Monday, September 5, 2011

A Western Education

A movie like Cowboys and Aliens (now showing in the cinemas) should appeal to me - someone who enjoys Westerns as well as Sci-fi; it is like the best of worlds. But I am not rushing to see it yet. Somehow, the two (cowboys and aliens) seem at odds with one another. A typical Western runs at a languid pace, the vistas span the horizon larger than life. The reluctant hero speaks little. And when there is a stand-off, the characters squint and look at each other for a long time - no one wants to be the first to twitch. Even flies get bored and fly away.

The alien movie, on the other hand, thrives on confined spaces  often to create a sense of foreboding. Space might be huge but it has no horizon, so you don't really have an affinity for it. If its blackness does not suffocate you, the boredom will after a while. The aliens don't typically move at Usain Bolt pace; they tended to drag their sorry asses (or whatever appendages the director deemed fit to put on them) along. Aliens that move at a fast pace simply look like ants. What's so scary about that? They should hide in tight spaces and surprise you when you least expect. Drooling even, in anticipation. An alien in a Western setting would just go beserk. It will soon scurry and hide under a rock or cave. Open land spaces scare aliens, why they seldom survive. Unless they happen to crash in an area known as Area 51. There they would be kept alive and probed, just like the recent smart-mouth alien, Paul, in the movie, er, Paul.

A love for westerns
My love for Westerns grew, I suspect, from watching one too many as a kid. In the 60s and 70s, there were  plenty of them on Singapore TV - mostly in black and white. There was Gunsmoke, Rifleman, Have Gun - Will Travel, The Big Valley, Zorro, Bonanza, and The Wild Wild West.

I enjoyed them all because even though they were of the same genre, they each offered something different.

Everybody needs a 2nd chance
In Gunsmoke, James Arness was the leader, a marshal who treated everybody with equal fairness even if you were a native Red Indian. That showed a universal respect for human rights and above all, that justice should prevail regardless of skin colour. Red Indians in the show (now given more lines than the token "How, kimo sabi"  speech) became more believable. The show also gave starring roles to 'coloured' actors. I saw for the first time blacks dressing as successful persons other than just slaves or labourers. It told me that you might be a minority race but if you had the flair and the smarts, you could be your own person. Another aspect of this show I found intriguing was the character of Kitty. She worked in a saloon and you could guess that she was a call girl of sorts, always having a soft spot for the Arness character, Marshal Matt Dillion. As a kid, you don't see her in any sexual way (ok, maybe her buxom did) but as the companion and good person that she was. She gave that "oldest profession in the world" a human face. Really, as a man, your confidante need not necessarily be your best drinking mate or spouse. A woman can play that role too.

As a  Western, I found Gunsmoke immensely different, maybe why it ran as long as it did. It didn't treat the Old West as the usual place: an idealised outpost of pioneer versus native, or as a wham-bang 'shoot-em-up' place. Every week, the situations were realistic, the themes adult. Probably the doctor character, Doc Adams, best sums up the show: not everything in the West is what it seems. Each person has his or her own back-story, one that he/she might be desperately trying to forget. And in arriving at Dodge City, everybody is equal and start afresh. How cool is that?

Another character in Gunsmoke that was quite unforgettable was that of Festus. His whiny and nasal voice might be irritating but it is kudos to the actor himself that it came across as one of compassion and folksy humour. From him, I learnt not to judge a person like I would a book cover. Even idiosyncratic people can be fun and relied on in a pinch. He was indeed the most unlikely of law enforcement deputies.

Violence not the answer
In Rifleman, I was at first enthralled by that rapid fire weapon. That's how the show always begun. But as you watched on, you realised that Chuck Conners wasn't a man who liked violence. He often conveyed this to his son. And surprisingly, he seldom if at all carried a six-shooter - quite odd for a Western or a man living in those times. The show brought home the fact that it must have been tough growing up without a mom. And that as a single kid with no siblings, you had only your parent as your world. I was glad I had a brother and many sisters, even if we quarreled some of the time. And in a pioneer setting, having a kin mattered a lot. Although the Chuck Conner's character came across as independent, I realised that to survive, no man can be an island. Chuck Conners also had a face and physique that was hard to forget and he stayed in my memory for a long time. You could say he was my first action hero. An "ang-mo" (foreign) hero, that is.

Gun justice for hire
Have Gun - Will Travel, I remember for a variety of reasons. First, the opening song: "Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man. A knight without armor in a savage land. ...Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam. Paladin, Paladin, far far from home." I think it was sung by Pat Boone. I would hum it cycling. Paladin gave me the first indication that I could leave home and make a career of being a gun for hire - albeit for good. And for many days, I would dream of being independent and travelling to troublesome places. I even made up a business card just like Paladin. But mine featured a rabbit instead of a chess knight. Rabbit was my zodiac sign (or so I thought).

I also drew Paladin's chess knight emblem on the back of my erasers. Paladin was almost the anti-hero. He read books, showed a preference for salons with nice draperies, and attended theatre. He might be in a Western but he took time to change into nice duds whenever an event called for it. Paladin liked the good life in an understated way - a gentleman of principles with firepower strapped to his leg. Travel, do good things, any decent boy would love that!

