When you read the words “remake” or “reboot,” what comes to mind? If you’re optimistic, you can’t wait to see an old-time favorite back up on the screen with a new Hollywood sheen. At worst, you’re still shaking from flashbacks to the first time some hack bashed your childhood memories to a pulp. In either case, remakes are a mixed bag and should be taken with something between a grain and pound of salt, and the process of making one is a double-edged sword: the remake’s task is to rework a tried and true concept without stepping on the original’s toes or alienating its built-in fan base. Many have tried and fallen, less have risen again.
With “The Lone Ranger” galloping into theaters this holiday weekend (review here), a prime example of studio rehashing a tired premise (with a radio show, TV show and few movies already to its name) and a rumored remake of Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Wild Bunch” starring Will Smith on its way (hopefully to be derailed by lackluster “After Earth” box office), we started thinking about other western reboots and where they stack up in the annals of cinema and entertainment. As we dug deeper, we uncovered some interesting stuff, most of it buried for a reason. You probably gathered that “Wild Wild West” was based off of the 1960s TV show “The Wild Wild West,” but did you know “Destry Rides Again” was a loose remake of a 1932 B-film with the same name? Trivia aside, there’s still the elephant in the room, the question of whether the original or remake is better.
To settle the matter, we took a lead from the genre and paired the originals and remakes off to duke it out. Focusing on reboots rather than spin-offs or sequels, the old codgers and young guns face off below. Does your favorite western wind up in an unmarked grave? Or do you think some got off too lightly? After reading through all of the dueling stats, take your vengeance out in the comment section below.
“3:10 to Yuma” (1957) vs. “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)
The premise: A meek rancher is forced to align himself with a charming criminal when he is arrested and forced to board a train that all parties know is in the line of fire of the criminal’s old gang…
The old codger: “3:10 To Yuma,” which has earned it’s placed in the National Registry, is a tight, taut thriller based on an Elmore Leonard short story.
The young gun: The remake of the same title boasts a sleek Hollywood studio sheen and a much healthier runtime, but stays true to the basics of the story, turning a threadbare narrative into a sprawling actioner.
Who won the draw? The original “3:10 To Yuma” draws first, and draws blood, nicking the newer film in the neck as his bullet fires mere inches from the original film’s head. It’s a question of economy: the older film is a nervy, claustrophobic psycho-thriller of sorts, with Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the do-gooder who believes in the letter of the law, though tempted by Glenn Ford’s snaky, seductive Ben Wade. James Mangold‘s reworking is a good half hour longer, but the difference seems to be in increased violence and more overt screenwriting tricks, like Evans needing to live up to the standards of his critical son. It’s a bit tougher when it comes to the performances: while Christian Bale is a talented actor, he doesn’t find the depth and goodness behind Evans that Heflin creates, but Russell Crowe‘s tremendously appealing, likable Wade gives the recent redo a more playful edge. Ultimately, the newer film is fitfully entertaining, but the Delmer Daves classic is ultimately unimpeachable. (Also, if you’re an Elmore Leonard fan, check out our ranking of film adaptations of his work.)
“True Grit” (1969) vs. “True Grit” (2010)
The premise: A young girl seeks to avenge the death of her father by enlisting a dubious drunken lawman to deal out justice.
The old codger: Based on the Charles Portis novel, this oater starred a late-career John Wayne, who would claim his only Best Actor Oscar for the role of Rooster Cogburn.
The young gun: The knotty contemporary redo captures the essence of the original story, going back to the darkness of Portis’ prose under the hand of the Coen Brothers.
Who won the draw? It seems as if this is one case where the young gun was savvy, dodging whizzing rounds to deliver one solid, middle-of-the-forehead killshot. The original “True Grit” is a decently-calibrated western that boasts an actual terrific performance from Wayne, though it is notably a light affair compared to the source material, more interested in showcasing Wayne’s moviestar appeal. The Coens, however, smartly mined the book for the sadness and moral ambiguity within, centering the story on young Mattie Ross. Jeff Bridges and Wayne act themselves into a standstill as boozing Cogburn (though, in fairness, Bridges has much more to work with), but young Kim Darby is no match for Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld as the plucky heroine. Typical for them, the Coens don’t eschew humor, instead providing a raucous viewing experience that nonetheless carries extremely dark edges, surprisingly helping the film gross $250 million worldwide.
