First still from ‘True Grit’ and a plea on the western’s behalf

Posted by · 12:08 pm · August 13th, 2010

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a director, a recent awards season success story who shall remain nameless, who told me in meeting after meeting with acting talent, it seems one thing is consistent: actors want to make westerns.  The obvious catch?  Studios don’t.

It’s hardly new news that Hollywood brass shies away from period budget, low-yield filmmaking.  It’s partly the reason the genre all but completely died out, that and a failure of western filmmakers to shift with changing socio-political climates and see the genre as one of flux, not stagnated morals and Americana.  But given tax incentives in neighboring states and any number of ghost towns ready and willing to play host to Hollywood crews, the number-crunchers have stayed away.

It says a lot that a masterpiece of the medium (decade’s best “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) was left to fight alone at a time when it needed help the most, while second and third string comic book franchises are greenlit daily.  To me, the fiscal bottom line on westerns has become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.  Granted, the public isn’t showing up, but a little shove couldn’t hurt.

With all that in mind, I’m probably pulling harder for the success of the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” than any other 2010 film.  God knows disasters like “Jonah Hex” (a craven attempt at pumping the comic book audience into the fold) are doing the genre no favors.  This is a quintessential American art form that deserves continued interpretation and re-interpretation.

I know the actors largely just want to play cowboy, but studios, please.  Listen to them just this once.  Get some westerns in the pipeline.

Here’s the first still from “True Grit,” released today by Paramount publicity:




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44 responses so far

  • 1 8-13-2010 at 12:35 pm

    Jake said...

    While there is the sci-fi nature to it we do have Cowboys vs. Aliens next summer. Favreau says despite the alien element they are playing it straight, as a real western. Shot on film to look like a real western. And Steven Spielberg, a big fan of westerns is producing it (I can’t remember which writer said it, but one of the screenwriters said Spielberg held a screening of a bunch of westerns for Favreau & the writers to make sure they made it as a proper western).

    So I feel you should be excited about this one Kris, if it’s a big hit next summer that could help the genre quite a bit.

  • 2 8-13-2010 at 12:35 pm

    Jeorge. said...

    i couldn’t agree more. there’s nothing inherently uncommercial about the western, it’s just hollywood conventional wisdom at its worst.

  • 3 8-13-2010 at 12:47 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Wasn’t 3:10 to Yuma a decent-sized hit? I mean, that film’s no masterpiece, but certainly it’s a good example of how to bring the genre into the mainstream. And No Country for Old Men certainly proved that a western can evolve in its settings and themes.

    I’m excited for True Grit also, and this is coming from someone who flat-out disliked the 1969 film.

  • 4 8-13-2010 at 12:56 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Jake: Oh believe me, I’m on board Favreau’s film. Based on the Comic-Con footage, he clearly has a reverence for the genre and, where he could easily have gone tongue-in-cheek or simply been insincere with the material, he’s rooted it in a realism that promises to be awesome.

    I’m guessing you missed my joygasm out of San Diego:

    http://incontention.com/?p=26763

    Robert: Indeed, and it was a hybrid of action styles and western tropes, which, in my opinion, is what got 3:10 there.

  • 5 8-13-2010 at 12:57 pm

    Andrew M said...

    The good thing about this True Grit is that it is more of an adaptation of the book then the first movie.

  • 6 8-13-2010 at 12:57 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Also, I shy away from chalking up No Country in the western vein. Neo-western, maybe, with lots of stretching, you can make the point. But not entirely what I’m talking about when I say that, in my opinion, the genre needs creative expansion.

  • 7 8-13-2010 at 1:03 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    the coens are on a roll, and im excited for this one. I for one hope clint eastwood gives us one last performance in an epic western before hes done, although he says hes said everything there is to say on the western…but well see

  • 8 8-13-2010 at 1:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think Unforgiven is a perfect film and would frankly be terrified to follow it up. If Eastwood stays away from here on out, I certainly wouldn’t blame him.

  • 9 8-13-2010 at 1:13 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I’m pulling for the Coens on this, as well. If they can make this as good as “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (one of 2007’s best and most underrated gems), then we’ll be looking at one of 2010’s unsung masterworks. That’s an indelible first image.

