Weird Westerns: Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The third part of Robert Zemeckis's trilogy about a time-traveling teenager, played by Michael J. Fox, here thrust into an enjoyably shallow version of the Old West.
By Max Sparber
"Back to the Future Part III" may be the first example of a strange phenomenon, that of an established fantastical series setting one of its later sequels in the Old West. There are enough of these that it might be considered a subgenre of a subgenre. In the world of Weird Westerns, let's call it, I don't know, the Wild Hill Valley Western, or the Mad Dog Tannen Western, or perhaps the Acoustic ZZ Top Western. I feel some detail from the film would make a proper name for this microgenre.
As "Back to the Future" films go, this was something of a return to form after the narratively daring, wildly inventive, but somewhat taxing Back to the Future Part II, which sent our heroes Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd) into a satiric future and then back through the events of the first film.
This sequel, based on a suggestion from Fox, was more meat and potatoes, set in a single location (Hill Valley, in this film barely a frontier town) and a single date (1885). It swaps out the second film's invention for Western cliches and film references, allowing the film to focus on the oddly friendly relationship between the very young McFly and the very old Doc Brown. The film also gives Brown a romantic entanglement, making him less a supporting character and more of a costar with McFly.
The romantic interest is played by Mary Steenburgen as a frontier teacher with a taste for Jules Verne novels, and the sheer force of her personality makes her seem more present than she actually is. She only has a handful of scenes with Brown, but since both she and Lloyd are exceptionally interesting actors, the scenes feel like they have genuine weight.
As a Western, the film feels a bit well-trod, which was a complain from critics when the film came out, with Roger Ebert complaining that it felt set on a backlot, which is fair. This was also true of the first film, which was set in a sitcom version of the 1950s and relied enormously on cliches gleaned from "Happy Days." But the 1950s of "Back to the Future" was created with enormous verve, and it seemed to being playing with the cliches of the era for the sake of comedy. Much of the charm of the first film was watching McFly, from the then-present, interacting with a technicolor cartoon of the mid-20th century.
The comedy feels less sharp in this film, perhaps because the popular Western was in decline when the film was made, and so the filmmakers may have felt they had less shared cliches they could depend on audiences recognizing, and therefore less material to make comedy from. I would also note that the film draws on classic Western tropes, but there had been decades of revisionist Westerns since then, and so the film's version of the Wild West feels flatter and less detailed than their version of the 50s, which had not yet gone through a cycle of revisionist films.
That being said, it is a Robert Zemeckis movie, and whatever failings he may have as a filmmaker, he is a superb pop crafstman; especially his 1980s films could be counted on for fun, and its not lacking here. There is a brief scene set in the 1950s, with a 1950s version of The West represented by a dazzling Indian-themed drive-in theater and an almost literally radioactive cowboy costume for McFly. Briefly, the film seems like it might contrast 1950s versions of the Old West with the actual Old West, which would have been delightful.
But McFly is not from the 1950s, but the 1980s, and so he almost immediately dumps his Roy Rogers' style cowboy costume for both the name and the look of Clint Eastwood. The remainder of the plot is impressively simple: He and Doc Brown must get their broken time machine working by pushing it with a train, and McFly must duel the Old West version of the McFly family's eternal bully, "Mad Dog" Tanner. He is played as an enjoyable riff on Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, limned as always by Thomas F. Wilson, who was always the series' ace in the hole.
The resulting film is vintage Zemeckis, with workmanlike plotting, a taste for oddball character moments, and an endless supply of movie in-jokes. As with the other films in the series, there is a guest appearance by a rock star (previously it had been Huey Lewis and Flea, who briefly reappears in this one). In this case, it is ZZ Top as the band at a Western dance, and it is one of the better jokes in the film, as, with their lumberjack beards, they fit right even, even when doing their signature guitar spin.
The film has aged better than you might expect: 27 years later, the film itself is now far enough in the past that it feels closer to the movies it was parodying than to the present, and so feels less like a shallow caricature than just a late iteration of the sorts of light cowboy comedies that came out in the early 60s.
The film, or at least a part of the film, has also enjoyed life as a Web meme, as on repeated viewings audience notices a strange moment when a little boy makes a come hither gesture and then points at his groin. This moment has been isolated and still makes the rounds of the sorts of atomized "100 Weirdest Film Moments" videos you find on YouTube, and as a never-unwelcome GIF.
I would not have expected that, of all the Westerns ever made, this would be the one that would have the most currency in the digital modern era. But, then, it's a film about a time traveler, so perhaps it is the most appropriate film to have thrust one of its scenes into the future, even if it is probably not the scene anybody involved with the film might have preferred.