There’s so much to be said about the social, political, and cultural implications of the western genre in cinema history, on the big screen and small screen. So much, in fact, that multiple guest bloggers for The Wise Guise are currently working on posts breaking down westerns. My post today is much more surface-level, though, with brief reflections on what additions to the western legacy join the pantheon in 2012.
This summer, I’m participating in the Blackstone Legal Fellowship. The current phase has brought me to Phoenix, Arizona, where we have speakers, debates, and discussions about how the law, policy, politics, and faith interact. One speaker this morning was commenting on raising his sons watching American westerns to understand the premise of good versus evil, duality of battles, etc. He qualified this assessment of westerns by mentioning the exception of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. But it got me thinking about History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys mini-series last week and Quentin Tarantino’s foray into the genre at the end of this year.
How Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, and History Channel Saved the TV Mini-Series
The TV mini-series was basically a dead genre. So much so that a British series (an absolutely wonderful one!) aired as part of PBS’ Masterpiece programming dominated the Emmys’ mini-series category last year. HBO has provided some epic contributions to the genre over the years with Band of Brothers and The Pacific, along with other genre pieces like Mildred Pierce, but even these have been modifications on the traditional mini-series genre of my youth.
Growing up, there were “landmark” mini-series on network television all the time. I remember getting excited for Ted Danson’s Gulliver’s Travels and CBS’ sequel to Gone with the Wind miniseries, Scarlett. I recorded the mini-series (pausing the VCR for commercials, obviously), read all about them, and was excited each day for the next installment that night. They usually premiered on Sunday, then aired again for two to four more nights the rest of the week. They weren’t always great, but they were fun. Longer installments and shorter runs than TV shows, but with often bigger budgets as well. Adaptations of books or re-makes of old movies, these mini-series captured my young imagination during sweeps.
These types of mini-series no longer exist. TV, in it’s second golden era, is better off overall. But I can’t help but wonder if the traditional mini-series could make a return, increasing the current high quality state of television. THEN, the History Channel did it.
Beginning on Memorial Day evening last week, the History Channel threw the proverbial cowboy hat into the ring by returning the western, the mini-series, and Bill Paxton to television. Produced by and starring Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys captivated audiences for the next three evenings as record numbers of viewers tuned in for a gritty and yet still family-friendly western saga about the peak of the classic Hatfield/McCoy feud in the late 19th century.
The cowboy tale has captivated audiences since Lewis and Clark embarked on their journey to explore the Louisiana Purchase. John Wayne gave way to Clint Eastwood. The first golden era of television included hours of western programming, with Gunsmoke being the longest lasting. Sergio Leone added complexity and ambiguity to the genre. Eastwood turned the genre on its head, capturing multiple Oscars for Unforgiven, a western movie that dealt with many of the nuanced, moral implications from the black and white, good versus evil archetypes of the past. With HBO’s rise into original programming, David Milch once again redefined the western genre with his gritty and raw depiction in Deadwood.
Now, History Channel begins its attempt at historical drama by giving us a backwoods western in the old school mini-series genre. And Hatfields & McCoys was just wonderful. The masses tuned in, making the premiere the highest rated basic cable non-sports programming in history. Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton were pitch-perfect as the former friends leading the families during the infamous rivalry and warring. It was just a fun three nights of programming. It wouldn’t have worked as a TV series. It wouldn’t have done it justice in the form of a two to three hour movie. It was a welcome return for the western in a forgotten genre that fit it perfectly.
Tarantino Writing the Next Chapter of On-Screen Westerns
In a year of so many great films from so many stars and directors, simply reading the two-sentence plot concept and looking at the cast made it one of the top three films I’m most looking forward to. Then, the first trailer launched today. And it looks like Tarantino has done it once again.
Dealing with the issue of slavery in America, Tarantino appears to be treating it as the grave evil that it was while not letting it stop him from telling a thought-provoking story in his classic, genre-bending way. DiCaprio appears to be a perfect fit for the cackling villainous plantation owner. Christoph Waltz appears to be in perfect form under Tarantino’s tutelage once again. Jamie Foxx as the slave looks to be as fun as ever. The guns appear to be slinging. The blood appears to be spewing. The landscapes appear to be as varied as The Searchers. And the dialogue appears to be as deliciously Tarantino as ever. Count me in. I can’t wait.
Did you watch Hatfields & McCoys? Excited for Django Unchained? What’s your favorite type of western film? What are your favorite western characters, movies, and TV shows? Comment on all this and more below!