  • 10 8-13-2010 at 1:16 pm

    BDM said...

    I think Red Dead Redemption helped prove there is some good territory to explore in a western setting that can still be compared to some of the changes going on today. The game’s whole theme of new technology replacing and driving out the old and traditional, as well as the new generation replacing the old frontier generation, is something that can be very relatable to today’s society; with technology like smart phones replacing land lines, changing the way we communicate, as well as what the internet has done to effect our society, not the mention the baby boomers are approaching their ages of retirement and death, while generation X, and the younger generations are now positioning themselves in places of power. The stories are there, we just need filmmakers that have enough clout, such as the coen brothers, to actually try to pursue them.

    Also, while Red Dead Redemption is a game, I feel that, if marketed right, it proved their is a younger and more general crowd that are willing to pay to see a western.

  • 11 8-13-2010 at 1:33 pm

    JJ said...

    Kris, since I only started visitng your site full-time about a year/year and a half ago, I’m so pleased to see you loved ‘Assass. of Jesse James …’. That was one of my favorite films of 07 ; and I think, superior to No Country and TWBB.

  • 12 8-13-2010 at 1:40 pm

    Fitz said...

    This (albeit small peek) screencap looks like a cinematographer’s dream. The Coens’ True Grit adaptation seems like it will have something to say about today’s culture much like No Country did a few years ago.

  • 13 8-13-2010 at 3:39 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    Really excited for this.

  • 14 8-13-2010 at 3:40 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Deadwood opened up an entirely new chapter in the genre. Too bad no one wants to follow it up properly.

  • 15 8-13-2010 at 3:44 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    ^^^

    Tell me about it.

  • 16 8-13-2010 at 4:35 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I thought The Proposition was an excellent film as well as Jesse James of course.

    If the Coens, Deakin, Burwell and that cast can’t deliver with True Grit there is no hope for the genre.

  • 17 8-13-2010 at 5:44 pm

    Glenn said...

    “Red Hill”.

  • 18 8-13-2010 at 7:31 pm

    Tye-Grr said...

    I really hope this is amazing. By all means, it has the pedigree. I’m counting on the Coens to deliver.

  • 19 8-13-2010 at 9:31 pm

    Chad said...

    I really hope this movie does well. It certainly has the talent to deliver. Hollywood, we need more westerns made!

  • 20 8-14-2010 at 10:34 am

    Edward L. said...

    Kris: I’m with you in wanting to see more Westerns. In fact, a couple of months ago I started writing one! I think there have been a number of interesting ones in the past few years: Assassination of Jesse James, yes, and also 3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa (a weaker film, but with a very good Viggo Mortensen performance – or, to put it another way, “with a Viggo Mortensen performance”), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Brokeback Mountain, which, even though I was very disappointed by it, made an impact. I’m intrigued to see what the Coens do with True Grit.

  • 21 8-14-2010 at 10:42 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Why not make a western based of, say, “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Park and the Rise and Fall of the Commanches?”

    Why does have every western have to be shown through the prism of white people? Of course, this is slightly a rhetorical question, but, for example, Quanah Parker’s story is much more “Western” than Jesse James.

  • 22 8-14-2010 at 11:21 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Gittes: Perfect point.

    Edward: I have a few, too. I find it, frankly, to be the most giving genre to write. So many possibilities and I just always feel at ease with it. That should go a long way to explaining my obsession with it.

  • 23 8-14-2010 at 11:44 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    We’re all writing westerns! Hooray.

    The research is exhausting…ugh.

  • 24 8-14-2010 at 12:44 pm

    Edward L. said...

    Kris: Your point that it is “the most giving genre to write” is a nice observation.

    Mr. Gittes: It is. I have found mine easier-going since I settled on a time and a place, but it’s quite a burden when set against writing something from one’s own personal experience – all those IMDb ‘goofs’ pages come leaping to mind!

  • 25 8-14-2010 at 9:26 pm

    Ibad said...

