Saturday, May 9, 2009
Think Westerns Can't Be French - Au Contraire.
By Robert Silva
Painted deserts, clanging spurs, and smoking barrels create a mystique that has rightfully earned Westerns a global audience. So it shouldn't be too surprising that some of our foreign friends have contributed their own versions of this rustic dreamworld, including, yes, the French. But before you cough up those freedom fries: Relax! From critics like Andre Bazin to future filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, the French have long been champions of American cinema, from turning John Ford and Howard Hawks into auteurs, to pulling film noir out of the shadows. It's also worth mentioning that the French were hardly sipping cafe au laits and slicing into blocks of Brie while the West was supposedly being "won". French and Indian War ring a bell, anyone?
Read on for a list of French actors who've played it cowboy with aplomb.
1. Joe Hamman
The first Gallic cowboy appeared not long after the inception of film itself. Starting in 1901, French actor Joe Hamman began a long line of "Arizona Bill" movies, and went on to inhabit such roles as "Rancho, un cow boy" and "Bornéo Bill". (You couldn't make this stuff up.) Though few prints survive, the surviving images are rather fun to look at. According to lore, Hamman worked out West as a young man, though the films themselves were shot in suburban Paris - an impressive trompe l'oil, to say the least!
2. Jean-Pierre Léaud
Best known for playing Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and its unnumbered sequels, the New Wave icon also played a gunslinger in the absurdist Western A Girl is a Gun, in which Jean-Pierre Leaud starred as a hippie-ish Billy the Kid. Directed by Hollywood deconstructionist Luc Moullet, the film is a low-budget gunslinging tale told by way of Godard, complete with hilarious poorly-dubbed English dialogue.
3. Alain Delon
Delon was (and is) one of France's most celebrated actors. Nevertheless he rode out west as a Cajun cowboy in 1971's Red Sun. Since his most conspicuous films -- Le Cercle Rouge and Purple Noon -- are taut reworkings of American pulp fiction, a take on the cowboy mythos doesn't seem too far off the map. But when you add Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune (!), and Swiss sex symbol Ursula Andress to the cross-cultural melange, well, it can make you a little dizzy. (It also conjures images of Red Sun's unholy fusion-cuisine counterpart: foie gras with baked bean sushi, and a dollop of cheese fondue.)
4. Robert Hossein
A writer and director of eclectic tastes, Hossein decided to get in on the Spaghetti Western craze with 1968's The Rope and the Colt. Like Delon, he'd often played roles in French take-offs of American crime stories, including the villain in Jules Dassin's classic Rififi. He began his career as a director in the 1950s, making movies that became well known for their noir shadings and graphic violence. These propensities show through as clear as bloodstains on a white shirt in this sordid frontier tale of murder, rape, and revanche.
5. Vincent Cassel
By the 21st century, it may have seemed as though the French Western had headed off into the sunset. But in 2004, Blueberry (referred to by some critics as a "baguetti Western", har) assembled yet another international cast for fun with horses, revolvers, and peyote. Vincent Cassel headed the group as its beset gunslinger, while Eddie Izzard, Michael Madsen, Juliette Lewis, and, yes, Ernest Borgnine made up the rest of the wild bunch. Shockingly enough, the film never made it to American theaters; it showed up in video stores under the slightly less fruity title, Renegade.