As is always the case with Tarantino films, the “The Hateful Eight” is an original film that bears heavy influence from other movies. Below you’ll find eleven wintery and/or weird westerns, that will put you in the mood for Tarantino’s film. Some are direct influences on Tarantino’s new movie, while others are simply great or unique examples of westerns done with an unusual flair, or with a frigid air thanks to winter settings.
“The Wild North” (1952)
Stewart Granger, looking like the original owner of the chin and hair coif that now belong to Bruce Campbell, adopts an exaggerated French-Canadian accent to star as trapper Jules Vincent. In town to get drunk, Jules gets into a fight with a local side of beef while talking to a native woman at a bar. Sober the next day, the meathead apologizes and cajoles a canoe ride north with Jules and the woman, played by Cyd Charisse. The request, however, may conceal a nefarious intent. The big local ends up dead, and Jules is soon in the custody of a Mountie (Wendell Corey) as the pair journey back to civilization through the frozen north. That setup creates a tug of war between Granger and Corey; they’re forced to be survival partners even as Jules taunts the constable and seeks to escape the law’s hold. Jules is a determined survivalist, but we know he is a fundamentally good man. (The film opens with him rescuing a kitten!) Will his desire for freedom overcome his true character? The tone is a bit careful, even anemic, but things get interesting when wolves and madness begin to prey upon the men. “Before I turn into an animal I’ll let this country take me,” says Corey, and there’s a good chance it might. If Jules didn’t say “bay-bee” every time he spoke, “The Wild North” might have a shot as a genre standard. (Side note: Check out the film’s title theme, which really seems to prefigure the original “Star Trek” theme.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNm7Qg8xY5o
Availability: DVD (Warner Archive)
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“Track of the Cat” (1954)
Director William A. Wellman designed this intense melodramatic western like a black and white film, only shot in color. The result is a nearly monochromatic vision splashed with specifically-chosen dollops of color, such as the red jacket worn by Robert Mitchum. The actor plays the middle son in a very dysfunctional family — a unit which has sacrificed most of their chances for individual personal happiness in order to carve out a living on a ranch in northern California. Mitchum here is almost like a rough draft of his “Night of the Hunter” character, domineering and abusive, as he tracks a possibly-mythical big cat that is prowling around the family’s cattle. “Track of the Cat” is adapted from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (whose prior novel “The Ox-Bow Incident” was also filmed by Wellman) with a script from A.I. Bezzerides, who works the family drama up into something that is almost mythic. Mitchum’s character has elder and younger brothers, one a gentle mediator, the other ambitious but browbeaten, and a drunk, bent-willow father and judgmental mother. Tensions rise in the family cabin — anticipating the closed-room concept behind “The Hateful Eight” — as Mitchum tracks the big cat. We never see the animal, but the sequences out in the snowy landscape are bone-chillingly gorgeous, and the film is significant as a tightly-wound drama in which every character’s worst fears could come true.
Availability: DVD (Paramount), Digital (Amazon)
“Day of the Outlaw” (1959)
Robert Ryan stars Starrett, as a rancher incensed at the idea that a neighbor, Mr. Crane, has strung barbed wire fence across the local range. He’s grinding his ax to an edge fine enough to separate Crane’s head from his shoulders, and the movie is clenched like a fist from the opening frame. Or perhaps Sterritt’s interest really lies with Mrs. Crane, played by Tina Louise, who first strides across the screen dressed in black like a widow at a funeral. (Louise would, a few years later, be stranded on “Gilligan’s Island” as Ginger.) The potential for violence escalates into a near-showdown between the two men, featuring a terrific gimmick to begin their duel. Then the outlaws show up, a particularly bad bunch led by Bruhn, a former Army captain with an iron backbone. (Burl Ives excels in the role.) Bruhn is wounded, possibly dying, and Starrett is forced to take an uncomfortable role as he tries to keep the new rogues in order as he guards the few women in town. When out of doors, the action takes place against the backdrop of a mountain range during a particularly cold and hard winter. The unforgiving black and white cinematography from Russell Harlan never gives the screen a moment to defrost, even when characters hunker down around a fire. This is a tense and stony production, with just enough life to offer some hope of redemption, like seeing the first new shoots push up through old snow.
Availability: DVD (Shout Factory); Digital (iTunes)
“The Great Silence” (1968)
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars in Sergio Corbucci‘s standard-setting spaghetti western as a mute gunslinger who has a particular dislike for bounty hunters. Klaus Kinski, wearing a madonna-like shawl under his hat, opposes him as a viciously amoral bounty hunter. Just to indicate how on-the-nose Corbucci’s film can be, the mute is named “Silence” while Kinski’s bounty hunter is “Loco.” The director has some social critique in mind as Silence’s faces down bounty hunters who, protected by law, kill in an all but indiscriminate manner, and a corrupt banker who supports their actions. Handsomely lensed if never quite stunning, “The Great Silence” has become one of the first-mentioned titles in any conversation about westerns set in the snow — and boasting an effective Ennio Morricone score certainly doesn’t hurt. The film has a halting, languid pace, like a wanderer with joints frozen by cold, and it is further undermined by thin characters and a lack of dramatic tension. But there’s still a spark of life, thanks to a number of memorable sequences in which tensions run high before exploding into violence. Quentin Tarantino borrows from this film, particularly with respect to a sequence in which a new lawman shares a stagecoach with Silence and Loco — a faithful riff on that setup is a major factor in the first chapter of “The Hateful Eight.”
