The Western rolls on. Director Waiter Hill will follow his punchy James Butler Hickok biopic, Wild Bill, with Gundown. Jim Jarmusch's Dead Men was shown along with Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead and eleven Westerns directed by John Ford, the subject of a centennial tribute, at the Cannes Film Festival in May. I wasn't in Cannes, but Ford aficionados who attended the same screening of his lovely, lyrical Wagonmaster (1950) as its septuagenarian stars, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr., must have been in sagebrush heaven.
It's been a generation since the spaghetti Western achieved its apotheosis with Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Leone is dead. So is Sam Peckinpah, whose newly restored The Wild Bunch (1969) and valedictory masterpiece, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), were elegies for the West that Leone camped up. Clint Eastwood, Leone's heir, has turned away from the bloody Expressionism of High Plains Drifter (1973) toward the sobriety and introspection of Unforgiven (1992), and who knows whether he will head out West again?
Of course, Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County is a kind of Western - a mid-Western - in which Clint reprises his archetypal role as the enigmatic stranger in town, one carrying a camera instead of a gun, although the premise is scarcely phallocentric. His character, Kincaid (the name suitably outlawish), is actually the "parfit gentil knight" of both Chaucerian and oater lore.
Like Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) and Eastwood in the Shane update Pale Rider (1985), Kincaid rides off at the end, ostensibly to die, having invested the married heroine's life with illicit passion and given her a reason to go on. I am not making the comparison spuriously; Eastwood's skillfully directed melodrama is hewn from the same rock as the Western mythos, replete with the rugged individual who can never stay put, the grieving woman he leaves behind, and the children who inscribe their tale. That foreplay, not gunplay, sparks The Bridges of Madison County indicates just how supremely secure Eastwood is as director and actor.
Bridges is not a spaghetti mid-Western - despite the pasta quotient dutifully supplied by Meryl Streep's Italian homesteader - but there is plenty of spaghetti, and plenty of ham, too, in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado. A $7 million Columbia Pictures-produced follow-up to his $7,000 El Mariachi (1992), Desperado is technically a tortilla Western, since it was shot, like its predecessor, on location in Acuna, Mexico. Virtually a retread of that attention-getting, Spanish-language festival-buster, the new movie boasts not only a studio gloss but a thick veneer of hipness.
This time the mariachi - an itinerant troubadour dressed in black, whose guitar case contains an arsenal of assault weapons - is played by the smoldering Antonio Banderas, seeking revenge on the white-suited drug lord (Joaquim De Almeida) who had his woman killed. (It's worth noting how black and white have exchanged places in the Westerner's wardrobe: Black now connotes "cool" instead of "bad"; white connotes "sleazy" instead of "good.") En route, Banderas bonds with a guitar-picking muchacho and blows away a saloonful of creeps. Wounded in the fray, he's patched up by a beautiful, tweezers-wielding bookstore proprietor (Salma Hayek), who's fronting for the drug lord's business. He is then attacked by a silent Mexic