Landscapes of Isolation: A Binge for the Pandemic

Landscapes of Isolation: A Binge for the Pandemic
The isolated Cortijo del Fraile in Spain's Almeria was seen in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy , Photo Credit: Eusebio Torres/Shutterstock

Why do westerns make for great cinema in the times of the pandemic?

Prannay Pathak
October 12 , 2020
15 Min Read

Call them kitschy but there is a fistful of reasons why I like a good old western. The sweaty, swarthy faces of mutton-chopped roughnecks ready to whip out their colts is enough to give me a movie lover’s wet dream. I love their shootouts and bar banter scenes. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to own replicas of Lee Van Cleef’s overcoat and saddle bag from the second instalment in the Dollars trilogy. The opening coyote call of an Ennio Morricone score can shatter the floodgates of my never-flagging composure.

But the biggest reason yet for why I always go back to a western when in doubt is probably a poncho-wearing man who has got no name, riding away across the barren American desert, disturbing the ominous loneliness of the dry wilderness, and finally arriving, covered in dust, at the saloon of a notorious frontier town. Railway carriages pulling up into nondescript stations; posses and search parties travelling from one coast to another through the changing of the seasons; lonely ranches and packed graveyards—all of them fan the flames of my love for the great outdoors.

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Found a sacred place. The Arch. #onceuponatimeinthewest #1968 #ouatitw #monumentvalley #navajonation #sergioleone

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At various points in the pandemic-enforced lockdown and even after, I have regularly watched new westerns and re-watched some of my enduring favourites. I have battled the claustrophobia of not being able to step out without a mask thinking about Clint Eastwood galloping away in the wee hours through the desert outcrops, having helped a captive native and her family escape the clutches of a family gang, the vengeful rogues in his wake. I remember being thrilled to find out this was the Spanish Tabernas Desert and not really the American Midwest.

Family showdowns are known to see a sharp spike when everybody works from home but I preferred to put my mind to the dizzyingly spectacular final shootout in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly instead. The original model for possible socially distanced gunfights of the future is worth hitting rewind endlessly and getting off on the constantly shifting dynamics of the unbelievable suspenseful climax. The surreal quality of the scene, where the titular central characters converge and face each other in an excruciatingly tense Mexican standoff, is heightened by the fact that it was shot in a gorgeous faux cemetery called Sad Hill created especially for the film, in Spain’s Burgos.

The Sad Hill Cemetery in Burgos, Spain, where the exhilarating shootout of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was filmed

The cemetery has now been restored by a group dedicated to the upkeep of the iconic filming site. Kanab in Utah was the setting for another Clint Eastwood film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in addition to providing a quintessentially Navajo backdrop to The Lone Ranger and Billy the Kid. The town, also known as Little Hollywood, is a popular film tourism site now.

Not all westerns, however, are set in rocky, arid landscapes. Wyoming’s Teton range, with its whimsical, craggy peaks, formed the backdrop of the gorgeous, panoramic visuals of George Stevens’ Shane. The forests of Pagosa Springs featured in the 2017 film Hostiles. It was Colorado, again—this time the idyllic mountain town of Telluride—that formed the Edenic backdrop of All Gold Canyon in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a recent venture.

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ðŸÂÂ’™ All Gold Canyon ðŸÂÂ’™ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs . . . #theballadofbusterscruggs #allgoldcanyon #cohenbrothers #tomwaits #western #countrymusic #country

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And if you’re a homebody who revels in the confines of closed spaces—the stagecoaches and wagons of these films will have you dancing (without moving a limb, and tucked inside your bed) in joy, as I often do when I watch scenes from Django Unchained. To watch Christoph Waltz’s sassy dentist moonlighting as a bounty-hunter as he drives his stagecoach around in the night, with a giant tooth bobbing at the top, is riotously funny. 

On a more serious note, Stagecoach, directed by John Ford, although entrenched in a problematic racist stereotype, has evocative visuals of the Monument Valley of Utah. The saturated Technicolor visuals of another western with a problematic, racist message, The Searchers, kind of compensate, once more, with the dramatic expanse of the Monument Valley, punctuated by the sandstone buttes and mesas of the area.

Westerns as Travel Movies

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Monument Valley, Navajo Nation; where the wild west meets the 21st century. . . . #travelphotography #vsco #canonphotography #canon5dmarkiii #cowboy #monumentvalley #summercamp #nopandemic #california #wildwest #red #navajo #eeuuu #usa #america #digitalphotography #sunset #sheshootsfilm #travelgram #travel_drops #roadtrip #westcoast #directorofphotography #summersun #johnford #horse #horseriding

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As a film lover who is constantly on the lookout for journeys as part of the narrative, I have found ‘travel movies’, marketed as thus, nothing more than unconvincing spiel for self-help messages, with the exception of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Thankfully, in the rich symbolism of the journeys depicted in westerns, travel can be experienced more authentically and without any expectations whatsoever.

