After riding thataway as victims of brutal box office showdowns, Westerns are returning to the Hollywood horizon. And they're packing some big guns -- including Clint Eastwood and the 320-pound Divine -- in attempts to revive the screen's oldest genre.
Changing times and tastes put an end to Westerns in the late '70s and early '80s. Suddenly, space became the new frontier. Black-and-white hats gave way to black-and-white helmets; the X-wing fighter replaced the horse, and "headin' 'em off at the pass" became "headin' 'em off at Jupiter."
Things have come a long way since directors devoted to the genre and actors like John Wayne created an American art form. Mostly set in the period from the 1850s to the 1890s, the Western celebrated the triumph of square-jawed heroes over everything from Indian wars to range wars; the big screen became populated with history, myth, the literature of Zane Grey, morality plays and scenic adventure.
What the Western could not withstand was the small screen. The weekly Western series of the '50s put an end to low-budget Westerns, and in retaliation, Hollywood filmmakers explored harsher, more realistic moods, demythologizing once hallowed ground. Sam Peckinpah unleashed "The Wild Bunch," a gritty, unshaven Eastwood became The Man With No Name, and, in "The Shootist," Wayne played a dying gunfighter with no place left to go.
Traditions were shattered and Westerns of more recent vintage have been unable to entice viewers. The $40-million "Heaven's Gate" hit the box office with a thud that reverberates to this day. "Barbarosa" and "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" were critically admired, but few paid to see them. By the same token, "The Long Riders," about the James-Younger gang, failed to live up to its ad copy credo that "all the world likes an outlaw," and "Legend of the Lone Ranger" carried that legend no further. Big stars aside -- among them, Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and James Coburn -- "Comes a Horseman," "Goin' South," "Tom Horn" and "Bite the Bullet" were also along for the last roundup.
But not all the six-shooters have been replaced by lasers. Convinced that moviegoers are ready for something new, Hollywood is revitalizing something old. Set to ride into view in the coming year are:
* "Silverado," a large-scale Western starring Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Linda Hunt, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover and Rosanna Arquette. Now filming in Santa Fe, N.M., the $20-million production is written, directed and produced by Lawrence Kasdan, writer-director of "The Big Chill."
* Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, "Pale Rider" marks Eastwood's first appearance in the saddle since 1976s epic "The Outlaw Josey Wales." Now in post-production, the film is set during the California Gold Rush era. Carrie Snodgress and Michael Moriarty also star.
* "Rustler's Rhapsody" stars Tom Berenger as Rex O'Herlihan, a singing cowboy with a penchant for initialed, fringed shirts and silver-tipped boots. Hugh Wilson ("Police Academy") is the writer-director of the $5.5-million project. Filming took place in Almeria, Spain, on some of the same sets used by Sergio Leone-Eastwood westerns.
* Mel Tillis and Roy Clark are the bumbling heroes of "Uphill All the Way," a $3.5-million independent western comedy currently filming in Texas. Glen Campbell, Burl Ives, Trish Van Devere and Elaine Joyce also star. The writer-director is Fred Dobbs.
* "Lust in the Dust" re-teams Tab Hunter and Divine, the decidedly odd couple of "Polyester." Paul Bartel ("Eating Raoul") directs the $3-million sagebrush send-up that involves a search for treasure and a missing map that happens to be printed on the derrieres of Divine and Lainie Kazan.
Still other filmmakers and actors hope to head for the hills. Burt Reynolds is planning a remake of John Ford's "My Darling Clementine." John Carpenter hopes at last to film his much-talked-about Western, "Diablo." And Walter Hill ("The Long Riders") and Lukas Heller have just put finishing touches on a script for a new version of "The Magnificent Seven."
A director who has often been accused of making Westerns in contemporary disguise ("Streets of Fire," "48 Hrs."), Hill says he is drawn to "the moral framework" of the Western genre.
"I like the idea of the few against the many, and the notion of using physical courage for a good cause," he says, stressing that his "Magnificent Seven" script is loosely based on the 1960 film of the same title, not Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, "The Seven Samurai" (though the Japanese masterpiece inspired the first "Seven"). "I'm crazy, but I'm not a fool," he added with a laugh. He also wondered if youthful audiences can still relate to Westerns. "There used to be this feeling that we weren't that far removed from the country, and from our primitive roots," Hill said. "Today's filmgoing generation seems to have lost that sense of identity."
For that reason, believes Rene Valente, producer of "Uphill All the Way," the time is right for the occasional Western. "I like to think there's room for a little bit of a lot of different things for all the audiences out there," Valente said. "Since audiences haven't had a Western in a long while, it's time to reacquaint them with the West. A lot of people don't know anything about it. They don't teach it in the schools anymore."
To judge from Valente's description, the Tillis-Clark outing will be a far-from-serious history lesson. Among other things, the two are mistaken for bank robbers after they go into a bank brandishing a gun they hope to use for collateral. Then again, says Valente, a comedy ("our film never parodies") may be an apt transition for moviegoers who have forgotten what Westerns are like. With its 1916 setting, the film will also show a transition between two different eras; the posse will arrive in sputtering cars, circa 1916.
