suicide, sodomy and torture by vampire bats... well, not exactly the ‘feel good’ movie of the season!

Milian’s performance is uncharacteristically subdued while director Giulio Questi paints a brutal and bleak dystopia utilizing psychedelic imagery with controversially extreme violence that ultimately celebrates neither good nor evil.

Django Kill’s overall radical separation from any recognizable western mold was cemented by Questi’s insistence that the film was never really a western at all. Additionally, the film employed a surrealistic experimental editing style and peculiar dubbing in its English language version. The derivative title itself was typically customary of international distributors routinely linking unrelated films to then-currently profitable releases.

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4. Lonesome Cowboys

A self-conscious ‘fish out of water’ experiment, Lonesome Cowboys was produced by pop art icon Andy Warhol who, in 1968, dragged his factory ‘superstars’ from Lower Manhattan out west to improvise their way through convoluted dialogue and sexually ambivalent escapades in clichéd western settings shot in Old Tucson, the famed Arizona movie town.

Allegedly shot within a three-day period, it was produced with unceremonious dispatch and subsequently edited by Warhol while recuperating from a near fatal gunshot wound five months later.

Warhol was clearly fascinated by a wealth of cultural institutions, westerns among them. His screen print series, Cowboys and Indians, featured legendary western figures and heroes  such as Sitting Bull, John Wayne, Annie Oakley, George Armstrong Custer and Geronimo. Earlier in his career, and far more celebrated, was his 1963 silkscreen of Elvis Presley based on a still from the 20th Century Fox western, Flaming Star, titled Triple Elvis.

Lonesome Cowboys itself saw limited release and like many of Warhol’s art house features, retains more notoriety than renown. Those who have seen the rarely screened curiosity are divided on its ‘art or trash?’ reputation.

In retrospect, it just might exemplify the frequented theme of absurd western paradox more than any other work before or since.

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5. Charro!

Speaking of Elvis, in 1968 the singing star was nearing the end of his hectic and varied movie phase. Frederick Louis Fox’s novel, Charro! was handed over to producer, writer and director Charles Marquis Warren, the creator of Rawhide, who was also behind the scenes of many early Gunsmoke episodes. Having offered the lead role to Rawhide’s Clint Eastwood, who passed on it, it was later pitched to Presley. Elvis agreed to take the role under the presumption that his script was final. Only when production commenced did he learn of the screenplay’s omissions of violence and sexuality, prominent in Fox’s story as well as its novelization.

Jess Wade(Presley) is lured to a border town saloon by ex-lover Tracey(Ina Balin). When it becomes apparent that she has led Wade into a trap to coerce him into rejoining a former outlaw gang, he is brought to their hideout and let in on their plan to bribe a small town with a golden army cannon stolen from the town citizens.

When Wade escapes, he effectively becomes wanted by the federales and  hunted by the gang for having abandoned them.

In the late Sixties, it was a common practice for actors to follow Eastwood’s trail to Europe in hopes of riding a cowboy role to international stardom and secure higher standing in Hollywood. It wasn’t stardom Presley sought, however, but rather integrity. Though he wouldn’t sing a note in this film, the powers that be had nonetheless toned down what he thought might be his last rare opportunity to make a mark as a respectable screen actor.

Retrospectively, Charro! doesn’t deviate too far from the western formula so much as it becomes an irregularity within another genre- ‘Elvis movies.’

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Tune in next week when we feature 6 through 10! --Al Colombo

About the Author

Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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