Availability: DVD (Fantoma)
“El Topo” (1970)
The original insane western, and one of the first true midnight movies, Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s second film, and his first major international breakthrough, is a difficult-to-decipher phantasmagoria of violence, philosophy, and religious imagery. A man in black, played by Jodorowsky, travels through a desert, his naked young son in tow. Soon the man, known as the Mole, will leave his son with monks before hunting four master gunslingers at the behest of the woman he loves… and that’s just in the first half, before the Mole becomes a god-like figure worshipped by outcasts. Rife with juxtaposed religious and violent imagery, unusual sexuality, and scenes featuring dead animals (which Jodorowsky has said he did not kill for the film… but there’s reason to wonder) in addition to the oblique and heavily symbolic narrative, “El Topo” was deliberately crafted to be deciphered over multiple viewings. Other Jodorowsky films are more structurally inviting and display greater command of symbols, but the blend of impulsiveness and intuitive filmmaking of “El Topo” is unique not only among westerns, but in filmmaking, period.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (Abkco/Anchor Bay); Digital (Amazon, poor quality/iTunes)
“Jeremiah Johnson” (1972)
Based merely on the people involved, this is a must-see that has inexplicably fallen off the radar. Robert Redford stars as a slightly cleaned-up version of the real figure John “Liver-Eating” Johnson. Sydney Pollack directs from a script co-written by John Milius, whose voice comes through loud and clear. The action, shot partially at Redford’s then-recently acquired Sundance ski area, follows a Mexican War veteran who lights out for the Rockies to live an isolated life as a trapper. Johnson learns to sustain life as a mountain man, reckoning first with his own shortcomings, and dealing with other people, white and native, and natural dangers. Redford calls the film “existential,” and it is definitely more of a meander than a dash, with a great deal of room to slip into reverie. (It’s a good companion piece, in that way, to Peter Fonda‘s “The Hired Hand,” released a year earlier, and to Redford’s more recent “All Is Lost.”) Like “The Hateful Eight,” “Jeremiah Johnson” was released in roadshow format, with an overture and intermission, and the film’s languid pace set it apart from many common westerns. Performed with real affection for Johnson’s lifestyle and shot with a tenderness towards the natural beauty of Utah, this is a fine outdoorsman’s adventure.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (Warner Bros.); Digital (Amazon/iTunes)
“Cut Throats Nine” (1972)
This brutal and often gory Spanish production follows a chain gang of prisoners whose escorts are waylaid by bandits en route to the safety of a fort. With all the prisoners’ escorts slaughtered by the bandits except for one sergeant and his daughter (who is inexplicably along for the journey), their wagon is cast off into the snowy mountain wilderness. With the chain gang almost entirely intact, the sergeant attempts to lead the hard-nosed line of malcontents to their original destination, and only the worst may survive. Their journey, which is soon enlivened by a significant surprise, is a contest of wills and an opportunity for dangerous old secrets to come to light. Conflicts between the lawman and individual prisoners soon escalate, and grim violence follows. The count of surviving characters slowly dwindles. While many westerns follow characters on a search for redemption, this film all but negates that very concept, and stands as an unusually downbeat story even amongst the gritty standards of European westerns. Raw filmmaking and a simple but heavy score enhance the atmosphere, and one sequence, in which one of the convicts hallucinates a deceased character returning from the dead, particularly stands out as an intriguing oddity.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (Code Red); Digital (Amazon, poor quality)
“Four of the Apocalypse” (1975)
Snow and strange are rolled into one in this uncommon road movie. Saying a film is “Lucio Fulci’s weirdest” is a tough call to make, but this spaghetti western is certainly an odd standout from the director. Loosely based on two stories by Western author Bret Harte, the script unites four outcasts on the road after they’re expelled from the town of Salt Flats. Among their encounters is a crack shot bandit named Chaco (played by Thomas Milian, with a look that prefigures Captain Jack Sparrow), who ultimately leads the quartet into an ill-considered drug trip that exploits the vulnerabilities of the travelers. A bit of Jodorowsky and even some of the wandering elegiac tone of “Jeremiah Johnson” are at play here, tempering Fulci’s own instincts towards lurid cruelty. At times, as when the central quartet encounters an evangelist wagon-train, the director nearly strikes upbeat notes. It isn’t long, however, before the worst aspects of human nature take the field once again. Chaco performs truly horrible deeds, and a bizarre revelation of unwitting cannibalism adds to the film’s sense of psychosis. Greenhorns might want to steer clear, but those seeking unexpected paths will find this to be an odd experience.
