If you want to write in the fiction genre of westerns, you might still be asking yourself the difference between what I call a Classic Western and a New Western. The third sub-category, Modern Western, is easy to identify because it takes place after 1900. But the first two? They both share the same historical setting in the American frontier years of the 1880s which is after the Civil War but before all the western territories were made into states. They both explore the same themes (though in different ways). Let me illustrate the difference with movies which are sometimes more straightforward than novels. The 2003 movie Open Range, which is set in 1882, expresses heroism and optimism and is therefore a Classic Western. The 1992 movie Unforgiven, also set in the 1880s, exudes cynicism and pessimism and is therefore a New Western. This article discusses Open Range with plot spoilers.
Open Range begins with Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) driving his cattle across an unspecified location of beautiful rolling hills and tall grasses. (It was actually filmed in Alberta, Canada which stood in for western America.) He is an open-range cowboy who migrates with his cattle across the unclaimed lands of the west, allowing the herd to eat and drink while always on the move for the next grazing spot. This is a vanishing way of life now causing resentment among the settled ranchers who want to fence up huge plots of land. Boss has three hired hands: Charley (Kevin Costner), a taciturn veteran of the Civil War; Mose (Abraham Benrubi), a good-natured strongman; and Button (Diego Luna), a Mexican teenager rescued from homelessness. They camp for the night and Boss sends Mose to the nearest town to buy supplies.
Unfortunately, the town is completely cowed by an evil rich man Baxter (Michael Gambon) who rules with an iron fist and a gang of thugs to back him up. He hates open-range cowboys, so he has Mose beaten badly and tossed into jail by the corrupt and subservient sheriff. Meanwhile, Boss and Charley grow increasingly concerned by Mose's absence. Finally, they go into town and are shocked and angered by the treatment Mose has received. A series of events follows that places Boss and Charley in an all-out feud with Baxter and his men, which culminates in one of the most intense gunfight scenes ever filmed.
How is Open Range a Classic Western? There is no question in Boss's and Charley's minds that decent men such as them should stand up to evil as represented by Baxter. It's the principle of the thing. The good fight. They don't even live in town. They might have passed through and kept on going. But there is no way they are going to submit to Baxter's aggression now that he has pushed their backs to the wall. Meanwhile, the actual citizens in the town worriedly explain that they can't possibly stand up to Baxter. They are just shopkeepers, not heroes. And Charley asks them impatiently, "You're men, aren't you?" Contrast this to the nihilistic despair of Unforgiven, especially during the scene in the saloon when the villain (Gene Hackman) gives the self-loathing hero (Clint Eastwood) an extended, sadistic beating.
Open Range does contain some touches of modern complexity that push it in the direction of a New Western – especially in the character of Charley, who is no paper-thin character from a 1950s oater. Charley feels deeply uneasy by his past deeds as a Civil War sharpshooter, which grew out of his ability to kill easily and skillfully. At one point, he has a traumatic flashback to his combat experiences. But in general, Open Range has a completely different feel from Unforgiven. It contains humorous moments such as the exchanges with the excitable livery stable owner (Michael Jeter), Boss's inclination to buy chocolate and cigars before risking his life in a shootout, and Charley's moment where he demands to know Boss's real name before they meet their Maker. In the end, the townsfolk have rallied due to the heroic example set by Boss and Charley and have reclaimed their town. The future looks bright for the good guys, and Charley even has a chance for romance. As endings go, it doesn't get much more Classic Western than this. Look on Amazon.com for this terrific movie: Open Range.
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