Back in the 50s to mid-70s, TV and cinema were dominated by traditional westerns. Then the genre quietly went to sleep. And you know what? It had to take a nap because westerns were becoming boring and predictable.
There was still shit-loads of action. You had the hero/bad guy (usually dressed in a tattered brown outfit) tied by the wrists being dragged through the town centre behind the trusty steed of the sheriff/outlaw (usually dressed in ominous black).
There were duels to the death between gunslingers. You had chase scenes with rifleman on horseback dropping enemies like flies while in full gallop; daring train robberies; saloon fights that started as fisticuffs because of a crooked poker player. You had tough-as-nails women and sharpshooter children with dusty faces defending an entire town.
The elements, props and characters of traditional westerns are, as a rule, limited to guns, rifles, saddles, spurs, horses, carriages, trains, outlaw gangs, sheriffs, deputies, marshals, Indians, the town’s creepy undertaker and whores. Always with the whores. The setting? A bank, a jail, a saloon, a campfire, the wild west itself and of course a brothel (for the obligatory whores).
Then a bear won an Oscar…
There have been a few western movies and TV series which have stood out since the lull of the 80s and 90s, from the early days of Young Guns to more recent successes of Godless, The West, Running Wild, The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained – the latter both Tarantino blockbusters. Oh, and that movie where Leo DiCaprio won an Oscar for grunting through adversity after a bear mauled him: The Revenant. But these titles all fall under the umbrella of the traditional western.
Things started getting really interesting around the time of the release of Back to the Future Part III. Now we’re talking! Director Robert Zemeckis took a gamble on a dicey, half-dead genre, added some sci-fi, action and comedy to it and hit it out of the park, opening the path for the rest of the industry.
He didn’t make the western the main ingredient, because Back To The Future III is not really a western, but he used western elements and sprinkled some gold dust around it, tricking people into thinking they were watching the best western ever. It’s like debating whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not. (It is NOT a Christmas movie!)
Nine years after Back to The Future III, director Barry Sonnenfeld and actor Will Smith would poop all over this achievement with the release of Wild Wild West. What a damn shame.
You’re probably assuming that we’re heading towards how great Westworld is for the purposes of this discussion. Spoiler alert: you guessed wrong. Westworld is awesome but we need to derail this Hollywood train and head over to another wild country – South Africa – so hold onto your horses.
The Hellions ride into town
The South African film industry is not only the oldest in Africa but also one of the oldest in the world, and its first western, Ken Annakin’s The Hellions, was released in 1961.
This movie marked the first co-production between South Africa, Britain and the USA. Legendary filmmaker Jamie Uys co-starred in and produced the film. It follows the story of Luke Billings and his four reprobate sons, who ride into a small South African settlement in search of revenge on police sergeant Sam Hargis. The Sarge knows he can’t outgun the five outlaws and turns to the townspeople for help, but instead receives it from a most unexpected source.
You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube:
Although The Hellions ticks almost every box in the traditional western, save the whores, it’s special because it was Africa’s first legit western movie. It was released when the genre was at its height and it held its own.
Did South Africa move away from the traditional western after that one movie? Hells yeah, partner!
Five Fingers for the win
The 2017 film, Five Fingers for Marseilles, made big headlines in South Africa last year for being SA’s first western. You now know that it is, in fact, South Africa’s second western, but by no means does it fit the tried and tested Hollywood mould.
This is a modern-day western that takes place in the Eastern Cape, where the young “Five Fingers” fought for the rural town of Marseilles against brutal police oppression. Twenty years later the outlaw Tau returns to his hometown only to find that his enemies were replaced with something worse.
Five Fingers is good old revenge, sure, but in a different setting with a different vibe. Plus all of the children in the movie are local villagers, many of whom were studying to be in theatre. So there’s a spirit of social awareness and responsibility around this film, something South Africa needs.
Car guard by day, cowboy for life
One year later and South Africa delivers yet another gem. Cowboy Dan is a Silwerskermfees short film entry that tells the story of a car guard who is convinced he is a cowboy, who goes on a journey through Cape Town to retrieve a car that was stolen from the parking lot that falls under his guard. He is out for justice.
From the get-go, it pulls you right in. Cowboy Dan is sitting in his cowboy outfit just outside his tent in the wild, next to a campfire: “Dis lekker fokken koud, my bra” (It is fucking cold, my friend)”, but then the viewer is yanked out of Dan’s imagination, to his harsh reality, where he is in the car park and homeless.
The first minute of the film already tells us so much. The first 30 seconds is Hollywood glitz and the next 30 seconds addresses a lot of South Africa’s social ills: homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, mental health, and the major gap between the haves and the have-nots: “F*cking larneys buy 4x4s to park on pavements.”
What writer and director Wynand Louw has achieved with Cowboy Dan, now on Showmax, was to breathe new life into a genre: the bandits are car thieves, the cowboy is a car guard, the cattle are cars and the cowboy’s muse is a barmaid.
Are westerns facing the gallows? Here, have a bag full of nopes. Not if South Africa has anything to do with it.
Westworld, Five Fingers for Marseilles, and Cowboy Dan are available to stream on Showmax. Stream for free with a 14-day free trial.