Availability: DVD (Blue Underground)
“Dead Man” (1995)
Johnny Depp stars as William Blake — not the poet, just a man who has arrived in the hellish town of Machine, seeking work. Turned away from his promised job, Blake soon has a bullet in his chest. His certain death is delayed by ministrations from a Native American named Nobody, who treats the young white man like a reincarnation of the famous William Blake. Inching ever closer to death, Blake kills a number of men as Nobody escorts him to the ocean, where he believes Blake can flee the Earth and rejoin the spirit world. Jim Jarmusch scripts and directs with Blake’s actual poetry in mind, and while the intended meanings of his script can be difficult to decipher, he taps into a deeply intuitive vision of the American west. Here the natural world is already troubled by corrupted industrialized invaders. The vanguard agents of big business, in the form of men like Lance Henricksen‘s cannibalistic bounty hunter, are literal monsters. Jarmusch pays great attention to the details of Native American life. As Nobody, Gary Farmer steals the movie, even with Depp giving one of his better performances. Cinematographer Robby Müller (a Wim Wenders regular) captures the scenery in such crisp and silvery black and white that the film seems to exist in its own supernatural space. The score from Neil Young, primarily improvised on electric guitar, intensifies the psychedelic feel.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (Miramax); Digital (Amazon/iTunes)
In original release this bizarre supernatural/horror/western/comedy hybrid probably got more attention for its unique score, by Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, than it did for the big performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle as two military men who are united by cannibalism. Pearce is a cowardly officer who lucks into a heroic action during the Mexican-American War. He ends up posted to a middle-of-nowhere fort high in the Sierra-Nevada mountains. One snowy night a ragged man played by Carlyle appears at the window. He tells a story (evidently inspired by tales of the Donner Party) featuring a lost wagon train and eventual cannibalism. When the company of the fort heads out to rescue other possible survivors, violence breaks out and things get weird. It’s easy to wonder “what if” with “Ravenous,” which suffered persistent studio tinkering during the shoot. Original director Milcho Manchevski was nearly replaced by Raja Gosnell, then finally swapped out for Antonia Bird, who directed most of the film. (Later, Bird echoed early complains by Manchevski, saying that his issues with the studio’s heavy hand were on the money.) The end result is that an intended satirical tone never entirely coheres. Regardless, this is an entertaining and bloody yarn that constantly changes direction even as Bird maintains a tone that is equally comic and horrific. Not to be outdone by Pearce and Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones delivers a great turn as the commander of the isolated fort, and the climax builds to a big showdown that is unlike any other western face-off.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (Shout Factory); Digital (Amazon/iTunes)
“Slow West” (2015, John MacLean)
Vividly painted on the screen and splashed with equal amounts of dire violence and sharp black comedy, this story is pitched like the center of a Venn diagram featuring Biblical parables, fairy tales, and campfire stories. A young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) follows the woman he loves from Scotland to America, where she has fled with her father after an accidental death at home puts a price on their heads. The boy runs afoul of danger almost immediately, but recruits a local bounty hunter, played by Michael Fassbender, to escort him through the untamed west. First-time feature director John Mclean, who also writes, exploits his cast to their full potential. (Ben Mendelsohn delivers a terrific James Coburn-esque turn.) Mclean isn’t shy about detouring into bizarre anecdotes, as when a nomadic writer reveals himself to be a hell of a lot like film director Werner Herzog. This is a love story where there’s no reason to expect the love to thrive. Here the intense conflict is buffered by an appreciation of natural beauty and an understanding of man’s own ability to overcome adversity by building families and community out of whatever cast-off orphans may be at hand.
Availability: DVD/Blu-ray (LionsGate); Digital (Amazon/iTunes)
For more snowy action, there’s always “The Searchers,” which features a gorgeous snow sequence, though it’s just one part of the film. Likewise, Sam Peckinpah’s early effort “Ride the High Country,” a terrific film, takes place in the Sierras, but isn’t really a winter story. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard captures a crispness in the light and air, however, giving the film the feel of a tipping point between seasons.
Lucio Fulci made two “White Fang” films (1973 and 1974), based on the book by Jack London. They’re just restrained enough to almost feel like family films, but just violent enough that some families will really squirm while watching. Joe D’amato, in a rare effort that has appeal outside exploitation circles, riffs on those films in “Red Coat,” a story of two former friends, a Mountie and a killer, and the gold-hungry bandits who want revenge on the killer for an old betrayal. With the frenemies plot and a dogsled chase, this one also seems to borrow from “The Wild North,” mentioned above.
On the weird side there’s “Bone Tomahawk” (2015). We’ve relegated it to “other mentions” because we set this list in motion with one Kurt Russell western, and having four westerns with cannibalism on the proper list would skew too heavily towards the flesh-eaters.
“Seraphim Falls” (2006), with Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson, has good snowy sequences, and while neither “Joe Kidd” (1972) or “Pale Rider” (1986) are particularly chilly Clint Eastwood films, both feature some snow-covered scenery.
To go a bit further afield, a couple of Zatoichi movies have great snow sequences, with the climactic fight scene in “Zatoichi Challenged” standing as a particularly good battle in the snow.