Category Archives: Westerns

An Old (And Pretty Much Solved) Complaint

Going way back to the early days of the cinema there has been what is known as the widescreen format: A film with its image being wider than it is tall. This format is also called landscape, because it’s the best format for capturing the horizon in nature. And in those early days, there was also a more square format for movies. Both formats were fairly common until Hollywood (and the rest of the world) was plunged into the Great Depression and in the early 1930s movies went to the more square image. It was a move to help limit costs.

Then, in the early 1950s with the American economy booming, televisions became more and more common and Hollywood began to worry it would lose its movie-going audience. Theaters installed air conditioning and some movies experimented with 3D in hopes of pulling people away from their TV sets.

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Another way Hollywood tried to entice movie-goers was to return to the widescreen format with VistaVision and CinemaScope. Using that wider screen, filmmakers made epics even more epic; filling the screens with luscious colors, vast landscapes, and thrilling action. And it worked. People went to see those magnificent spectacles.

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Then a new problem arose. Audiences wanted to see those movies on TV and the networks wanted to show them, but how? Ben-Hur (1959) was certainly not going to fit on a more square-like screen. What could they do?

The solution was to have someone crop the image and move that crop from side to side to shift the focus. The process was called pan and scan. Most people wouldn’t notice, but filmmakers and movie lovers did.

Pan and scan made the images and characters feel too close to the camera. Many films felt claustrophobic. Action scenes became confusing and far less impactful. The use of pan and scan essentially was a re-directing or re-interpretation of the film. The technician doing the cropping had to decide which part of the image to show and which part to leave out. The process changed the films. And absolutely ruined them.

Of course, I didn’t realize this when I was a kid. But even then I would notice that, when one of those epic films would start on TV, the opening with the title and the actors’ names would have black bars across the top and bottom of the image. Once the opening credits were complete the image would then fill the TV screen. Eventually, I understood why. They needed those bars to change the aspect ratio of the screen in order to not have the title and the actors’ names cut off at the sides.

When home video became a thing, most movies, maybe even all, were released in the pan and scan or full screen format. Eventually, filmmakers and movie lovers began to demand widescreen or letterboxed videos and DVDs. They wanted the entire picture, which would give the full and intended vision of the filmmaker. That meant the black bars would stay for the entire movie.

Well, a couple weeks ago I watched the mess of a movie Mackenna’s Gold (1969) on DVD. It came into Nostalgia Zone and I borrowed this favorite from when I was a kid. It is a mess. The producers realized the movie was so confusing they had to rely heavily on a narrator to keep the audiences clued in on what the hell was going on.

It was also in full screen. Ugh.

I was able to grab an image from the internet that shows how this particular shot was supposed to look. I then cropped the image to look the way it appeared in the pan and scan.

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This is how it was supposed to look.

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This is pan and scan.

In a movie as lousy as Mackenna’s Gold it probably isn’t vitally important to see Telly Savalas in the same shot. But, let’s look at a shot from Tombstone (1993). A sometimes silly (I mean just how many bullets does Holliday have in his two six-shooters during the big OK Corral gunfight? 40?), but very rousing and entertaining Western telling the tale of the Earp Brothers’ and Doc Holliday’s battle with the lawless gang known as The Cowboys. The shot (sorry about the poor quality of the image) is from the scene in which Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) meet for the first time.

As you can see in the widescreen shot, the two gunman are intended to be on screen at the same time. This adds to the tension of the scene. We are supposed to see the two interact with each other and we are also meant to see the reactions of the surrounding characters – all at the same time.

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All the actors interacting in this scene is what makes this such a great shot.

A full screen version of this scene would be laughable. In the wide shot, it would have to pan back and forth between Ringo and Holliday. It would be distracting and would kill the impact of the scene.

Tombstone pan & scan Doc

Pan and scan would force the scene to…

 

Tombstone pan & scan Ringo

…cut back and forth between the two characters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think you get the idea.

As the headline of this blog suggests, I realize that we live in great times for film lovers, because our TVs have all gone widescreen. This also means that full screen videos and DVDs are old hat. No one does the pan and scan anymore, so why am I complaining?

Eh. It’s what I do.

Packing Peanuts!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

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Four not to be missed Westerns of the modern era!

I love Westerns. Everyone should love Westerns. The world would be a better place if they did.

The Western is the oldest of all film genres. The first narrative film ever made was The Great Train Robbery (1903) and it was a Western. Hollywood has had a long time in which to get the genre perfected. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, it still doesn’t always get it right.

Because I love Westerns so much I may tend to be a little more forgiving of the lesser ones than a more critical viewer. That said, I still have no interest in watching Young Guns (1988) or Bad Girls (1994).