Take the long hunt for a young woman that the two protagonists in The Searchers undertake. The two men ride across the wildernesses of the US for five long years, often witnessing seasons change and a thick coat of snow replace the usual dust and grime of the western. Ethan, played by John Wayne, himself, is the embodiment of a picaresque hero—the sort of never-settling bounty-hunter/civil war veteran that Sergio Leone later half-lampooned in his spaghetti westerns.

Dr Schultz in Django Unchained, a modern Tarantino-style caricature of the western, is a German bounty-killer who shoots sheriffs for fun and undertakes a journey through changing seasons to liberate his associate, Freeman Django’s wife. In recent memory, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Revenant explore the cold alienation of the punishing winter landscape in frontier settings. Wind River is an excellent mystery drama that heightens the loneliness of the vast whiteness of snow country and for once alleviates the pain of abandonment that the pandemic has inflicted on us.

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Ostili regia di Scott Cooper, 2017 New Mexico, 1892. Una famiglia che abita in una fattoria viene improvvisamente assalita da un gruppo di Comanche che trucida tutti i componenti tranne la madre (Rosamund Pike) che riesce miracolosamente a mettersi in salvo. Sulla sua strada s'imbatte il capitano Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) che insieme a un gruppo di soldati deve scortare, contro ogni suo principio, il capo indiano Falco Giallo in una riseva indiana del Montana. Joseph Blocker ha partecipato a moltissime guerre contro i nativi americani, coltivando nel tempo un odio viscerale verso di loro dovuto alle numerose perdite di compagni sul campo di battaglia. Ostili diretto da Scott Cooper (Crazy Hearth, Black Mass) è un'opera che attraverso il genere western e la cruenta storia degli Stati Uniti vuole tracciarci alcuni aspetti della vita dell'uomo come l'elaborazione del lutto e la capacità di redenzione. Il viaggio intrapreso dai personaggi di Christian Bale e Rosamund Pike si tramuta in un cammino catartico dove però gli spiriti del passato sono sempre in agguato. Cooper inoltre è abile nel mostrarci anche come l'America che noi tutti conosciamo sia stata fondata prettamente sul sangue e sull'odio razziale, rappresentati magnificamente nella prima parte da un Christian Bale, che in Ostili recita splendidamente per sottrazione come poche volte nella sua carriera. Forse il problema dell'opera di Cooper risiede proprio nel cambio troppo repentino di pensiero dei suoi protagonisti e in una retorica un po' troppo forzata in alcuni frangenti del film. Il tutto è comunque ben confezionato dai bellissimi campi lunghi realizzati dal direttore della fotografia Masanobu Takayanagi e dalle due grandi prove attoriali di Christian Bale e Rosamund Pike.

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It is impossible for a genre that is named after a space in a physical and psychological geography, to not deal with these peregrinations. The posse subplot is a frequent trope, where a band of individually incapable men takes on assignments such as escorting native chiefs or coldblooded killers to prison. These journeys, explored in films such as 3:10 to Yuma and the 2017 Christian Bale-starrer Hostiles are characterised by constant tension, bonfires, occasional digressions such as conflicts with natives or brushes with the Civil War.

In the brilliant final instalment of the Dollars trilogy, as Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach travel to the Sad Hill cemetery, where the gold is buried, they come upon the ravages of war, depicted in a poignant montage. Speaking of that, Sam Peckinpah’s memorable epic western, The Wild Bunch, concerns a band of forever-wandering middle-aged outlaws. The group rides to Mexico in search of a new, grand bounty—the scenes they encounter on the way often have the same effect on the viewer’s mind that personally experienced journeys do. The film was shot almost entirely in Torreon and Parras in Coahuila, Mexico.

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En busca de Lawrence ðŸÂÂœ👳🏼 ðŸ“ÂÂÂŒ Hoy viajamos al Desierto de Tabernas, concretamente a una de las localizaciones de Lawrence de Arabia (1962). ðŸÂÂÂŽ¥ La captura fue realmente complicada por el fuerte viento y la luz dura de esas horas. 🤦‍♂ï¸Â Además, por error, no se grabaron las fotos de esta panorámica en RAW y toda la edición se ha realizado desde el JPG. âž¡ï¸Â Después de tanta palabrería, me encantaría saber qué os parece 😃 . . . . #tabernas #almeria #andalucia #ig_spain #fotografia #photography #ig_great_pics #agameoftones #artofvisuals #igshotz #discoverearth #landscape_lovers #aroundtheworld #worldexplorer #thevisualcollective #throughthelens #awesome_photographers #spain #ok_spain #desert #ok_landscape #curatethis1x #fineartphotography #photoshop #captureone #aerial #dronestagram #droneglobe #drone #dronephotography

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Delving deeper into the visual dynamics of the western genre has borne its own rewards for my outdoors-deprived soul. I remember looking up the dreamy San Antonio Mission of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and finding out that it was actually a farmhouse called Cortijo del Fraile in Spain’s Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park. The gritty outback town of Winton in Queensland—the setting of The Proposition—is known as the Dinosaur Capital of Australia.

Quite naturally, there is a fistful of reasons I love my westerns. And then there are a few reasons more.


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