“Ned Kelly” (1970) vs. “Ned Kelly” (2003)
The premise: Based on the life of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, a young man turns to a life of crime in late 19th century Australia and becomes a national folk hero.
The old codger: Helmed by British New Wave director Tony Richardson, the slow-paced gritty-looking biopic stars a bearded Mick Jagger as the Australian outlaw and features a folky soundtrack including Jagger, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
The young gun: Based on Robert Drewe’s historical novel “Our Sunshine,” Heath Ledger (post-“blonde” roles, pre-“Brokeback Mountain“) leads a gang of Irish Australians, including Orlando Bloom, to the chagrin of the Anglo-Australian Colonial Government, typified by Geoffrey Rush as the Superintendent called in to track down Kelly and his gang.
Who won the draw? Neither fared too well, both left the corral limping with the possibility of a third upstart shooting them down soon enough. The 1970 “Ned Kelly” was an all-out disaster, from Ian McKellan dropping out to the British crew’s rough reception on-location in Australia to the end product being so bad that neither Richardson or Jagger attended its premiere in London. Now why shouldn’t we concede victory to the 2003 “Ned Kelly“? Because if you couldn’t tell by the description above, the later one was a dull-as-dishwater, predictable studio western, the main highlight being Ledger’s as-of-then uncharacteristic performance. If we had our druthers, a third contender would rise from the ashes, combining the folk of the first and the epic action of the second.“Maverick” (1950s-1960s TV series) vs. “Maverick” (1994)
The premise: A charming cardshark makes his way through the west, ambling in and out of several adventures.
The old codger: The original TV series (1957-1962) boasted James Garner in the lead role of Bret Maverick, a city-hopping rapscallion who couldn’t turn down a good game of poker.
The young gun: 1994’s big budget “Maverick” teamed several proven Hollywood commodities together, including “Lethal Weapon“ team Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner, with a script by William Goldman.
Who won the draw? This is the case of two almost identical killshots, THUNK into the forehead of each participant in a draw. The original series was mostly a showcase for the devilishly charming Garner, and while later episodes confused and complicated the gimmick, it remained one of the more lightweight television offerings of the era. The new film actually brings Garner back, this time as a villain against an at-his-peak Gibson in an amusing bit of meta-casting. The movie gets too cute about in-jokes — Danny Glover stops by for a wince-inducing cameo that implies Murtaugh recognizes his old buddy Riggs — but it’s a reliably silly, safe, low-key adventure film that turns the serialized nature of the show into a streamlined charm factory for Gibson. The picture does what it says on the tin, paying respectful homage to the earlier show in a way that makes this one of the more beloved TV-to-movie adaptations, even if the material is so silly that both the show and the movie aren’t really well-remembered today.
“The Wild Wild West” (1960s TV series) vs. “Wild Wild West” (1999 film)
The premise: The adventures of two Secret Service agents of President Ulysses S. Grant, utilizing steampunk technology and quick wits to foil threats to the country.
The old codger: In the mid-1960s, CBS aired 104 episodes of “The Wild Wild West,” a vaguely-anachronistic series that combined two hot flavors at the time, the western and the spy vehicle. The genre cross-pollination was an audience favorite, allowing the show to rise from the dead as a couple of television movies in 1979 and 1980.
The young gun: Long in development, the 1999 adaptation used the framework of the CBS hit as a star vehicle for Will Smith. “Wild Wild West” borrows the basic gimmick from the television show, but anchors it in expensive special effects and whiz-bang action sequences, changing hero James West to an African American and giving him a rivalry with Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), a close friend in the original series.
Who won the draw? This is just an out-and-out disaster, with the new “Wild Wild West” stumbling to remove his gun while its predecessor rips through the body with hot lead. The original series wasn’t a titan of television, but it at least boasted a unique premise of its own, and solid chemistry between Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. The newer film features the unique anti-comedy of Smith and Kline mixing together like grape juice and Sex Panther, trapping the actors in a CG-nightmare that involves the infamous giant spider of Jon Peters‘ dreams, the one the producer wished to include in several planned films, including a mooted “Superman” relaunch. Attempting to capitalize on the heat of Smith reuniting with “Men In Black” director Barry Sonnenfeld, the movie is a turgid, unpleasant mess, reducing Jim West to a series of one-liners and uncomfortable racial jokes, while placing Artemus Gordon in a series of unflattering and wholly unconvincing disguises. Almost nothing works in this cynical attempt to dredge up an IP for the sake of enticing summer moviegoers, and yet it still ranks as one of the highest grossing westerns of all time.
