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The Call of the West

COVER STORY

Time and most of Hollywood have passed the western by, but the battered genre retains a hold on TV audiences. What keeps drawing us back to the frontier?

April 18, 1999|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

What does it mean when an actor as good as Bill Pullman admits that of all genres, westerns push him beyond the line of make-believe? Recalling his time on the set of Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" in 1994, Pullman says, "I noticed how potent it felt to be around that environment. It's a different feeling: the guns strapped on, all these guys walking around. Who's going to get the hat with the special rawhide strap? Do you look right? Can you ride a horse? You don't want to think, 'I'm a fraud.' "

Sam Elliott, the actor who has made dozens of westerns, including "Tombstone" and the recent "Hi-Lo Country," puts it more simply: "It's every actor's fantasy and every director's fantasy because it's every kid's fantasy." Elliott will star as legendary Oklahoma sheriff Bill Tillman in "You Know My Name" on TNT in August.

After nearly a century on the screen--in stories as diverse in their telling as 1953's spare classic "Shane" to Kasdan's mock drama "Silverado" in 1985--the western remains a repository of American myth so deeply etched in our shared imaginations that we instantly recognize its symbols of men with guns on horseback thundering past high mesas and covered wagons creeping across the plains. The symbols remain as familiar to us as photos from a family album, and we know the stories they represent, of men challenged by outlaws and evil in a majestic land, standing up and being counted, deciding what's right and fighting back, usually prevailing in the eyes of God looking down from the world's biggest sky.

"It has to do with the creation of national narratives," says Gregory H. Nobles, who heads the history department at Georgia Tech and wrote the 1997 book "American Frontiers," reassessing the popular notion that the nation was settled in a single, expanding line of white conquest over savage natives, east to west. "Why aren't there any 'easterns'?" he asks. "There are many interesting stories, as interesting as the West and in some ways more complicated, taking place on the eastern frontier in the period prior to 1800. But nobody does it."

The national narrative of the West has been in eclipse for years on the big screen, with a few notable exceptions ("Unforgiven," "Dances With Wolves" and "Young Guns"). But its storytellers have moved back to television, where the western once flourished in episodic form and now is experiencing something of a rebirth in the form of television movies. TNT alone has made a dozen since 1991, many with top talent if not always with top scripts. Pullman, in fact, is directing and starring in a remake of "The Virginian" for the network, with a scheduled airdate in early 2000.

TNT scored the biggest rating ever for a basic cable movie in January with "Purgatory," a sci-fi variation on an old formula that starred Sam Shepard and Randy Quaid as the murderous Wild Bill Hickock and Doc Holliday, having renounced violence and living in a mysterious "Twilight Zone" town invaded by a gang of bank-robbing thugs led by Eric Roberts. Its audience, for eight showings, was estimated at 31 million.

CBS brought forth "Outlaw Blues," in which Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were cast as aging bank robbers on a mission to avenge the murder of a former compadre in crime. Following a feverish viewer campaign to keep it on the air last year, CBS also brought back "The Magnificent Seven," hoary throwback to the days of "Cheyenne," "Rawhide" and the like, a weekly series about a gang of charming gunmen who protect a small frontier town from killers, bandits and thieves.

Though the network recently announced it would not renew the show for a third season, it has three other western pieces in the works--the third installment of "Sarah Plain and Tall," currently filming in Kansas with Glenn Close and Christopher Walken reprising their roles; a telefilm about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author whose work was turned into the long-running series "Little House on the Prairie"; and in May the network will air its first "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" movie, starring Jane Seymour.

NBC is developing with Kevin Costner a miniseries called "Not Between Brothers," set on the Texas frontier, that will trace 30 years in the lives of two families--one white, one Native American--caught in the political and military cross-fire between the United States and Mexico. And the network will also join forces with "Armageddon" producer Jerry Bruckheimer to create "Outlaws," a four-hour gun-slinging saga about a corrupt small-town mayor forced into a battle of evils with an invading gang of desperadoes.

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