Movies that are Secretly Westerns
There are a lot of films that wear their Western influence on their sleeves. The recent, notably grim superhero film "Logan" openly borrowed from "Shane," even showing a scene from the film for anyone who missed the reference.
But there are films that are subtler about this, seeming to not be a Western until you dig and then, suddenly, there they are, a Western. Here are three of my favorites.
Escape from New York: Director John Carpenter is a fan of Westerns and has borrowed from them repeatedly. His breakthrough 1976 film "Assault on Precinct 13" is functionally a remake of "Rio Bravo," while his 1986 kung fu pastiche "Big Trouble in Little China" started life as a Western script.
But the most surprising, and hidden, use of Western themes was in his 1981 sci-fi actioner "Escape from New York." Carpenter has acknowledged this debt, so this isn't idle speculation. His eye patch-wearing hero, Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell), is visually inspired by John Wayne in "True Grit, and the story, in which a man goes into hostile territory to rescue a kidnap victim, is lifted from "The Searchers." The film even steals a joke from another Wayne film, "Big Jake," in which people repeatedly tell Wayne "I thought you were dead."
Surprising as this is, it does explain one of the film's odder moments, a shootout with a Native American gang atop the Twin Towers. The original script expanded on this further, with the Indians as the first group Plissken meets, seated around a campfire.
It's also worth noting how many in the film's cast were longtime veterans of film Westerns, including Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton. Russell wasn't yet an established Western movie actor, although he would go on to do quite a few, but he was the son of Bing Russell, an actor with a long association with cowboy movies, including "Rio Bravo."
GoodFellas: It's hardly a surprise that director Martin Scorsese put some Western elements into his 1990 mobster film "GoodFellas." Scorsese is a film buff, and so his movies tend to draw from the long history of cinema, calling back to dialogue or shots from classic movies.
What is surprising is that the film treats its only actual mafioso — the hotheaded Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci — as though he were a cowboy. When he accidentally shoots the gofer named Spider, it is because he's making the younger man dance to gunshots like in a cowboy movie. He even cries out "You fucking varmint. Dance! Round up those fucking wagons!" The local mob boss describes DeVito this way: "He's crazy, he's a cowboy, he's got too much to prove."
This is no accident. Scorsese once described the film as essentially being a remake of the 1903 Western "The Great Train Robbery," saying "“Basically, in 'GoodFellas', it’s a bunch of criminals who do this incredible robbery. And then they all kill each other, and the police get them at the end. It’s exactly the same story.”
Indeed, "GoodFellas" ends with a near identical shot: "Train Robbery" ended with bandit leader Justus D. Barnes looking directly at the camera and then empty his gun at the audience. "GeoodFellas" duplicates this shot, but with DeVito holding the gun.
Rob Roy: The 1995 Scottish historical drama "Rob Roy" was scripted by Alan Sharp, who had a few Westerns under he belt, including the Acid Westerns "The Hired Hand" and "Ulzana's Raid," as well as the almost-forgotten "Billy Two Hats." But Sharp was Scottish, and you wouldn't think he would need to refer to Westerns in telling this story of a Scottish clan chief.
You would be wrong. Sharp was specifically hired because of his background in writing Westerns; the producers did not even know he was Scottish. "A western in Scotland was what we were trying to do," explained producer Richard Jackson.
So the film primarily concerns itself with cattle rustling, with the titular Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) standing up the the Highlands equivalent of a cattle baron, in this case a nobleman. There's a hired gun, played by Tim Roth. The film even ends with a dual, although one in kilts and with swords, rather than pistols.