Strong woman
The Big Valley was a girl's Western (as my sisters will attest). It starred actress Barbara Stanwyck as a feisty ranch owner. At the time, this was quite unusual as many of the stories on TV had women mostly in housewife roles such as Father  Knows Best, My Three Sons, and even Bewitched. Stanwyck's character showed that as a widow with children you could still pick up the pieces after a husband/breadwinner's death. She was no lame dame and many a time, she had to fight off greedy businessmen intent on acquiring her ranch - legally or otherwise. She battered sexism, she battered intimidation. Stanwyck wasn't the most alluring actress at the time but in her role, she came across as classy, smart, and tough. I think there was a good man who pined for her attention. There always is in this kind of story.

A fencing good time
No kid can forget Zorro, why the studios went and made a movie starring Antonio Banderas in 1998. By then, we were all adults nearer the side of forty. Is that the age when we hanker for remakes? Zorro I remember mostly for his mustache, fencing and that fat soldier who was always trying to catch him without any success. Zorro was no different from Robin Hood in his altruistic nature. But his need to keep his identity secret was an incredible hook to millions of fans. The show was actually very slapstick and utterly predictable. For a long time, I hankered for a sword like Zorro's only to find out at a 2nd-hand goods store near Newton Circus that an actual blade weighed like a ton (esp. to a scrawny kid like me).

Family drama out West
Of all the Westerns, Bonanza was perhaps the most famous. This could be due to its stars, who went on to helm other popular TV shows such as Little House on the Prairie (Michael Landon),  Battlestar Galactica (Lorne Green) and Trapper John, MD (Pernell Roberts). I think in Bonanza, especially for boys, one could identify with the kind of personality you were with the sons of the patriarch Ben Cartwright.

Little Joe (Landon) was young and impetuous. Horse (Dan Blocker) was warm and gentle, almost innocent (and girl shy). And Adam (Roberts), was the level-headed one in the family. Bonanza wasn't so much the typical Western but a family drama set in the so-called Wild West.

In Bonanza, the stories were rather predictable. But because of the three boys and what they stood for, they often got into scrapes. It is usually a result of protecting the modesty and chastity of a girl they happened to come across. Another popular theme was run-ins with cattle hustlers. The Cartwrights showed lots of chivalry and righteousness, but not always in the most astutest of  manners. They seemed to tell me that as boys, it was alright to fight (even with fists) for what's right - the sort of thing that appealed to young, idealistic boys.

Happy skirt chasers
Wild Wild West I liked for their inventiveness and quirky humour. Somehow, action men with a sense of humour appealed to me as a kid. You could be starring in the face of death but without a sense of humour, death was usually swift. Might as well have that last laugh, was my motto then. Later, Roger Moore of James Bond fame reminded me much of Robert Conrad, the lead in Wild Wild West. Both liked chasing after women and charming them with humour.

Linda Purl - what a cat
Later on, besides Little House on the Prairie, there was another impactful TV series about a pioneering family called Young Pioneers, starring Linda Purl. Me and my fellow male classmates were quite taken by her. To us, she was the epitome of the good woman who needed protection from a strong, reliable guy. Pretty yet chaste, sweet yet tough, willing yet weak. Well, at least that's how the show portrayed her and how we fantasized about it. Haha....Later, Jodie Foster came onto the scene and we thought how similar the two were in looks and stature. Calista Flockhart (Alley McBeal) even more so. But she was SO whiny.

Fave westerns
My favourite Westerns are The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Unforgiven. For alien movies, it is the Alien series and The Thing, which will have a prequel showing in Singapore later this year. Looking at these movies, you can see why a movie like Cowboys and Aliens would not work; not as an actioner anyways.

I think The Thing comes closest to being a Western with its desolate landscape, isolated community and idiosyncratic characters each with his own emotional and social baggage. There was also the stand-off between the alien (infected people) and those who weren't.

Mr Strong Silent Type
I admit unashamedly that I like Clint Eastwood and his spaghetti Westerns. They remind me of a time when all a man needed to go places was a horse, a blanket, a six-shooter, a canteen and a Stetson. And yes, a pot of coffee and lots of beans. I have no issue with beans as I can eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But only the small beans though. They are less raw and more flavourful. There's a simple recipe to make them even more delicious right out of the can!

Playing Cowboy & Indians
Like the other boys my age growing up in Geylang, I too had a holster set of toy pistols, bullets and badge. Man, that sheriff badge was precious, especially if it was metal. Me and my siblings played Cowboys and Indians often. To make our pretend wagon, we would face two of our wooden living room chairs back to back and drape a blanket over. Sometimes, that doubled as a teepee.

During our time, the bow and arrows we had were made of cane, not plastic. We didn't have two, so we would use 'lastic' instead. Lastic was a weapon with paper v-shaped bullets shot off with rubber bands. For additional guns, we made them out of two interlocking pieces of paper.

As for aliens, we didn't know of any then, only the ones that bothered Ultraman. They were actually more like pests, the way they pop up and destroy stuff. Ultraman the Pest Remover. Haha, who knew!

No comments:

Post a Comment