    With kids my age, I know their go-to answer of the “worst movie genre” possible tends to be Westerns. Somehow, it just has this reputation of being long-winded and boring. Brought up in the same vain as the dislike of country music. But clearly their minds change after educating themselves a bit more seeing Sergio Leone and John Ford flicks; few films are more entertaining. But I think Westerns have made a bit of a comeback this decade, from smaller films like The Proposition and Assassination having really devoted followings though not huge in the mainstream, but also in the less conventional fare like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood redefining the genre — I think with their locations/themes/characters/style, they can certainly be labeled as Westerns. And perhaps if innovative filmmakers (like the Coens, for an obvious example) keep on going down that path of offering the public Westerns in funny less-familiar packages in the way that they successfully brought No Country into the consciousness of the American public, similar Westerns from Hollywood’s golden age (more along the lines of Assassination or even Unforgiven) can be more readily accepted and greenlit.

  • 26 8-15-2010 at 6:19 pm

    Maxim said...

    A comment about the still itself:

    It’s interesting how the eye patch blends into the shadow under the hat. The girl looks great too. It’s interesting how “True Grit” might be the sleeper Oscar contender.

  • 27 8-16-2010 at 6:25 am

    Mike_M said...

    Man I love westerns…

  • 28 8-16-2010 at 12:12 pm

    NMDave said...

    Where would guys like Eastwood be w/o Rawhide & Sergio Leone?
    Oscar winners like Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves prove to me this genre still has much gold to be mined.
    I hope this film lives up to cast and crew,especially the Coen Bros.
    And you writers,High five.

  • 29 8-16-2010 at 12:42 pm

    Roy said...

    Any news of progress on Todd Field’s adaptation of Blood Meridian? That has the potential to be something truly special if done right.

  • 30 8-16-2010 at 7:08 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Kris — I am of the the mind that Bridges will win a second consecutive Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” — also there are loads of possibilities for westerns, the brilliant new book The Last Stand deals with Custer and Little Big Horn which needs a biographical type movie — and why not a decent bio on Buffalo Bill or Billy the Kid? And if they decide to move away from bios there are so many books dying for an adaptation — love westerns…bring them on, and if remakes are al we are going to get, so be it. Love to see someone re-do “Shane” — God casting that would be a blast —

  • 31 8-18-2010 at 8:43 pm

    Jose said...

    The biggest hindrance standing in the way of reintroducing westerns to today’s audiences is the straying away from realism. Westerns, in essence, should focus on the lives of the characters living in a world void of today’s technology, rather than the cliche “Monument Valley” war painted Indians. The first to do just this, to my recollection, was “Jeremiah Johnson”, along with many other great pieces of work that followed.

  • 32 8-25-2010 at 10:34 pm

    Franko said...

    The Coen Brothers are fine film makers and Jeff Bridges is a great actor (and no stranger to westerns). It matters very little whether this version is more in line with the book than the 1969 version people will still compare it to the earlier film.

    The problem of course is John Wayne was near perfect in the 69 film ( even if his character was not as true to the book as it should have been). He is also surrounded by great actors (Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Jeremy slate, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, John Doucette – most of them regular western faces). Director Hathaway had been directing for 40 years almost so he could make a picture look pretty and he does. For some reason people like deriding the 69 film, probably because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and plays loose with historical reality. That is it’s charm though, I think.

    As for why westerns aren’t being made I suspect it’s for the same reasons pirate films (unless they have a supernatural element), war films, and adventure films are being made. They cost too much – you can’t fake a location. Look at the green screen mess that was “300” it may as well have been a sci fi film. The other problem is that people don’t want to go see low key drama on the big screen …. and many westerns are just that. They aren’t all shoot em ups. Another problem is we don’t have directors, writers, actors etc who have made many westerns so when time comes to make one it feels like a diversion …a diversion to John Ford, Hathaway, Delmer Daves, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper etc was to make a non-western. That’s not quite true but you know what I am getting at.

    The Coen Brothers will drag non-western people into the cinemas and this cant be a bad thing for the western. Whether that translates into more western films I don’t know. I can’t wait till Tarantino decides to do a western as there may be a flow on effect there also. Still, as some poster above said, all you need is a little “shove”.

    Having said that there have been quite a few good westerns made in the last 20 years – “Dances with Wolves, Open Range, The Jack Bull, most of Sam Elliott’s made for cable westerns …I do not include Clint’s “Unforgiven” which is an above average film but perhaps the most overrated western of all time. It is a western for people who do not like westerns. With the exception of “Outlaw Josey Wales”, all of Clint’s self directed westerns are competent but rarely special. He really needs Siegel or Leone to bring out the best.