“Stagecoach” (1939) vs. “Stagecoach” (1966)
The premise: Based on the Ernest Haycox short story “The Stage of Lordsburg,” a motley crew (including all but one of the following: alcoholic doctor, army wife, embezzling banker, gambler, goodtime girl, gunslinger, traveling liquor salesman, Biff the Wonder Dog) travel by stagecoach through the Wild West and come together while under siege.
The old codger: Directed by John Ford, the 1939 black-and-white version stars John Wayne as The Ringo Kid, Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone (an Oscar-winning performance), John Carradine as Hatfield, the gambler, and Andy Devine as Buck, the stagecoach driver.
The young gun: Directed by Gordon Douglas, the 1966 color remake stars Ann-Margret as Dallas, lady of the evening, Bing Crosby as Doc Boone (Crosby’s last film role), Van Heflin as Marshall Curly Wilcox, Robert Cummings as Henry Gatewood, the banker, and Slim Pickens as Buck. Added bonus, Norman Rockwell has a cameo as a “townsman.”
Who won the draw? At the count of ten, the old codger turned and shot the young gun through the head, chest and in the unmentionables. An all-out slaughter, the remake is buried in a shallow grave, ready to be dug up for a trick pub quiz question. Simply, nothing can touch the original, arguably the greatest western film of all time. Revitalizing a well-worn genre with character-driven drama, it is one of the most influential films in cinematic history. Want an example? Orson Welles cited the film as a filmmaking textbook, watching it over 40 times while making “Citizen Kane.” Go ahead and argue with that in the comment section. Come at me, you contrarians arguing that the latter has a “better cast” (the guy from “Airwolf” vs. the Duke, do you really want to go there?) or that you “just like color more.” Oh, and the 1986 TV movie with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings was a not-so-innocent bystander, succumbing to a lethal heart attack at the sight of the original approaching the corral.
“Destry Rides Again” (1932) vs. “Destry Rides Again” (1939) vs. “Destry” (1954)
The premise: A man named Tom Destry seeks vengeance and/or refuses to succumb to violence in the Old West.
The old codger: Based off of the Max Brand novel, the B-western early talkie features a vengeful gunslinging Destry (Tom Mix) out to get the jurors who wrongly convicted him of robbery.
The young gun: Borrowing the title and lead’s name but little else from the original, Tom Destry (James Stewart) is a deputy sheriff who manages to carry out the “letter of the law” while remaining true to his pacifist beliefs. Along the way, he befriends the saucy saloon-owner Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich).
The whippersnapper: A 1954 remake, “Destry” follows the 1939 version pretty closely, acting as a vehicle for WWII hero Audie Murphy.
Who won the draw? Unlike the others on this list, not only are there three contenders, but they were all made by the same studio, Universal. Even so, only one was left standing. Dodging whizzing bullets from both sides, the James Stewart version shot Tom Mix’s square between the eyes and got Audie Murphy’s in the chest, leaving Murphy’s gasping for air in a puddle of blood and dirt. The first is all-but-forgotten and the last is remembered fondly by baby-boomers, if at all, whereas the 1939 version withstands age as a timeless classic that touches the core of right vs. wrong and theory vs. action. On the political side, the film can also be seen as an allegory for American foreign policy pre-Pearl Harbor (good old Isolationism being not so good after all). Superficially, who can really argue against a so adorably earnest Jimmy Stewart paired with a very gutsy Marlene Dietrich (check out “See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have“)? On the sidelines, “Frenchy” (the “Destry Rides Again” remake with Shelley Winters in the Dietrich role and without a Destry) fainted at the first sight of blood and the John Gavin-starring 1960s TV series ran for cover at the first gunshot.
“The Paleface” (1948) vs. “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (1966)
Premise: Not to be confused with the Buster Keaton classic “The Paleface,” these two are about a dental school graduate who finds himself married to a female gunslinger and embroiled in some Wild West exploits involving gunrunning and Native Americans.
