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A Million Ways to Die in the West & How the Western Was Won

A cowardly sheep farmer named Albert backs out of a gunfight (he’s never fired his gun), and his humiliated girlfriend leaves him for another man. Soon enough, however, a beautiful woman rides into town, and she begins to help Albert find his courage. What he finds, however, is that he’s falling in love with her, which would be all well and good if she weren’t already married…to a notorious outlaw. A notorious outlaw who, as he must, comes to town seeking revenge.

Is the Western having a bit of a revival? The above describes writer/director/producer Seth MacFarlane’s upcoming A Million Ways to Die in the West, a comedy with some major star power (Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried) and MacFarlane’s offbeat sense of humor. Universal is betting that our returning love for the Western, along with MacFarlane’s huge hit with Ted and his legion of fans, will equate to a movie experience millions will want to see.

And this doesn’t seem like a bad bet, all things considered. Over the last decade, a major cowboy flick or two has hit theaters every year, as well as a handful of Western-influenced TV shows. Contemporary takes seem to lean towards one extreme or the other: self-aware campy extravaganza (e.g. Cowboys & Aliens, A Million Ways to Die in the West,) or dark & gritty revision (e.g. There Will Be Blood). In either case, it looks like there’s a time and a place for postmodern cowboys.

Aside from classic John Wayne Westerns, the genre spawned dizzying array of subgenres. You have your northerns (set in Western Canada or Alaska), your space westerns (cowboys… in space!), your acid Westerns (cowboys on a bad trip) and your meat pie Westerns (Australian), not to mention Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (exactly what it sounds like). Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber outlined seven plot categories that most Westerns fit into. There’s the revenge story, the threat-to-the-ranch story, the rags-to-riches oil empire story, the outlaw story, the they’re-building-a-railroad-and-it’s-gonna-change-everything story…

“Spaghetti Westerns” refers to Westerns filmed in Italy in the 60’s and 70’s, when Westerns had a revival and Clint Eastwood rose to fame as the Man with No Name. They were more ironic and self-satirical than classical westerns, often exploiting the audience’s expectations and the conventions of traditional Westerns. Ironically, these Italian productions are probably now the best-remembered examples of the most American of genres.

Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” for example, combined taciturn heroes and stylized violence with weird stuff like this guy shooting Clint Eastwood’s hat into the air like a kite. Leone’s films, and spaghetti Westerns in general, replaced the black and white morality of old-school Westerns with a darker, more ambiguous ethos. Everyone’s motivated by greed or revenge, and even “The Good” in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly isn’t a spotless knight-errant.

No-one really makes straight, unironic Westerns anymore, but there are some classic motifs that still pop up in most Western or Western-ish films. We’ve evaluated a few recent additions to the Western canon according to a highly scientific method, assigning scores based on the presence and prominence of classic Western tropes. Scores go from 1 (not very Western) to 5 (Western as all heck, pardner.) So without further ado:

HOW WESTERN IS THIS WESTERN?

There Will Be Blood

American West setting: 5

Horses: 2

Gunslinging hero: 1

Mustache-twirling bad guy: 3

Shootout finale: 2

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 2

Improbably clean cowboys: 2

A strange man rolls into town: 5

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 4

Total: 26

No Country for Old Men

American West setting: 4

Horses: 2

Gunslinging hero: 3

Mustache-twirling bad guy: 3

Shootout finale: 4

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 3

Improbably clean cowboys: 1

A strange man rolls into town: 5

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 4

Total: 29

True Grit

American West setting: 5

Horses: 4

Gunslinging hero: 5

Mustache-twirling bad guy: 2

Shootout finale: 4

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 4

Improbably clean cowboys: 3

A strange man rolls into town: 2

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 5

Total: 34

Cowboys & Aliens

American West setting: 5

Horses: 4

Gunslinging hero: 4

Mustache-twirling bad guy: 2

Shootout finale: 4

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 3

Improbably clean cowboys: 4

A strange man rolls into town: 5

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 2

Total: 29

The Lone Ranger

American West setting: 5

Horses: 5

Gunslinging hero: 3

Mustache-twirling bad guy: 3

Shootout finale: 4

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 3

Improbably clean cowboys: 2

A strange man rolls into town: 4

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 2

Total: 31

Django Unchained

American West setting: 3

Horses: 5

Gunslinging hero: 4

Mustache-twirling bad guys: 5

Shootout finale: 5

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 3

Improbably clean cowboys: 5

A strange man rolls into town: 3

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 1

Total: 34

Breaking Bad

American West setting: 4

Horses: 1

Gunslinging hero: 2

Mustache-twirling bad guys: 3

Shootout finale: 5

Scenery that makes you want to pack a bag and head west: 5

Improbably clean cowboys: 2

A strange man rolls into town: 1

Alas, the vanishing frontier: 1

Total: 24. Go figure, it’s kind of a Western!

Final score: It’s a tie between True Grit and Django Unchained. They’ll have to settle it by duel.

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