    In any event there are many great old westerns to be enjoyed. If you love westerns ( as opposed to contemporary celebrity, spectacle or special effects) and you haven’t seen an old western film before isn’t it then a “new” film?

  • 33 8-25-2010 at 11:17 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “I can’t wait till Tarantino decides to do a western…”

    This, to me, would be a mess. It might well be the kind of thing that saves the western, but we all know it would be nothing but blatant pastiche.

  • 34 8-25-2010 at 11:17 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “It is a western for people who do not like westerns.”

    This statement makes little to no sense.

  • 35 8-26-2010 at 8:01 am

    Franko said...

    “It is a western for people who do not like westerns.”

    “This statement makes little to no sense.”

    This is not a statement but an observation. Of the people I know who do not like western films they all seem to like The Unforgiven. Perhaps I should have said :

    “It seems to be a western for people who do not like westerns”

  • 36 8-26-2010 at 11:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It doesn’t fully compute, though, seeing as it frequently lands high on western aficionados’ list of the best the genre has to offer. If anything probably the familiarity of the actors helps the genre go down with people who don’t like it, but I wouldn’t really chalk its revisionism or anything about its themes or filmmaking up to that, personally. I guess one could just as easily say the new 3:10 to Yuma is “a western for people who don’t like westerns,” because I’ve heard similar sentiments there.

  • 37 8-26-2010 at 3:02 pm

    Franko said...

    Your point is taken and I cannot argue or discuss the contrary. Obviously for a western to become very popular it has to go outside the genre’s devotees and appeal to non-western fans. It also does appear on many “best of” lists so perhaps I am being to harsh on the film.

    I just find it hard to believe with so many western films which are great films not just great western films that afficonados of the genre would rate it so high. But that may just be me.

    I could explain my difficulties with the film (as I have had these same discussions in the past) but I think we are straying to far from the blog point.

    I will say that I don’t trust lists or those people who hold themseleves out to be “afficionados” necessarily. In true social scientist fashion I would have to would have to look at the list sample and check the bona fides of the respondents.

    Perhaps only time will be the true test of the films worth.

    With the blog topic in mind I will say … I’m hoping “True Grit 2010” will be a success with the non-western fans as well as the western fans and that it is a fine film regardless. I’m also hoping that any acclaim it recieves is not used to attack the 1969 film which has more than it’s fair share of beauties, even if the overall film isnt one of the “greats”.

  • 38 8-26-2010 at 3:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Well, as another post here indicates, I consider it one of the very best films ever made, not just one of the best westerns ever made, so it’s clearly a difference of opinion.

    And I think, nearly 20 years on, time has been quite kind to Unforgiven, and if anything, its status as a clear classic has grown.

    But I hope your issues aren’t with its revisionism, because devotees of a “classic” method of telling a story within this genre tend to go that route, and I think it’s wholly dubious criticism. There is something to be said of a western that paints a hero who can’t get on his horse, a sheriff who is a villain, a celebrity gunslinger who is a weakling, a cocksure young wannabe who is a coward, etc., etc. I have rarely read satisfactory criticism of the film and yet there are pages and pages to be found of analytical praise of it. So forgive me, it’s just when I come across an opinion of the film like yours, I am quite shocked.

    In any case, I also find the original True Grit to be an utter waste. We obviously see the genre in different ways.

  • 39 8-27-2010 at 1:21 pm

    Franko said...

    You are quite right the last 20 years have been kind to Unforgiven and it stands out, but again it hasn’t had much competition. I do think “Open Range” is a better film though.

    I care not for revisionism or classic argument debates … though I’m not sure what you mean by classic given that there are many films from the “classic” period that dealt with the same themes as Unforgiven. ie: a hero who can’t get on his horse (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, True Grit – the hero falls of his horse), a sheriff who is a villain (every second western of the 70s), a celebrity gunslinger who is a weakling (Johnny Concho), a cocksure young wannabe who is a coward (The Gunfighter) and of course growing old (The Shootist, Ride the High Country, Wild Rovers) etc.

