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A Fondness For Westerns

`Back to the Future, Part 3' parodies and honors a genre. FILM: COMMENTARY

AT the end of ``A Fistfull of Dollars,'' Clint Eastwood faces a sadistic gunman on the street of a dusty western town. The gunman aims at the cool hero, fires, and Eastwood falls - all conventional stuff until Eastwood gets up and keeps coming. The gunman shoots again and again, and Eastwood falls, rises, and walks closer and closer to the badman. Finally, he throws back his poncho, revealing a heavy piece of metal - the armor that has saved him. Robert Zemeckis parodies that scene in his cheerful homage to the western, ``Back to the Future, Part 3.'' But unlike Eastwood's tough guy, Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly [pictured at right] refuses to pull a trigger on the badman, preferring to punch it out ``like a man.''

The scene charms those of us who treasure the western genre, because Marty has taken the name of Eastwood and then acted as no Eastwood westerner ever would. In fact, the chief pleasure of the film lies in what it reminds us about that great genre. They don't make westerns like they used to - in fact, they don't make them at all.

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``Future, Part 3'' is certainly the best-natured and most engaging of the trilogy. Fox's acting is a bit more polished, and Christopher Lloyd as the brilliant, goofy scientist has taken on a new dimension: the romantic hero who rescues his damsel from distress. Young Marty McFly returns to 1885 to save Doc Brown (Lloyd), marooned in the past when a bolt of lightning hit his time machine. Doc is in imminent danger of being shot by the local gunman, Bufford Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson of both the other ``Futures''), and Marty diverts the bully, only to attract his rage. During his four-day stay in 1885, Marty encounters many of the conventions from America's treasure-trove of old westerns.

Maybe that's the reason a lot of the messages ``Future 3'' aims at its audience are more wholesome than those of its predecessors: There is nothing ``written'' (predetermined) about the future; one's decisions are the things that really make the difference in one's life; character flaws can be overcome; no one is at the mercy of his own weaknesses.

There's that one message, though, that post-dates Hollywood's big westerns: the idea that there are better ways to handle the local bully than by participating in his madness or violence. And that may be a hopeful sign for fans of the western. Ironically, the sad decline of the genre was associated with filmdom's evolution away from movies that transmit traditional values about good and evil to ones that offer mere roller-coaster rides of mindless violence.

One need only consider the differences between ``Rambo First Blood'' ``Die Hard,'' ``Terminator,'' or ``Hard to Kill'' and the movies of John Ford, perhaps the greatest of all the western directors. Clearly American tastes have changed since Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp road into Tombstone, delivered the town ``from all evil,'' and road out again.

Then there's Ford's ``My Darling Clementine'' (1946), which, like so many others, concerned not only the conflict between the wilderness and the coming of civilization, but the contest between good and the evil afflicting both wilderness and civilization. The best westerns were complex studies of human nature as well as action-adventures.

BEFORE the 1960s, the western hero's drama was the drama of restraint. Though one of the most important conventions of the western was the gunfight (burlesqued in ``Future 3'') and though the westerner rectified all villainy with a bullet, he was no murderer. He fired only under duress. The bad guy always went for his gun first.

The westerner was chivalrous to ladies, respectful of religion, hospitable, generous to anyone who needed his help, and expert with weapon and horse. He spoke little, but when he opened his mouth he was witty or wise. He was loyal to his friends and to whatever cause he served, but the cause was almost always just. And when it wasn't - why - he up and changed its course.

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He was, in short, the American version of the noble knight - as uncomplicated as Alan Ladd in George Stevens's ``Shane'' (1953) or as complex as Ethan Edwards in Ford's ``The Searchers.''

Like Stevens, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and others, Ford romanticized the West, creating a mythology that helped give a heterogeneous society a sense of origin and unity. He set his films symbolically in Monument Valley. ``Future 3'' winks at this Fordian convention, setting the story in the same place. Against this panorama, the task of civilizing the wilderness seemed formidable indeed.

In one of the greatest westerns, ``The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,'' a newspaper editor says, ``This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes truth, print the legend'' - hinting perhaps that Ford believed there were larger truths in his own storytelling than mere historical accuracies.

Westerns reflected some of the very best in American values: rugged individualism, courage in the face of apparently overpowering evil, generosity that would turn no one away hungry.

Ford symbolized this pioneer spirit with his social-dance sequences. ``Clementine'' offered one of the best: The graceful Wyatt Earp becomes awkward and boyish asking Clementine to dance. ``Future 3'' has goofy Doc Brown, in love with Miss Clanton (delightfully played by Mary Steenburgen), dancing clumsily to ``O My Darling Clementine.''

Not all the values westerns upheld were good. While many of the old westerns tried to show the Indians' struggle fairly, many more justified broken treaties and massacres. The western started changing fundamentally and irretrievably in the '50s, however, when ``High Noon'' took a rather more skeptical look at the pioneer town. Fred Zinneman's allegory of good and evil is often described as a political allegory about the McCarthy years and the House Un-American Activities Committee. But this film stands as one of the great westerns and Gary Cooper as one of the selfless knights of the West.

SOON Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would adapt the western to samurai legend in ``Yojimbo'' (1961), among others. In Italy, Sergio Leone would remake ``Yojimbo'' as ``A Fistful of Dollars,'' catapulting both Clint Eastwood and Leone to incredible fame and fortune. And the westerns of the '60s would become ``spaghetti'' westerns, in which the old values had given place to grotesque sadism, self-concern, and macho tests.

A new and terrible cynicism about the American West in particular and human nature in general replaced the old romanticism. The drama of restraint was over. Films like the intelligent ``One-Eyed Jacks'' (1961) were brutal and dark studies in self-flagellation.

Arthur Penn's ``Little Big Man'' (1970) was the first film to try (though it wasn't wholly successful) to give an Indian point-of-view about the wars of the plains. A horrendous misogyny runs through this otherwise daring film as well as a hatred of protestant immigrant culture. The western was turned upside down. Sam Peckinpah's ``The Wild Bunch'' (1969) is a tortured vision of the West that speaks passionately of the horror of violence and greed, but finally brings little light to bear where needed.

It may not be possible to make westerns today of the same quality Ford and Hawks made, though every once in a while someone tries. George Lukas's ``Star Wars'' (1977) borrowed certain conventions from the western. Lawrence Kasdan's worthy ``Silverado'' (1985) very nearly succeeded in updating the genre. Last year's ``Young Guns,'' though a fairly lively adventure story, owes too much to Leone and not enough to Ford.

Ford, Hawks, and Mann always made films that dealt realistically with human nature; it's just that they had a larger notion of the quality of human nature than Leone or Peckinpah. The romanticism in these wonderful old films lies in the allegorical subtext, the conflicts between good and evil, the changing nature of culture, and the deeper impulses of man.

Today, however, all that may be left to those of us who love westerns is the video store and the occasional homage like ``Back to the Future, Part 3.''

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