Thursday, 31 July 2008

Once Upon A Time In The West End

In recent years the Western has returned from the hinterlands of cinema. In their re-issue of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, perhaps distribution pioneers Park Circus know why the Horse Opera is ready for another stampeding encore. Andrew McWhirter talks to John Letham, one of founders of the Park Circus, based in Glasgow’s West End.

Italian maestro Sergio Leone’s 1966 final instalment of his Dollars Trilogy, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, blazes across cinema screens this weekend for the first time in an extended 179 minute cut. UK film industry success story Park Circus, which celebrated its fifth birthday in March, is behind the unveiling of a fully restored and remastered print. Founded by John Letham and Nick Varley, the venture has carried continuous momentum in a temperamental home industry and specialises in distributing classics and back catalogue films for theatrical release. Managing director Letham, perturbed at the lack of treatment towards the screening of classics, admits “We witnessed a niche, because when you show films at a cinema there’s two things you have to do: one is getting rights clearance and secondly is to secure availability. Time and again we witnessed good films not being showcased, either because people didn’t know who the rights holder was or if the rights cleared then there wasn’t always good material to show it.” That niche philosophy also underpins overall quirkiness to the business in being based outside of a bustling Soho, allowing for the added pragmatic bonus of reduced overheads.

At a time of resurgence in the Western, are the company’s plans a capital gain, cinephile-like dedication, or a combination of both in realising the popularity of debate surrounding a Western renaissance? Whilst the services of former Glasgow Film Festival Director Nick Barley come in fruitful with exhibitor relations, Park Circus are also switched on to cinema culture. This year they’ve handled David Lean and Bette Davis prints to celebrate respective centenaries, and hold awareness of other industry activities too. Letham says, “We’ve a lot of passion in what we do and are very focused. The BFI Southbank are hosting a Clint Eastwood Season, with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as its key anchor, what we call an extended run for a few weeks so that other titles can gravitate around it.”

Boasting one of the most iconic three-way shootouts in film history, this most influential of Leone’s index sees the return of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name hot on the trail of a $200,000 Confederate bounty alongside repulsive gunman Tuco (the enigmatic Eli Wallach) and scheming mercenary Sentenza (the face, Lee Van Cleef), set to a bloody backdrop of the American Civil War. With over the top violence, god-like gunplay and wry wit, this epic is Leone’s vision to deconstruct, with irony, a genre long recognised as a form of nostalgic escapism and to reinvigorate a whiff of staleness with long-lasting popularity. Passing into the parlance of our times are the words from a famous bath scene where Tuco’s mouthy assassin thinks him cornered until the unattractive anti-hero’s steel barrel emerges through the suds, “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”

The black spectacled and bear-like Leone, similar to a young Kubrick, created such a revision of the Western that his trilogy invited subsequent politicised readings into his work, claiming commentaries on the violent atrocities and futility of the Vietnam War – an easier ability afforded to detached Europeans. With close-quarters gun battles, hangings, and prison camps, the relevance of the final piece of his trilogy to current concerns isn’t easy to ignore, nor are criticisms labelled towards a new cycle’s harsh violence in juxtaposition to contemporary ‘dark times’. According to Letham Park Circus’s motivations behind the release are a little more practical, “There’s a lot of reasons why we choose to do what we do, the first being our close relationship to exhibitors. If you’re leasing your James Bond picture, you put your block in the calendar, but if you are releasing a re-issue or smaller release you really have to work that bit harder. It’s crucial to know what they’ll take.” Regardless of allegorical and politicised readings of the Western, he does acknowledge a renewed thirst for the films, “Absolutely, with some of the poster artwork we’ve done we’ve really tried to capture that a little bit, Clint Eastwood with a modern twist”.