    Unforgiven conveniently puts them in one film (I think Clint was consciously looking for an Oscar). I think the film is overly familiar and has nothing new to say. That’s not to say it can’t be entertaining which it was but I always am amazed that people hold out it’s virtues to be it’s themes, which as I have said have been explored in many other westerns.

    It is a pastiche but a very conventional one (if Tarantino were to do western at least it would be quirky something Clint’s directed films rarely are – if there ever was a “classic” director in terms of storytelling it would be Clint).Clint in Unforgiven hasn’t so much broken clichés as just modernized them so they look different.

    I don’t know how you see the genre and you certainly don’t know how I see the genre – I haven’t told you what my favorite westerns are. I just think Unforgiven is overrated and quite middlebrow, though admittedly entertaining. My view is not uncommon so there is no need to be shocked. Get on IMDB and look at the opinions of those who “hated” the film, there are many eloquent arguments against the film there.

  • 40 8-27-2010 at 1:34 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Many films may have used those devices but they were combined in Unforgiven in a unique way to represent the death of the ideal, or more to the point, the lie of the ideal.

    And to say Eastwood was consciously looking for an Oscar by making a film in a genre that, up until that point, had been awarded a Best Picture award a grand total of TWICE is a bit rich.

    Meanwhile, you think it is overly familiar and has nothing new to say, yet it has been written about countless times by educated film scholars with plenty to say to the contrary.

    And by the way, being familiar is hardly an artistic crime. Some of the greatest films stem from familiar stories or themes. It’s what you do with the familiarity that counts.

    At least we can both agree Open Range is a great film.

  • 41 8-27-2010 at 6:40 pm

    Franko said...

    Scholarly film critics like anyone with an opinion need to have their bona fides checked before I accept what they say. I’m not going to take on board opinions from a film critic if the film critic hates westerns or has seen less westerns than me. Of course I welcome contrary opinions if the film critic has seen more western films than me or is a western aficionado.

    With this in mind I do note that scholarly western film critics (and ones I read) like William K Everson, Phil Hardy, Jim Kitses and Allen Eyles have been ambivalent about Unforgiven.

    Even so Unforgiven doesn’t place anywhere in the top 100 films as listed by the scholarly and authoritative film mags Cahiers du Cinema, Sight and Sound, Positif or even Time Out whereas other westerns do.

  • 42 8-27-2010 at 6:41 pm

    Franko said...

    As for Clint’s eye on the Oscar. It is true that the western genre hadn’t been well regarded with the Academy. But a couple of years earlier “Dances with Wolves” had won 6 or 7 Oscars including best picture and director and had been a big money spinner. Clint obviously knew that. Accordingly the film is well plotted (which the academy likes), makes nods to racial issues ( a afro American cowboy rides with the white cowboys), feminism ( the attitude of the prostitutes) is quite cynical, and is revisionist (another must for the academy if you are going to do a genre film). That combined with the fact that Clint is identified with the genre, had been in the business for almost 40 years, and had not won an Oscar before would at the very least have led to a sympathetic Oscar. The time was right for Clint to strike …

    I’m probably on the wrong page but I don’t place much emphasis on film awards and especially the Oscars given their general aversion to genre films and genre actors and directors.

  • 43 8-27-2010 at 7:09 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Scholarly film critics like anyone with an opinion need to have their bona fides checked before I accept what they say.”

    Yet you’ll point someone to the IMDb message boards for informed opinion.

    You dislike the film. I get it. We’re talking in circles.

  • 44 8-27-2010 at 9:50 pm

    Franko said...

    No, No, I was referring to people on the IMDB to point out that not everyone thinks Unforgiven is a great film so there is no need for you to be “shocked” when someone carries that contrary opinion.

    For informed opinion I refer to respected published critics like those I have mentioned -William K Everson, Phil Hardy, Jim Kitses and Allen Eyles who have been, as I have said, ambivalent about Unforgiven.

    I also refer to scholarly and authoritative film mags like Cahiers du Cinema, Sight and Sound and Positif.

    By the way I have never said I do not like “Unforgiven”. If you check my posts I have called it “above average” and “entertaining”. I just think it is overrated. You can still like something and think it overrated.

    I’m off to watch a new film ….a Joseph H Lewis western which I have not seen before….it’s new to me.

    cheers