The old codger: Written as a satire of “The Virginian,” the 1948 Paramount comedy “The Paleface” stars Bob Hope and Jane Russell with Iron Eyes Cody (“The Crying Indian“).
The young gun: Poking fun at “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the 1966 Universal remake of “The Paleface” stars Don Knotts and Barbara Rhoades with Jackie Coogan (child star and TV’s Uncle Fester) and Pat Merita (we “Karate Kid” you not).
Who won the draw? After a few pratfalls and offensively corny one-liners, “The Shakiest Gun in the West” got two shots to the knock-knees thanks to “The Paleface,” rendering the remake as good as dead considering Wild West healthcare but still kicking around by today’s standards. Losing the mixed metaphors, “The Paleface” is generally considered the better of the two, having been the most successful western parody up until “Blazing Saddles.” The original cemented Bob Hope’s film career and introduced the movie-going public to Jane Russell’s funny side, beyond her two more prominent assets. On the other hand, we dare you not to laugh at a drunk Don Knotts. If you’re a student of comedy or just want to tickle your funny bone, both are must-sees. If you want a witty albeit insightful examination of life in the Old West, we recommend you mosey on elsewhere.
“Rio Bravo” (1958) vs. “El Dorado” (1966)
The premise: In the Wild West, John Wayne leads a ragtag team to defend a small town against the local bad guy.
The old codger: In “Rio Bravo,” Sheriff (Wayne) enlists a drunk (Dean Martin) to keep a bad guy (whose brother is the big local baddie) in jail, adding old man Walter Brennan (“Dang nab it!”) and young gunslinger Ricky Nelson to the crew along the way.
The young gun: In “El Dorado,” a drunk sheriff (Robert Mitchum) enlists a gun-for-hire (Wayne) to help defend a local rancher’s water supply, adding old man Arthur Hunnicutt and young gambler/knife-fighter James Caan along the way.
Who won the draw? With pistols cocked and aimed, “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado” squinted, recognized each other and that was that. Shaking hands, they walked off into the sunset trash-talking “High Noon.” From the get-go, “Rio Bravo” was meant to be Howard Hawks’ answer to “High Noon,” which Hawks called “phony” and Wayne dubbed “un-American.” Leaving politics aside, the tightly written humor and action-packed “Rio Bravo” was such a hit that the same team (director Hawks, star Wayne, screenwriter Leigh Brackett) went to re-hash it eight years later and actually succeeded with audiences and critics alike. Unlike anything seen before or since, both films hold equal places in the hearts of the movie fans. If someone ever points a gun at your head for an answer, just think of where you stand in a Dean Martin vs. Robert Mitchum face-off. Taking the yellow-bellied road, we won’t make a stance on the matter here, but will denounce the 1970 “Rio Lobo” as a purported third installment in a Hawks-Wayne trilogy of sort. Without the obligatory town drunk, “Rio Lobo” is exempted from the face-off.
Other young guns up for the fight but didn’t make the cut include Clint Eastwood‘s “Pale Rider” (considered a loose adaptation of the 1952 manly tear-jerker “Shane”) and a 2000 TV adaptation of “High Noon.” Before you charge down to the comment section, we didn’t forget “The Alamo” and its 2004 remake, but felt that including the battle epic would be like bringing a posse to a duel, overwhelming and squeezed in, and therefore saved them to fight another day. Also, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Akira Kurosawa. Many directors have “borrowed” things like themes and story arcs from Kurosawa’s films, but a few western directors flat-out copied, even stole, arguably three of his greatest films. “Seven Samurai” traded out their swords for guns in “The Magnificent Seven.” “Rashomon” became the not-as-successful though more star-studded “The Outrage.” Notoriously, Sergio Leone remade “Yojimbo” into “A Fistful of Dollars” without Kurosawa’s permission or even giving him a more-than-rightful credit on the finished product — Kurosawa famously commented that it was “a fine movie, but it was MY movie.” Do the ends of spawning a whole new genre of western (spaghetti westerns) justify the means of stealing from a cinematic master? Feel free to include your thoughts on that along with any other adaptations or remakes you think deserve a place on this dueling roster in the comment section below. – Diana Drumm, Gabe Toro