I got to thinking that there have been a few not too shabby Westerns in the past 25 years. I thought it might be a good idea to take a quick look at four of the more recent ones that I find to be pretty damn good. I won’t include Unforgiven (1992) and Tombstone (1993). They are fantastic, but everybody knows those two. They don’t need my touting.

I’m also going to avoid remakes such as 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), both are also very good. But, they found a larger audience.

So, here are four very recent Westerns that were somewhat overlooked, but I think are worth watching:

Bone Tomahawk (2015):

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This genre bending film, the most recent on my list, is about 8 1/2 parts Western and 1 1/2 parts Horror. It stars Kurt Russell as the world-weary sheriff of the small prairie town of Bright Hope. Russell is excellent and definitely needs to make more Westerns!

As the film opens, we come upon two drifters cutting the throats of sleeping cowboys in order to steal their goods. After securing a few valuables, the drifters stumble into a sacred Indian burial land and are attacked for the violation. One drifter (David Arquette) escapes to Bright Hope and ends up in jail with one of the sheriff’s bullets in his leg.

A townswoman (Lil Simmons) who assists the town’s doctor, who was too drunk to be of any help, was summoned to help with the drifter. She, the drifter, and a deputy are abducted during the night by a particularly savage clan of cannibalistic Indians. The sheriff, his “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), the town’s wealthiest and most learned man with plenty of Indian killing under his belt (Matthew Fox), and the husband (Patrick Wilson) of the abducted woman set out to rescue the three who had been taken.

The film follows this group into the “troglodyte” clan’s territory and they enter a horrifying world of brutal savagery. The third act of this film displays some very stark and stomach-turning violence inflicted by this Indian clan that pushes this Western into the realm of horror.

The acting is terrific and the dialogue feels authentic, even when people have conversations that are more meant to define their character, not service the plot.

Watch for an amusing cameo by Sean Young.

The Homesman (2014):

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This Western stars Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones (who also directs) as a pair of frontier misfits brought together to see that three prairie dwelling woman, who have lost their minds, are transported safely back to the East where they can get the care they need. The harsh living conditions had driven these women over the edge of sanity and their husbands could no longer care for them, but were unable or unwilling to caravan the sick women back to Iowa.

An old maid, property owner Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), spurned by men due to her being too ugly and too bossy, volunteers to take the women. As she starts out she encounters George Briggs (Jones) on the verge of being hanged. She rescues him and strikes a bargain for his assistance.

It’s a harsh country. It’s little wonder the three women lost their grip on reality. It takes hard people to tame such a hard land. Is Mary Bee hard enough?

The Dark Valley (2014):

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This Austrian-German Western (Yes! Austrian-German! There are subtitles.) is set in the Austrian Alps where an isolated town is under the thumb of Old Brenner and his six sons. The town holds a dark secret kept from the audience until well into the film.

The townspeople live in fear of the Brenners, but there is little they feel they can do in such an isolated land. As another harsh winter closes in, a wedding between two of the young townspeople is pending. Normally a joyous time elsewhere in the world, in this town there’s a dread of the Brenners that grows as the ceremony approaches.

One day a stranger rides into town…

Open Range (2003):

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My favorite of this batch. This Western feels more like the Westerns of old, but not hokey as many of them could be. There’s a strong sense of being honorable on the part of Boss (Robert Duvall), an old cowboy who doesn’t look to get into a fight, but he won’t be done wrong. Boss is driving a herd of cattle with his longtime partner Charley (Kevin Costner) and two others when they are set upon by an Irish land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who hates open range cattle feeders.

One of Boss’s men is killed and another, the youngest of the group, is severally wounded. Boss and Charley take the young man into town to get him treated by the town doctor. There they meet a woman they assume is the doctor’s wife (Annette Bening) and Charley falls in love. It turns out she is the doctor’s sister.

The love story isn’t necessary in the film, but it feels genuine, as they come to realize their feelings for each other.

But, they still need to deal with Baxter and his men. Charley has seen and done his share of killing. He’s good at it, but he wants to leave it behind. He can’t. This wrong must be dealt with.

With the help of the livery owner (Michael Jeter), Charley and Boss take on Baxter and his men in a shoot out that feels real. There’s none of the grab their gut and slowly drop off the roof kind of shooting in this Western. Charley knows how to kill and how to read his opponents and he uses that advantage well. Boss may not be the gunslinger Charley is, but he can take care of himself.

There’s a close quarters gunfight between Boss and Baxter that is sloppy and inefficient and feels so real. None of that quick draw, shoot dead eight opponents with one six shooter kind of gunfighting here. They miss at close range almost more than they hit. That’s how I imagine real gunfights going down.

Open Range feels honest and authentic throughout.

Don’t let anyone tell you good Westerns aren’t being made anymore. Just give them these four examples.

Packing Peanuts!

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