"Silverado," or so Columbia pictures claims, is traditional Western fare -- about a quartet of horsemen. No one would speak about the film from the closed set, though one studio spokesman was happy to say that "Silverado" will "do for Westerns what 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' did for action-adventure." (Writer-director Kasdan also scripted "Raiders.") When Kasdan first approached studios with the project, it had an estimated budget of $27 million. After several studios refused to invest that much in a seemingly passe' genre, Kasdan agreed to scale down the film -- and budget -- by $7 million.
The budget of Eastwood's "Pale Rider," stabled at Warner Bros., has not been announced. What is known is that the work, scheduled for summer release, will adhere to Western tradition -- as will Eastwood's portrayal of the nameless stranger who rides into a mining community beset by battles between corporate interests and independent miners. As Fritz Manes, the film's producer (and a longtime Eastwood associate) observes, "Every Western that's been filmed is basically the same story . . . It's just a matter of numbers. Whether it's one guy or seven, it's still the story of the good guy trying to save someone from the bad guy."
In the case of "Pale Rider," Clint's good guy -- a preacher whose appearance coincides with a young girl's desperate prayers -- may be somewhat mystical. "You never really know, until a film is edited, what you're going to have. But, this character is similar to the one Clint played in 'High Plains Drifter,' " said Manes, referring to a 1973 Western with hazy supernatural nuances.
Eastwood's decision to climb back into the saddle, following a nine-year absence, was no calculated return, said Manes, explaining, "There really was no set plan. This wasn't a case of us saying, 'Let's wait and see if Westerns come back.' It was a case of us saying, 'Let's wait and see if we get a good story.' "
The script for "Pale Rider" first came to Eastwood's attention in 1978. ("We're always looking for a good Western. My God, they were Clint's bread and butter," said Manes.) But other projects preempted it until cameras started rolling this fall in Idaho.
As to why Eastwood has proven such a durable Western figure through the decades (beginning with his portrayal of Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide"), Manes offered, "Without offending any other pretty terrific actors in our industry, I think that he's the only one who can probably still pull it off today.
"I think he pretty well exemplifies the look of the cowboy as people see it -- the way it's been painted, the way it's been written about, the way it's been defined. You know, the lean, lanky stranger who doesn't say too much, but gets the job done, and then says, 'thanks, ma'am,' and rides into the sunset."
Divine, the cult performer ("Pink Flamingos") famed for appearing in drag, isn't anybody's idea of a Western player. But that's just what he/she is, in "Lust in the Dust," produced by Tab Hunter, who also stars as the laconic cowpoke who catches Divine's eye.
"We've tried to tell a good moral tale, despite the title," said Hunter. "It's not a 'Divine picture.' There are a half-dozen major roles. This is really a spoof of '50s Westerns, with a dash of the spaghetti Western thrown in."
As a '50s-era heartthrob, Hunter starred in the "straight" Western -- "Gun Belt," "Gunman's Walk" and "The Burning Hills." In the '60s, when his career declined, he also journeyed to Italy where he starred in a film called "Durango." ("I don't know if it was ever released here. I'm not holding my breath," he laughed.)
"I've got a real fondness for the genre. I think we all feel it. It goes back to childhood. Every kid plays cowboys and Indians," said Hunter. That this Old West foray goes for the funnybone is due to Hunter's belief that it takes a Western with a difference to please today's audiences.
"When we first launched this project, we ran into all kinds of opposition. I was told, 'Nobody goes to see Westerns.' I said, 'That's because they haven't been making the right kinds of Westerns.' " Inspiration for the film came largely from working alongside Divine in "Polyester," he said, adding, "Once I looked at Divine and saw that face, I thought, this belongs on the big screen. That's a lot of presence up there!"
Currently completing a distribution deal for the probable early 1985 release, Hunter pointed out that the art copy for the film's poster resembled a low-budget Western of the '50s. "It looks like something that would star Vera Hruba Ralston, Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron," he said proudly.
Producer David Giler hopes that "Rustler's Rhapsody" will resemble the B-Westerns he loved as a child. "I think of this film as a valentine. It will be faithful to the B-Westerns that starred Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele," he said. "Rhapsody" is a comedy, he said, but "it's played straight. And, we stick to the codes of the West."
Thus, despite some broad parody -- including Andy Griffith as a bad guy oil baron who happens to be gay, and handsome hero Berenger's exhaustive wardrobe (he never wears the same thing twice) -- the Paramount film does not destroy Western mythology.
"That's what helped to get Westerns in trouble in the first place," says Giler. "The romantic West is all anybody ever wanted. The genre is about mythology, action and romance. That's why it should be operatic. Whatever their credentials may have been, the Westerns we loved and grew up on were, first and foremost, fun."