Written by Jon Land
My Caitlin Strong books have often been referred to as modern day westerns. While I’d like to take credit for starting that trend, it goes back far longer than Caitlin and me. In fact, the contemporary western dates all the way back to the national disillusion over the Vietnam War, coupled in rapid succession by loss of faith in our own government thanks to Watergate. The country found itself craving old-fashioned, no-holds-barred heroes who could we believe in. Strong (no pun intended!) men with a simple ethos and base nobility in which they stood as the lone hope against bad guys determined to make the world worse for ordinary people. The trend, in my humble opinion, began not in books, but in movies. So, in honor of the release of The Magnificent Seven remake, let’s explore seven examples of the modern day western that have so influenced the form of the thriller novel in pop culture.
Dirty Harry: Clint Eastwood’s seminal, star-making turn as a loner cop breaking all the rules to track down a serial killer. The setting of 1970s San Francisco could just as easily have been the plains roamed by the Man with No Name in the spaghetti westerns in which Clint cut his teeth. Harry Callahan is a character literally defined by his gun, making the .44 Magnum famous as well. A great uncredited rewrite by John Millius turned a simple cop film into a portrait of a modern day gunfighter’s obsession with seeing justice done, ending in identical fashion to the Gary Cooper classic High Noon.
Star Wars: A “space western” that contains all the staples of the form right down to the villainous gunfighter in black, as personified by Darth Vader, only with a light saber instead of a Colt .45. Add to that Luke Skywalker’s ingénue evolving into a heroic force of good, the blaster-wielding gunslinger in Han Solo, a rescue sequence (a la The Professionals), and a climactic gun battle transposed into outer space. The result draws upon Akira Kurosawa’s western-inspired samurai movies in crafting an industry-changing masterpiece.
Die Hard: Speaking of modern day gunfighters, Bruce Willis’s John McClane calls himself Roy Rogers and leaves us with a great take on this theme by uttering the famous line, “Yippy-Ki-Yay, mother_______!” to the villainous Hans Gruber amid their final shootout. In that sense, he’s the classic gunman who finds himself in the wrong place/town at the wrong time. Nakatomi Tower becomes a microcosm for a world run by bad guys at the expense of the rest of us. And, like Alan Ladd in Shane, McClane finds himself hopelessly outnumbered which doesn’t stop him from triumphing in the end.
Lethal Weapon: Jack Schaeffer conceived the aforementioned Shane as a kind of “savior psychopath,” who possesses many of the same qualities as those he’s determined to defeat. So it is with Mel Gibson’s Riggs character, as conceived by screenwriter Shane Black. The suicidal Riggs is utterly unhinged and every bit as much a psychopath as Mitchell Ryan’s Shadow Company stone faces, led by Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua. The final scene, in which Riggs challenges Joshua to what is essentially a gun fight without guns, opens with the line, “What do you say, Jack? You want a shot at the title?” Shane couldn’t have said it better.
Robocop (just the original, please!): When Tombstone was overrun by outlaws, they sent for Wyatt Earp. When Detroit of the future faces a comparable menace, they build their own Wyatt Earp in the form of the title character and let him loose to clean up the crime-riddled streets. Remember how Peter Weller’s character twirls his gun to impress the son his new identify forces him to abandon? You think the filmmakers didn’t know exactly the metaphor they were pushing? The film’s villainous Clarence Boddicker is the classic western outlaw, a power-mad creature of corruption it takes a machine with a heart bigger than most humans to bring down.
No Country for Old Men: The purest “postmodern” western on our list, since (in both the book and the exceptionally faithful film adaptation) Tommy Lee Jones’s saintly old-school sheriff never actually confronts Javier Bardem’s twistedly terrifying Anton Chigurh. But the drug deal gone wrong harks back to any number of stagecoach and bank robberies that define so many westerns. And Chigurh’s malevolent menace is reminiscent of every black-clad baddie ever to rampage through the Old West. A creature not so much of the land, as fate itself and thus defined purely in the moment, giving us no idea from where he came or where he’s going next.
Jack Reacher: Okay, Tom Cruise isn’t as big or as bruising as Lee Child’s iconic, nomadic hero who carries only a toothbrush while taming one town, and one book, after another. But Cruise otherwise nails the character’s sensibility to a T. Reacher is a classic western gunfighter, unable to settle down and on a quasi-Quixotic journey to right the wrongs of the world perpetrated on ordinary people like you and I. He vanquishes the bad guys, then mounts a bus instead of a horse to ride on to his next adventure. Not a whole lot different than Paladin from the classic TV western, Have Gun, Will Travel.
Those are my choices. Would love to hear if you have any you’d like to add.
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