“Probably more than any other genre that there is, even though they take place a hundred and something years ago, westerns reflect the decade in which they were made,” asserts Quentin Tarantino. “The westerns of the ‘50s reflected an Eisenhower America. Or, consequently, the ‘70s reflected a Watergate era.”
For a western title to be successful, it must be innovative: showing us the western in a way we’ve never seen it before. Writers are under particular pressure to invent new stories and angles in an overcrowded genre. The 2010s saw a great many brilliant westerns, from True Grit to The Revenant. Surprisingly, many of the best ones have been either undiscovered, misunderstood or given an unfair critical evaluation.
Three of the titles on this list are ‘meat pie westerns.’ These are westerns set in the Australian outback or bush, rather than the Arizona desert. Banditos are exchanged with bushrangers, Native Americans with Aboriginal Australians, Sheriffs with the British Army. The real-life bushrangers’ exploits transpired at the same time as those of the Texas gunslingers: c.1860s-1890s. Like American westerns, meat pie westerns both dramatise the exploits of real outlaws, like Ned Kelly, or invent new tales, like The Proposition (2005).
1. Machete (Robert Rodriguez, 2010)
Based upon a fake trailer in Grindhouse, Rodriguez’s ‘Tex-Mexsploitation’ stars Danny Trejo as the iconic folk hero ‘Machete.’ When his boss dispatches him to assassinate Texan senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), Machete becomes the target of an assassination himself. He later assists a movement helping Mexican refugees cross the border. There’s an all-star cast: Cheech Marin, Jessica Alba, Steven Segal, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez and Shea Whigham, among others.
Machete is one of Rodriguez’s most dazzlingly entertaining and funny exploitation movies – the best role of Danny Trejo’s illustrious career. Rodriguez has the talent to make humour out of gore and euphoric, inventive action sequences, seen when Machete abseils down a building using a man’s intestines as a rope. A prolific character actor, Trejo is finally given a starring role he’s unsurprisingly excellent in. He’s intimidating, funny and commanding, all at the same time. Stylistically, the film pays homage to Rodriguez’s ‘70s exploitation influences like Sergio Corbucci.
Moreover, Machete’s notable as a neo-western for its sociological and political discourse. Rodriguez deals with the prejudice against Mexicans in the United States, as well as addressing civilian lives taken on the Texan border. This mirrors an ongoing, real life issue and foreshadows political events of the late-2010s. In a Trojan horse of action fun, Rodriguez allows audiences to understand the discrimination and violence Mexican civilians face firsthand, illuminating the truth of an issue that’s been distorted by a media intent on demonisation. Importantly, what this folkloric allegory achieves is getting American audiences on the side of innocent, persecuted Mexicans, uncovering the corruption and violence of politically extremist hate mongers in power.
2. Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau, 2011)
In New Mexico Territory, 1873, gunslingers played by Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Adam Beach must save a group of townsfolk who’ve been abducted by aliens.
Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this genre mashup action ride combines the classicism of John Ford with the cyberpunk of Ridley Scott. It pulls-off truly awe-inspiring action sequences and frighteningly-organic, convincing CGI. Favreau endears his audience to all of his three dimensional characters. Ford and Craig are perfectly cast as narrative-carrying heroes. Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell’s characterisation is as interesting as always, as is the work of Beach, Clancy Brown and young Noah Taylor.
It’s a joy that a film like this exists and more than delivers on its premise. Its cocktail enlivened a genre which can grow stale, when not riding into new territory. The story is archetypal Hollywood adventure fun, with its own unique sci-fi mythology and novel alien design, in what is detailed world building. It’s hard to dislike a film this endlessly entertaining. Cowboys & Aliens is a long-ignored yet extraordinary, gratifying piece of blockbuster cinema done well. An ideal title for a popcorn movie night-in with friends.
3. Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, 2015)
In S. Craig Zahler’s explosive debut, Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox venture into the desert to rescue the wife of Wilson’s character (played by Lili Simmons). She’s been abducted by a tribe of cannibal troglodytes, whom neighbouring Native Americans live in fear of. The Devil’s Rejects’ Sid Haig, Fargo season 2’s Zahn McClarnon and Blade Runner’s Sean Young play supporting roles.
Bone Tomahawk mingles the existentialism of Monte Hellman’s adventure westerns with the mystical, merciless sadism of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. It’s both a great western and a great horror film. In a suspenseful, well-paced slow burn, Zahler’s peculiar, literary dialogue sculpts believable, fascinating and relatable characters. Richard Jenkins, cast against type, is outstanding as the friendly, innocent Deputy Chicory. He adds humour to the film’s murderously gritty tone, especially when he’s talking about the veracity of flea circuses.
Kurt Russell is equally compelling as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, returning him to the glory of his 1980s collaborations with John Carpenter, as is reliable leading man Patrick Wilson. This is a terrifying western like you’ve never seen it, pulled-off seamlessly, especially commendable for a directorial debut. Squeamish movie goers should avoid it, but for fans of westerns and horror cinema, it doesn’t get any better than this. Innovative, genre-bending westerns like Bone Tomahawk signifies true originality and watchability in an overcrowded genre. It’s easily one of the best westerns of the 2010s and of all-time.
4. The Ridiculous 6 (Frank Coraci, 2015)
Adam Sandler co-wrote, produced and starred in this western-comedy. Raised by Native Americans, Tommy ‘White Knife’ Dunson Stockburn (Sandler) tracks down his 5 half-brothers (Terry Crews, Luke Wilson, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider) before they embark on a quest to find their long-lost father. The star-studded cast includes: Reservoir Dogs co-stars Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Danny Trejo, John Turturro and stand-ups Norm MacDonald, Blake Clarke and Nick Swardson.
The Ridiculous 6 is one of few films to hold a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What do critics misunderstand about Adam Sandler’s work? Do they expect his films to be deep, literary masterpieces on-par with Andrei Tarkovsky? Can they not comprehend the comedy genre? What they’re clearly missing is Sandler’s intention: he wants to make films that are as funny as possible. Sandler achieves this often and continues to do so in The Ridiculous 6.
If you’re a fan of his brand of comedy, this film is packed with laugh-out-loud moments, easily as funny as any of his best work. Granted, Happy Madison Productions may have released some bad films, like Jack and Jill, but The Ridiculous 6 is not one of them. Audiences are encouraged to ignore its unfounded critical damnation and relish in its unapologetically silly humour. Terry Crews is on excellent form, underlining his status as a great comic talent, as is the late acting legend Saginaw Grant. This comedy-western won’t be for everyone, but with Sandler’s crew up to their usual mischief, laughs are sure to be had.
5. The Legend of Ben Hall (Matthew Holmes, 2016)
With great historical accuracy, this meat pie western dramatises the true story of New South Wales bushranger Ben Hall’s robberies in the mid-1860s. Jack Martin plays Hall, with Joanne Dobbin, Jamie Coffa, William Lee and Callan McAuliffe. It’s based on a 40-minute short film released in 2014.
Remaining largely undiscovered, The Legend of Ben Hall ticks all the right boxes. Viewers are ensured shootouts, suspenseful robberies and police chases on horseback. At the same time, the narrative is undercut by the tragedy of Hall’s relationship with his estranged wife and son. The piece expresses Ben’s pain: how he longs to be with his family, but is separated from them – due to his greed. Ben’s priorities are examined, addressing our own.
Deploying stunning period costumes, sets and landscape cinematography, the film depicts, with exactitude, the lawless environment and the British crown’s totalitarianism in 1860s Australia. The scenes were chiefly filmed in the locations where Hall’s actual confrontations took place. It’s strange that a western with this amount of entertainment value and heart was not been better publicised, beyond its reception at the Almería Western Film Festival. Western lovers are in for a treat with this emotional bushranger action-drama.