Just as George W. Bush holes up at his Texas ranch, some big chiefs in Hollywood are betting the public has a yen of its own for the big country. Yes siree, America, a passel of horse-and-rider sagas is giddyuping onto movie and TV screens. Maybe the moguls sense a post-9/11 need to see conflicts settled decisively with guns and fistfights, or perhaps it’s the industry’s typical herd-mentality rush to overhaul a rusty genre. Whatever the impetus, this new breed of 19th-century tale is not your father’s Western: Witness such unusual ingredients as frontier forensics (in USA’s surprise ”CSI”-style hit, ”Peacemakers”) and singing cows (voiced by Roseanne and Jennifer Tilly in Disney’s 2004 cartoon feature ”Home on the Range”). Studio execs seem anxious to emphasize they’ve got fresh, 21st-century takes on the pre-indoor plumbing days, most likely because they’re afraid hooves and hats don’t appeal to younger viewers or foreign audiences.
”The general consensus is, Don’t make Westerns, no one wants to see them,” says Kevin Costner, who directed, coproduced, and stars with Annette Bening in Disney’s ”Open Range.” ”I believe very much in Westerns. I like ’em. I feel like I understand ’em.”
Initial reviews generally concur, saying that ”Open Range” successfully honors a tradition-steeped genre (or, as the star folksily pronounces it, ”jon-rah”). If audiences bite as well, Costner hopes to make another Western — he’s got a finished script about frontier pals. These movies could help re-brand him a marketable commodity after stumbles in ”The Postman” and ”Dragonfly.” ”I had to put my own money into this movie to make it,” Costner reports, also crediting coproducers Jake Eberts and David Valdes with contributing ”significant amounts…to keep the thing going.” (Out of the final $20 million to $25 million price tag, Disney reportedly kicked in only about $10 million.) Costner commends Disney for not ”caving in” and demanding cuts from him when the MPAA’s ratings board voted ”Open Range” an R for its flashes of realistic violence. ”I think ‘Open Range’ is a good movie,” says Costner. ”I have no idea if it can be a popular movie.”
That kind of straight-shootin’, love-the-form-or-leave-it talk is seldom heard among other miners of Western-movie traditions. Director Ron Howard has the frontier kidnap-and-rescue thriller ”The Missing,” with Tommy Lee Jones, on tap for December, and he’s loath to call it a Western. ”It’s not a nostalgic revisiting of a classic genre,” Howard says. ”It’s not about range wars, it’s not about standoffs in the street…. I don’t categorize it, except as a suspenseful story.” And if you ask crew members on Disney’s ”The Alamo” to sum up its vibe, they’ve got two words: ”dirty Dickens.” Meaning they’ve pictured San Antonio circa 1836 as closer to London at that time than to cowboy-and-Indian clichés — and it’s sartorial style that will put the point across. According to historian Alan Huffines, who served as a consultant, ”It was a romantic age, [when] men wore cravats and puffy shirts.”
Whether or not ”The Alamo” brings back billowy duds, the studios have more mesquite-flavored properties to saddle up. Still, it may be HBO’s 2004 series ”Deadwood” that puts the most radical spin on the form of late. Created by David Milch (”NYPD Blue”) with a pilot directed by veteran Western hand Walter Hill, the show is said to be plenty brutal and rife with salty language — none of it curbed by the MPAA. ”’Deadwood’ was a community with no laws,” Milch explains. ”It was an illegal settlement on Indian land, so it drew a large proportion of criminals. The whole idea of law was very much in play.”
Sounds like a place where HBO big gun Tony Soprano would feel right at home — but we trust there won’t be a saloon named Wild Bill’s Bada Bing. (Additional reporting by Scott Brown and Lynette Rice)