Although genre puritans might look for a showdown, narrative film and the Western began hand in hand with The Great Train Robbery in 1903. With the number of Western films dwindling as early as the 1950s, by all accounts the Hollywood favourite should’ve been bundled through the saloon doors and rode peacefully out of town by now. A glance at the oater in the last couple of years (Seraphim Falls, September Dawn, Broken Trail, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men) offers fisticuffs in defense. The cult popularity of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly might seem adequate reasoning for its return, but Letham has his own philosophy as to why this genre endures, “When people talk about what makes a classic and what no longer works with contemporary audiences the period pieces like the Western always hold their own. The visuals don’t date like 1970’s or 1980’s movies set in that period and, unlike SF, the western isn’t all about effects. It’s the action, intrigue and the storylines that appeal.” It’s this demand that sees new projects on the horizon on both the large and small screens. The Last Horseman and The Hard Ride are just two of the many TV mini-series planned in the US for 2009, and Ed Harris directs Renee Zellweger and Viggo Mortensen in hired-gun mythical adaptation from Robert B. Parker’s novel Appaloosa later this year. Productions are not confined to horizons west though, as a release of Japanese director Takashi Miike’s postmodern flick Sukiyaki Western: Django is planned in the UK and the spurs continued to be spotted on Harry Potter (Goblet of Fire) director Mike Newell, reported to be working on a project about a native American bounty hunter. Further ahead still, plans to belatedly celebrate The Lone Ranger’s 75th Birthday in epic Disney style are in place. And Park Circus have already extended to making the full Dollars Trilogy (1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, and its 1965 sequel For A Few Dollars More) available to cinemas, “We’ve not reissued them as such, so some cinemas will, over a period, be doing the whole trilogy”.

A quick search of the organisation’s catalogue reveals that only a handful of their 7000 strong titles are Westerns, 12 to be exact. Letham believes he has a good mix between some of the best directors, like Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz) and the biggest films, like The Big Country, but classification issues arise, “The Western catchphrase is interesting from the point of view of what actually makes a Western. There’s probably more in there, but we don’t have the majority of them. If you look at IMDB for example their top 50 westerns start with Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, so if you are going to re-release stuff you’ve got to look at those types of titles, which are always going to be classics of cinema.” Whilst the genre is the longest lasting and largest in cinema history, the undersized presence it has at Park Circus reflects larger ideological concerns as to which Westerns are in fact celebrated. This bias has existed since writing about the genre became vogue in the critic’s circles of 1950s Paris. Scholar-fans have since selected a corpus of films from 1950s to the 1970s and excluded much else – which means 70% of overall production in the 1930s & 1940s heyday rolls along with the tumbleweed. Just as partiality exists at the heart of the selection of a Western canon, it also filters through to preconceived notions of what certain groups of Westerns represent.

From a director who made only seven feature films, Leone’s ‘spaghetti’ oeuvre in the ‘60s and ‘70s will always invite cultural readings into a troubled time for America (corruption, war, assassinations) played out on screen by the mythological iconography of its past. Asking why dystopia, then, is emblazoned across films today like No Country for Old Men appears as futile as asking Russell Crowe’s character, Ben Wade, in 3:10 to Yuma what time that deathly train departs. Films have simply readjusted violence into a new realm of realistic that makes Leone’s films seem tame by comparison. Therefore, Park Circus welcomes a re-examination of the X-rated trilogy, “The violence issues are interesting, and we obviously like to put things back through BBFC and they do respond well by looking at modern audiences, to be fair I think that 15 is the correct rating for it.”

As the years pass, each of today’s Western output may well be grouped under the banner of darker times and prophetic of unspeakable futures, just as Leone’s crop has. But there are never absolutes; just as Leone’s violently artistic Westerns may have been reactionary to other factors (declining cinema audiences of the 1960s or the abolishment of harsh censorship) the reasons behind a current cycle are plentiful: pleasure, prestige, rewriting myths, political, allegorical, etc.

That the genre, if not leading a cattle drive, is grazing famously on public appetite again is not to say it’s ever been away. In American life the mythological presence of the West never strays too far from Route 66 billboards or hero rhetoric to aid partisan politics. The point being, whilst there may be many answers to why Westerns existence thrives again, there’s never a definitive one. Just as old-styled action will entertain in 3:10 to Yuma, films like 2003’s The Alamo will display a knee-jerk reaction to atrocities like 9/11 in its failed attempts to rouse a nation, whilst a movie like September Dawn, recounting a 1857 massacre carried out by Mormons at the behest of the ‘American Moses’ Brigham Young, reminds fanaticism isn’t restricted to one race. The only certainty is that Westerns are doing what they always do, reminding of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays at BFI Southbank, The Filmhouse in Edinburgh and other key cites from Aug 1st. to find out where.

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