After a rather vocal defense on the last Cinecast episode, I want to elaborate on one of the chief criticisms of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger – the films 149 minute run time. A length which is actually closer 140 minutes of ‘movie’ (forgive me credit purists!) due to lengthy post credit sequence for a studio film north of $200 Million. At the peak of the western genre, there were often zero closing credits as films used to front-load things back then, while things were actually happening on screen during the credit sequence. I know that the genre has seen the sun set on its hay-day, but I’m quite thankful that a big corporation as Disney, and an ADHD peddler such as Jerry Bruckheimer managed to make a film that is quite true to the spirit of a genre that often showcased a lot of patience in its storytelling, in spite of it also being the dawn of ‘action cinema’ for Hollywood.
We’ve come a long way from 1903′s 12 minute one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery, in terms of how stories are told. Considering that The Lone Ranger has two origin stories, as well as a fiendish plot on the go, this runtime seems reasonable enough, and audiences and critics are attacking the films ‘bloat’ rather than noting that the westerns have almost always trafficked in taking their time ‘smelling the desert roses’ and breathing in the landscape (and ruminating on what is America) before getting to their chief setpiece or climax.
Here is a (rather incomplete, I’m guessing) list of well-respected Westerns (with the possible exception of Paint Your Wagon – are their fans of this musical?) with congruous runtimes:
Once Upon A Time in The West – 175 minutes – Sergio Leone’s film is often the template for Gore Verbinski’s film, focusing on the growing pains of the arrival of the railroad to the frontier, evil white corporate bosses and their dusty-faced henchmen. While it’s not handled in quite the virtuoso fashion, there is a subtle nod to the memorable opening of Leone’s pic as the The Lone Ranger’s first action set-piece is staged while four anonymous gunfighters (here Texas Rangers) are waiting for the train to arrive with our heroes (sans mouth-organ) on board.
How The West Was Won – 164 minutes – A large part of this John Ford (and company) ‘Westward Expansion’ pageantry was to display the new widescreen technology Cinerama, and that might attribute to its epic length, but audiences sure loved the pure spectacle of the thing.
The Magnificent Seven – 128 minutes – You cannot remake Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai without a lengthy runtime, even as the story here is simple. Although, this is the shortest western on the list.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – 161 minutes – The closest thing to a ‘comic book western’ (well until The Quick and The Dead came along) manages to come close to three hours (still shorter than Michael Cimino’s studio killer, Heaven’s Gate) for a most basic narrative – but the film is worth every single minute of on screen.
Duck, You Sucker – 138 minutes – OK, so Sergio Leone simply makes long movies, and the western was his genre. But this WWII allegory makes the most of its time on screen, and is quite the overlooked gem.
Heaven’s Gate – 219 minutes – 30+ years of time (as well as Los Angeles pay-cable Z-Channel pimping the director’s cut) have brought this reviled western back into the good graces of cinephiles. That’s a wholelottafilm.
The Wild Bunch – 145 minutes – Sam Peckinpah brought the ultraviolence to the Western in a way that was positively shocking at the time, and is still fully engrossing, perhaps even moreso, now.
Dances With Wolves – 181 minutes – Kevin Costner’s Oscar winning picture ran for well over a year in first-run cinemas back in the 1990s – this feat of longevity with the moviegoing audience is unheard of today.
Unforgiven – 131 minutes – Another Oscar winner that doesn’t scrimp on run-time, and turns a simple premise into a complete re-evaluation of the western genre (see also The Wild Bunch and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford)
Paint Your Wagon – 149 minutes – OK, I had to put a singing western in here, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin croon for well over 2 hours, folks.
The Outlaw Josey Wales – 135 minutes – Clint Eastwoods first revisionist western back in 1976 is a film brought up in conjunction with The Lone Ranger because folks feel it has a more fair-and-balance at much of America’s ancestral past and the destiny of the nation (and first Nations) after the American Civil War.
Little Big Man – 139 minutes – Yet another revisionist (and quite successful) oater that also functioned as a satire of the Vietnam War. This film has been getting mentioned in the Lone Ranger conversation for its framing story, and its portrayal of First Nations people.
Rio Bravo – 141 minutes – Howard Hawks remade this John Wayne film twice after his original successful go with it in 1959: Eldorado (126 minutes) in 1967 with Robert Mitchum, and Rio Lobo (114 minutes) in 1970 with Wayne again. John Carpenter managed to get the run time down to 90 minutes with his contemporary remake of the film, this time set a police station. The whole idea of a ‘siege film’ pretty much stems from Rio Bravo, and this lengthy affair did not seem to bother anyone at the time.
Open Range – 139 minutes – Kevin Costner makes long movies (see also Wyatt Earp, 191 minutes!), and this is no exception. But he delivers a great modern western that sweetly takes its time with its storytelling which makes the shootout at the end all the more powerful.
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford – 160 Minutes – OK, so audiences never went out to see this in droves, many hated it outright and walked out. But nevertheless, there are many who consider it the best film of 2007, and this is a year which was probably the best for cinema in the 21st century.
The Good, The Bad and The Weird – 139 minutes – Kim Ji-Woon’s Kimchi-western which brings a South Korean flavour to the Spaghetti Western may be a bit self-indulgent at times, but it also has Japanese imperialism and Korean indifference and greed on its brain, making it both rip-roaring entertainment, as well as a critique of history.
Django Unchained – 165 minutes – Although branded a ‘Southern’ rather than a western, was anyone complaining about this epic runtime?