Two New Westerns: A Review

Most of the time, when you think of “westerns,” you think of actors like John Wayne (El Dorado) or Gary Cooper (High Noon), or one of the longest-running televisions shows of all time (Gunsmoke). Most of the time, modern movies just can’t hit the “western” lever as well as the classics, with a few exceptions (like Tombstone, Silverado, or 3:10 to Yuma).

I’ve been in a western mode for a while, and finally managed to watch two new ones I’d never seen before: Forsaken and News of the World.

So, here’s a few thoughts on both of them, with a few spoilers as possible.

Forsaken stars both Kiefer Sutherland and Donald Sutherland, so I was immediately intrigued. My mom (who’d seen the movie a while ago) told me that Kiefer Sutherland paid for someone to write this movie for him, so that he and his dad could both star in it as exactly what they are in real life: a father and son.

This movie is EXACTLY what you’d be looking for in a “classic western.” Kiefer Sutherland plays John Henry Clayton, a gunfighter who goes home to his father after giving up his life of violence. His father, Donald Sutherland, is the Reverend Samuel Clayton, who has spent a decade disapproving of his son. Donald Sutherland’s acting is a bit stiff (as usual), but it fits for the nature of the character. Right out of the gate, you see the tension between the two of them, especially since John Henry’s mother has since died, and isn’t there to mediate between the two.

The plot basically follows the same general themes as Shane, only instead of the Farmers vs. the Cowmen, it’s the Farmers vs. the Railroad. The good gunfighter is trying to be something other than a violent man, but the conflict around him is pressuring him to pick up his guns again.

There’s also the side plot about John Henry still being in love with his old sweetheart (played by Demi Moore), who is now married to another man. It’s like the writers took the hints of that in Shane and made it an out-in-the-open plotline, but still kept the honorable behavior of all involved (no adultery to be found here).

The best character is the gunfighter on the opposite side of the conflict, Dave Turner (brilliantly played by Michael Wincott). He is channeling Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, and it’s spot-on. He’s not a villain; the man who hired him is the villain. He tries to keep things civilized, and “never signed up for murder.” He wants to do things right, even though he’s helping someone bully and scare the farmers off their land.

The landscapes are beautiful. I didn’t look up where it was filmed, but it was gorgeous. The soundtrack is also excellent, very subtle and appropriate.

I won’t give too much away, but the ending was perfect. Had me sniffing a little.

Overall, I’d put this one among my top ten westerns. It deserves to be right up there with John Wayne’s classics.

News of the World wasn’t quite as good as Forsaken, but still worth watching. I’d been seeing ads for it on Freevee while watching Night Court, so I finally broke down and tried it. Tom Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, former Texas officer in the Confederate Army. He makes his living “reading the news.” Anybody who wants to can leave a dime in a tin, and sit and listen as he reads stories from various newspapers from across the country.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t an opportunity for the film creators to simply slam the Confederate South, or Texas, or really anybody. Yes, there are several instances of racist, evil, Southern characters, but the “Blues,” or the resident Yankee soldiers, are almost as bad or worse. The commentary seems to be more of the way the movie Lincoln portrays the title character: he’s not either the 19th-century equivalent of Nero, or the second-coming. Both he and his time are more complicated than that. News of the World does the same.

It’s not a political or societal commentary; it’s about the struggle of the two main characters. Early on, Captain Kidd leaves Wichita Falls and discovers a little girl named Johanna (played by Helena Zengel). She is about ten years old, and has lived most of her life with the Kiowa tribe, who took her from her family when she was very small (and killed both her parents and her baby sister at the time). She speaks almost no English, and vaguely remembers some Deutsch from her original family, the Alsatian Germans who settled in Castroville, Texas (Medina County). All she has are the clothes on her back, and some paperwork explaining who she is and what happened to her from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

So, Captain Kidd can either stay with her for three months and wait for the Indian agent to get off the reservation, or he can take her home to Castroville himself, and he chooses the latter.

The two of them travel from Wichita Falls, all the way south through hostile Indian territory, to get her home, but she doesn’t want to go. She would rather go back to the Kiowa, which makes keeping track of her an interesting task for Captain Kidd.

The movie has a lot of exciting moments (the usual western movie gunfights and such), but it’s much slower paced than Forsaken, for example. It’s primarily about the journey, and the character development, not the action.

Overall, I’d say it’s worth watching once, mostly for Tom Hanks’s performance.

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