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Friday, November 9, 2007

Western Hybrids, Part 1 (originally published 6/00)

As nations go, the United States is still rather young. Compared to Great Britain, for example, we are still in our infancy. As a consequence, we have no centuries-old mythological traditions to compare with the Arthurian legends of Camelot. What we do have is the Old West. The stories that have been passed down to us of the men and women who pioneered the opening of the Western Frontier are the nearest thing we have to a truly American mythology.

For that reason, among others, Western movies occupy a unique position in American cinema. The genre's themes are so pervasive that they frequently turn up in films with contemporary settings, a fact that is overtly acknowledged, for example, in the "McCloud" television series. Conversely, many filmmakers through the years have been inspired to transplant the conventions of other genres into a Western setting, possibly as a way of adding narrative weight to those other genres by grounding them in the rich earth of the Western myth.

That's what the producers of "Shanghai Noon," the new Jackie Chan vehicle, have done in combining the conventions of the martial arts genre with those of the Western (along with a heavy dose of comedy). If you're interested in how earlier filmmakers created similar hybrids of Westerns with other genres, look for these titles on home video.

"Broadway to Cheyenne" (1932). In the early Thirties, two of the most popular types of movies were gangster pictures and Westerns. It was therefore virtually inevitable that producers would occasionally try to combine the two. That's what Monogram, one of the many B-picture studios of the period, did with this release. Rex Bell, a popular B-Western star, plays a New York City cop who travels West to recuperate on his father's ranch after being shot in the line of duty. There he encounters some of the same gangsters he had been pursuing back East. They appear to be up to their old tricks, setting up a protection racket among the ranchers.

"Ghost Patrol" (1936). When two mail planes mysteriously crash over the same area in the California mountains, federal agent Tim Caverly (played by B-Western star Tim McCoy) is sent to investigate. His investigation leads him to a scientist who is being held captive by a gang of outlaws. It seems that the scientist has developed a ray gun that can disable aircraft engines from the ground. The enterprising outlaws are using this device to their own advantage. There had been other attempts to mix Westerns with science fiction (one of my favorites is "Phantom Empire," a 1935 Gene Autry serial), but this one had the added advantage of lab equipment designed by Kenneth Strickfaden, the man who had created the elaborate equipment used in Universal's "Frankenstein" (1931).

"The Riders of the Whistling Skull" (1937). One of the most popular series from the heyday of B-Westerns was the "Three Mesquiteers" series. These three compadres, played by a number of different actors through the years, galloped their way through dozens of successful films during the Thirties and Forties. This entry in the series entertainingly mixes the Western genre with the conventions of the mystery genre. The "Mesquiteers" find themselves involved in a search for a missing archaeologist who disappeared while searching for a lost Indian city. All the trappings of a good mystery are here, from mysterious killings and disappearances to the fragmented map that may or may not lead the search party to their goal.

"Kung Fu" (1972). Clearly, one of the primary references of "Shanghai Noon" is to the TV movie that served as a pilot for the "Kung Fu" series. David Carradine stars as Caine, a Buddhist monk who is forced to leave mainland China, where he is wanted for murder. He settles in the American West, where he takes up the cause of mistreated Chinese railroad workers. The combination of martial arts action and a Western setting was a huge hit with American audiences. It continues to inspire action filmmakers some thirty years later (see, for example, "Walker, Texas Ranger").

These combinations of the Western genre with other light action-adventure genres seem natural enough in retrospect, but the phenomenon of the hybrid Western actually covers an even broader range. Next week we'll see how fascinating Westerns can become when they are cross-pollinated with some of the cinema's heavier dramatic forms.

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