Sunday, April 30, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 9

   The Road Warrior in 1981 was the first big Post-Apocalypse hit and spawned a decade of spirited imitators. Genre’s still going on, we’ve had some good ones since, but none are as vibrant as the ones in the 80’s. There’s just something about living in a time when one push of The Button might find you driving around looking for your own gasoline with the freaks of the wasteland.
   We’ll use Road Warrior to sit in for all Post-Apocalypse films of the 80’s – the ones that qualify as weird westerns, anyway – since the formula is a basic one, fits the mold of the western, is plenty weird and was done the best of the whole bunch. It’s the Fistful of Dollars of the Post-Apocalypse genre, which becomes our re-purposed or ‘transplanted’ Weird Western.
   We start off with Max looking to siphon some gasoline from an abandoned semi. Even in something simple as that, he cuts quite a figure. After all, any western needs to have that look of a man who can handle himself. Even the ones thrust unwilling into trouble end up proving themselves. If he’s going to tame that frontier and wrestle justice out of the chaos, he better have a killer’s eye and a quick hand somewhere about him.
   Max gets some gas and heads into the wasteland once more. And no, those wastelands aren’t the Old West of our western, but the nuclear devastation of a country provides its own frontier. If it’s one without laws (and all frontiers are) where folks run wild in pursuit of civilization (establishing law and order) or chaos (robbing and killing), then we have our western setting.
   Good to have a sidekick, too. A bartender, a clerk, a hooker, a kid, an older gunslinger, a younger one. Someone to provide a counterpoint to our dark hero. In this case, Max finds the Gyro Captain, guarding his precious flying machine. Once Max outwits him, the man barters for his life by telling Max he knows about a refinery. More gas than anyone’s ever seen.
   Enter: our western setting. The refinery is the town, the outpost, the fort, the last bastion of civilization. It’s got its front to the future, the mountains or water or railroad plan, its back to the gnashing, slashing hellions bent on paying out their frustrations in blood. Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, corrupt soldiers, revolutionaries, guerrillas, plain and simple outlaws, the western can’t live without them. And our new weird western can’t either. They’re cannibals and psychopathic gearhead savages in this case, but they fit the bill.
   They want the refinery and surround the place playing hell day and night. When folks inside ride out on reconnaissance, they’re attacked and Max rescues one. He’ll return the man to his people in exchange for fuel. This could be the runaway girl, the dead prospector, the crazed soldier, so long as our hero’s pulled into trouble either by trying to do the right thing, or, in Max’s case, profit from someone’s need for the right thing to be done.
   The man agrees but dies once Max delivers him to the refinery. As the townspeople are about to kill him, the villains attack. Max proves himself in battle (saves a child, the sheriff’s daughter, the mayor himself) and his life is spared. A deal is now struck: If the refinery gives Max some fuel, he’ll get them a semi truck to haul the fruits of their refinery out of the wasteland.
   The western town can be won by the hero who wants the silver sheriff star or he can find himself gunning down desperadoes to save his own skin. Either way, the town is saved. If they want him to stay on, he refuses. If he agrees, a worse problem arises in time. And if he refuses, he’ll be forced to help, somehow. It’s not over until the town is safe. And while their safety may not be the hero’s motivation, saving his own hide and theirs often becomes the same thing.
   This for Max, after he delivers the semi, then leaves and finds himself pursued. His car is destroyed, but he’s rescued by the Gyro Captain in his flying machine. Now, Max needs the townsfolk and this, merely to escape from the refinery.
   He’ll drive the fuel tanker in one direction, to meet up with the town as they go off in another. Or, in western parlance, kill the big boss at high noon, prepare the town for attack, avenge a death, help them defend their water, their gold, their women, whatever it is that brings sanity to the frontier and lets them carry on after he leaves.
   He drives the truck and a highway battle ensues. The Indians, the mad army captain, the desperadoes, attack. The frontier rests on the shoulders of our hero and if he fails, chaos reigns. Max succeeds, but not like he thought he would. He was only a distraction. As he fled with a tanker full of sand, the townsfolk left in their cars and vans, all loaded with barrels of fuel.
   The villains only wanted what they could see, and Max only wanted to serve a purpose for a little longer. No one paid any attention to the town itself and what they truly represented. In the western, the weird western and hell, in the whole big world.
   That’s the thing about how it’s built and how it falls.
   It’ll do anything to achieve one or the other.

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse genre. Our new westerns. Our Weird Westerns. Films that, more than simple mashups of horror and western or sci-fi and western, capture the spirit of the Weird West and give us that all-important blend of place and atmosphere.

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