For, Friday, Jan. 2, 2015

EDITOR'S NOTE: I love Westerns. And in a few weeks, when the Cinemark Classic Movies series' latest six-film cycle includes ‘How the West Was Won,' I'll be there. This ‘Hicks on Flicks' column from the Sept. 24, 1982, Deseret News, laments that Westerns in the early 1980s were few and far between, replaced by sci-fi adventures that steal Old West themes. And today, more than 30 years later, nothing's changed.

So when's the last time you saw a Western at the movies?

Unless you went to "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (which played here for a week last year) or have seen an older one at the Utah Media Center or the library, it's probably been years.

What got me thinking about it was a book I've been reading, "The Films of John Wayne." Some 90 percent of those films are Westerns.

Then a little picture that Universal Pictures placed on the shelf for a while, "Barbarosa," started making the rounds (it opens in Salt Lake theaters today), and I realized that it's considered rather daring to make a Western these days. And that's a shame.

Oh, it's true that we have disguised Westerns like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars" and "The Road Warrior," but I miss those frontier confrontations between good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And I don't think I really believe all those reasons that Westerns have supposedly declined in popularity.

Some claim that it was the change in Western themes that first began giving audiences problems with the genre, films like "The Wild Bunch," with it's bloody realism and "end of the Old West" storyline, and the somber tone of Westerns with anti-heroes like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and the ultra-violent, stylistic Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, beginning with "A Fistful of Dollars."

Others feel it was the spoofs, like "Cat Ballou" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and ultimately "Blazing Saddles," that did Westerns in, poking such huge holes in Western clichés that audiences could no longer take them seriously.

And the studios, of course, feel it was the lack of clinking coins at the box office for such films as "Heaven's Gate" and "The Long Riders" that eventually scared filmmakers away from Western themes.

When I spoke with John Carpenter a few months ago about his latest film, "The Thing," he mentioned that he would like very much to do a Western in the style of his favorite director, Howard Hawks. He has a script and a star (Kurt Russell) but the decision-makers have decided that Westerns are jinxed.

I asked Carpenter if he didn't agree, since there have been so few Westerns in recent years, and those that do come out never make money. His answer was rather revealing: "The public is just waiting for someone to make a good Western again, and when that happens, Hollywood will be in there making all kinds of Westerns again."


       Peter Mayhew. Harrison Ford, 'Star Wars'

He's right, of course. Until "Star Wars" came out, there was a science fiction lull, and the film industry was afraid of tackling a movie about robots and outer space. And look at all the sci-fi films we've had since 1977, when George Lucas proved there is an audience out there for any genre, if the picture is well made.

Whether "Barbarosa" is any good, remains to be seen. Roger Ebert made it something of a cause on "Sneak Previews" a few months ago — but the releasing studio's lack of faith has relegated the film to a low profile in a period of broad exploitation films. At least Universal is showing it now. But even Universal is competing with "Barbarosa" in Salt Lake theaters this weekend, releasing its own "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" on the same day. Other new films opening include "Amityville II: The Possession," "Tempest" and a martial arts kick-‘em-up, "Enter the Ninja."

Though I'm looking forward to "Tempest," the others on that list are far below "Barbarosa" on my own preference list — but I suspect the local weekend moviegoing crowd will not feel the same way.

And even if it did, it's unlikely that the Willie Nelson-Gary Busey Western, which is a small, offbeat character study, would make any large waves in the moviemaking community.

It's going to take a Western "Star Wars" to make a difference now. And only a George Lucas or a Steven Spielberg could possibly get the financing to do it.

That's not too off base, of course, since Spielberg and Lucas generally recycle old movie themes anyhow.

I wonder how Princess Leia would look as a barmaid or Chewbacca as a horse?

Elliott could be there in the last scene, saying, "Come back, E.T."