Have you seen the movie Quigley Down Under? It came out in 1990, the same year as Dances with Wolves, so it may have been overlooked by viewers and critics. It fact, it received mixed reviews, only earning 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It recouped its production costs, but did not earn lots of dollars for its producers.
Still, I really liked it. The hero Matthew Quigley (Tom Selleck) travels to Australia to take a job requiring his sharp shooter skills, especially accuracy at a distance. Along the way, he meets Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo), and they become an unwitting couple as they eventually battle the obvious bad guy Marston (Alan Rickman), who just happens to be his new boss. The movie combines wide open vistas, rugged action, and a humane realistic treatment of Aborigines with humor and a bit of romance. My only fault is that the pacing drags in a few spots. The acting is phenomenal, especially by San Giacomo. All in all, I give it 4.5 stars out of 5.
Quigley Down Under is a darn good little western! Of course, to really understand that such a label is high praise, you need to have a sense of what that phrase means to me. You see, I really like westerns. A lot. I watched tons of them as a kid growing up, and they helped shape my view of the world, my sense of right and wrong. Of course, westerns were shown at the movies too, such as the classic Shane (1953). But that movie came out before I was born, and as a family we did not go to the movies much. No, my love of westerns comes from watching them on TV—and there were a lot of shows to watch!
How many of these shows do you remember?
- Lone Ranger (1949-1957)
- The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957)
- Broken Arrow (1956-1958, then reruns summer 1960)
- Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
- Maverick (1957-1962)
- Zorro (1957-1959; Walt Disney Anthology TV movie 1960-1961)
- Wagon Train (1957-1962; 1962-1965)
- The Rifleman (1958-1963)
- Bonanza (1959-1973)
- Law of the Plainsman (1959-1960)
- The Virginian (1962-1971)
- F Troop (1965-1967)
- The Wild Wild West (1965-1969, TV movies 1979, 1980)
- (Star Trek: The Original Series, 1966-1969—come on, isn’t it a western in the stars!?)
- Hondo (1967)
- Lonesome Dove (mini-series, 1989)
- Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1996)
- Into the West (mini-series, 2005)
- Longmire (calls itself a crime drama there are cowboys & Indians, since 2012)
Well, I saw them all or at least most—and I loved them, or at least the ideas in them. That’s probably why—even today—I like a good western. My favorite shows back then were Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Rifleman. Watching these westerns over the years helped me develop a 4-Point Test to judge any western as good or not.
4-Point Goodness Test for Westerns
Point 1: There must be an identifiable hero, the proverbial good guy. Although often a lawman, he does not need to be. What he needs to be is one who will take a stance to protect those who are misfortunate or being wronged. Even when faced with moral ambiguity, the hero makes the right choice. This hero is sociable, often even a family man, but he does not hesitate to take a solitary stance as needed. He knows what is right and does it, even if it goes against the law. This hero does not hesitate to kill as needed, but only when necessary and if no other action will solve the problem. Others often look to him for guidance or assistance. The moral center of the main character is the mark of a truly good western.
Point 2: There must be strong women. The hero is not typically married, but there are strong women on the scene. Sometimes they are the past loves of the hero’s life who live on through children. [Ben Cartwright has three dead wives?! On my, who would ever marry him again?] Sometimes they are in a subtle relationship with the hero, but she is strong and takes care of herself and also knows the right thing to do, no matter what, ala Miss Kitty. In the television series, some of these women are regulars, but often they are guest stars with only a fleeting connection to the hero. Unfortunately, if these women get too close to the hero, they often disappear (move on, die of a mysterious disease, are killed righting a wrong, stuff like that). [I am not sure how I managed to not worry that being a strong woman would kill me off, but thankfully I did!]
Point 3: Setting and Action are as important as characters in telling the story. Most westerns are grounded to a town of some sort, but the real setting is the wild open spaces of the old west. There are farm and ranch houses, of course, but also the wide open spaces as well as cattle drives and wagon trains and hideouts and campsites. The beauty and grandeur of the country is mesmerizing and somehow matches the integrity and morality of the hero. Actions are also crucial: fist fights and gunfights, shoot outs and ambushes, horses racing across the plains and knowledgeable scouts tracking through canyons and over rocks. These two elements—setting and action—are what place westerns apart from our current reality; they help show a different time, if not a better time.
Point 4: Native Indians or Aborigines are treated as people. Sometimes like in The Lone Ranger, Indians were primary characters, although that status often made them outcasts or at least separate from their tribes. But even as secondary characters, the Indians were presented as people, good and bad, worthy of respect and honesty at least by the hero. Sometimes women and children as well as tribal life were shone. This glimpse into the humanity of the Indians, rather than making them caricatures of the automatic bad guy, marks a western as good, as having a heart or conscience about the important values of life like fairness and tolerance.
Back to Quigley Down Under: As I already stated, Quigley is a Good Western. Quigley is the hero who stands up for what is right, even against his boss and the local military. Crazy Cora manages to take care of herself and—in some ways—helps the hero survive. The hero’s ability with the rifle is an integral part of the plot, and there are numerous fist fights, ambushes and quick draw gunfights to keep the audience focused and alert. The Australian Outback is the setting that is shown in great detail as Quigley first arrives in the country, then travels for days to get to the ranch, and is forced to survive against the elements when lost in the Outback. Finally, the Aborigines are shown as real people. Their communal life is shown as well as their strength and understanding of the natural world. They also help the hero survive! For me, Quigley Down Under meets all four criteria of my Goodness Test. If you have not seen Quigley yet, I would suggest you rent it, make some popcorn, and enjoy the show.
Of course, this rating system cannot be used in isolation. Along with these four points, there must be good acting, a well-developed story line, and it helps if there is a little romance and humor. [Quigley meets these other characteristics as well!] Still, this 4-Point Goodness Test for Westerns can be used to assess the quality of all westerns, either television shows or movies. Sometimes one of the four criteria is only minimally represented, but it must be there is some way. Shane certainly fits the bill as does True Grit (original and remake) and Hondo. More recent films also meet the criteria: Dances with Wolves, Silverado, Open Range, and 3:10 to Yuma. I would not include The Quick and the Dead or Wild Wild West (the movie). Sharing a more detailed review of some of these movies, as well as some quirkier ones like Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Frisco Kid, and Blazing Saddles, will have to wait for a future post.
Do you like Westerns? Did you watch them as a kid as I did? What are your favorites on either television or the big screen? What films should be avoided?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A FEW QUOTES ABOUT WESTERNS
“People love westerns worldwide. There’s something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time. There’s no organized laws and stuff.” Clint Eastwood
“Samurai films, like westerns, need not be familiar genre stories. They can expand to contain stories of ethical challenges and human tragedy.” Roger Ebert
“In all good westerns, the good guy is always a little bit questionable because he kind-of has to make moral judgments.” Daniel Craig
“3:10 to Yuma’ was one that I just kept on talking and thinking about after reading it. And I think the reason is because, like in most Westerns, you have the very clear-cut bad guy/good-guy, however, as the movie progresses, you kind of see that it’s a very fine line that divides these two.” Christian Bale
“I think they are very important because westerns have a code and a symbolism.” Aaron Eckhart
A little note of explanation: At the start of the year, I committed to writing more frequently on my blog. One way to do that was to address my own version of Topics A to Z. I started with Topic A: Arboretum in January, but wrote the most recent Topic P: Poppies back in June. I am getting back on schedule, with hopes plans to complete Topic Z before the end of the year.