At first glance, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) and Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) seek to do the impossible. Both films are Westerns set in a different country. The Western genre is such a quintessentially American genre that taking it out of the West seems foolish. However, both films are able to take the themes and tropes of the Western and craft a new identity for the genre, each one specific to the country of origin.
The Proposition paints an especially bleak portrait of the Australian Outback. At first glance, the Outback seems very similar to the American West. Both are large expanses of desert, inhabited by a violent indigenous native group. However, the prospects that both landscapes offer could not be more different. The American West is often seen as the land of opportunity. The land is ripe for a new start as soon as it can be tamed. Times may be hard, but the benefit far outweighs the hardship. The Outback, however, is characterized as an unforgiving and violent wasteland. Every person that ventures out past the town limits is met with brutal, oftentimes random violence. Possibly the most definitive moment of the wasteland is an attack on Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce). Following a montage of Charlie in the desert, he awakens to find his horse dead before being impaled by a thrown spear. Only after being attacked to we see the Aborigines that have attacked him. As he stares at them, a shot is heard, and the head of one of the Aborigines explodes. By offering almost no lead in to the near death of a main character, as well as not showing the assailants until after the attack, Hillcoat portrays a landscape in which violence comes quickly for no reason. Had Charlie awoken thirty seconds later, he would have been killed in his sleep instead of seeing his attacker. This concept is reinforced by having the attacker suffer a fatal attack from another unknown party, creating a setting in which even the natives are not safe.
The Outback of The Proposition is not one that can be tamed. Throughout the film, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), having moved from England to Australia, is determined to bring order to the lawless wilds. In many ways, he is the quintessential Western hero, trying to bring civilization to the frontier. Unfortunately, he fails as each attempt at civilization is only met with more blood and killing. His struggle against the Outback is embodied in his home, which is set away from the rest of the town. Though it is surrounded by desert, his home is enclosed by a white picket fence. Throughout the film, there are many shots looking out at the Outback from the front porch of the house. The shots are framed so that the garden and fence are diminished against the vast and oppressive wilderness. This home is violated at the end of the film as Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), acting as the embodiment of the Outback, breaks into his very civilized Christmas dinner to beat him nearly to death and rape his wife. Stanley has utterly failed to bring order to the wilderness, instead allowing the wilderness to bring chaos into his home.
Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird sets a strikingly different tone than that of the Proposition. Instead of presenting a frontier that is uncivilizable, it presents a frontier that has almost been fully civilized. While the film has many shots of the expansive deserts of Manchuria, it does not provide any opposing force. Instead, it is the civilized people that create the antagonism in the film.
A large portion of this feeling of civilization comes from the crowded feeling of the setting. Many Western tropes are present through the film such as a train robbery, a gunfight through a frontier town, and a chase through the desert. However, all of these are full of color and people, leaving the impression of a crowded frontier. The train is packed full of people of all shapes and sizes, buildings of the town are tightly packed together as opposed to the spread out buildings of the American frontier town, and the chase through the desert involves two different bandit gangs, two individual parties, and the entire Japanese army. The tightly packed setting adds a frantic energy to the film that has more in common with a Hong-Kong action film than is does with the typical Western.
In addition, the color palate is extremely different than the American or Australian Westerns. In the American Western, the color palate tends to be bland with a lot of browns, blacks, and whites. Color is often reserved for women’s dresses, and even then, it tends to only be during celebrations that bright colors are worn. The Good, The Bad,The Weird, in contrast is full of bright colors. From settings covered in bright red paper lanterns to bandits dressed in purple fur coats, bright colors are plentiful in the film. The colors cause a sense of excitement in the viewer as well as building on the energy created through the crowded frame and exciting action sequences.
Both the feeling of civilization and the bright color palate draw from the traditions of Asian action films. The energy of The Good, The Bad, The Weird has just as much in common with a Hong Kong action film as it does with a Western. The frantic energy created by the crowded frame and the color is built upon using tropes from the action film and the martial arts film such as a character using a crane to soar above the town during a gun fight and being able to shoot a sniper through the scope. By combining elements from both genres, Ji-Woon is able to create a film that is definitively an Asian Western.
The Western has always been an influential genre throughout film history, not only in the United States but around the world. It recalls a wilder time in history, where civilization needed to struggle in order to proceed. While the setting is often uniquely American, the progress of civilization is a global story. While some films, like The Proposition, may view the struggle in a negative light while others, such as The Good, The Bad, The Weird seek to glorify it, the story is universal.