Tom Hanks’ latest film is a 21st century western called News of the World. After a few months of limited availability, this movie is now widely available on home devices.
It’s a 21st century western, not just because its original release date is Christmas 2020, but by definition. Westerns throughout the 20th century tended to be formulaic. Low-budget B-Westerns were designed to keep the neighborhood kids enthralled on weekend matinee days, but plenty of adults shared the fun. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes, “Hopalong” Cassidy, George O’Brien and even John Wayne starred. So many familiar faces taking hours of action pictures. Every film had rustlers, dance club girls, shootouts, and kind-hearted settlers who slept in mud-covered dugouts and lived where farmland and pasture were scarce.
Then there were the classic westerns of the 20th century with higher budgets; In some cases they are masterpieces of cinema: Stagecoach, Red River, My Darling Clementine, Shane, The Wild Bunch, How the West Was Won. Films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wyler and later Sam Peckinpah.
While News of the World hardly rivals the best of the Western genre, it’s good entertainment. As a new western, the film shows the troubled world of postwar Texas as more than a cliché; It is sometimes a bleak, uncivilized place where people speak and act brutally. The realistic style is taken into account. Even the settlers, who were often portrayed here as stereotypical, friendly family members, are portrayed as shamefully callous.
Tom Hanks plays a seasoned Confederate Army captain who travels through Texas amid the dejected southern population. He makes a living reading newspapers and giving recitations of interesting news to inform those willing to pay a dime for the opportunity. On his route, he discovers a sullen blonde girl in Kiowa robes who speaks the Kiowa language. The circumstances make it difficult for him to separate from the child. That is the crux of the story.
Hanks is the only living actor I can see in the role. His character is gentle, kind, but ruthless when it comes to protecting the child. Simply put, he’s a good man in a troubled world. If times had been different, the character would have been played by James Stewart, another star whose eyes indicated an absolutely solid goodness.
The more time the child and his unwilling caretaker spend together, of course, the more complicated their relationship becomes. The more people they meet – most of them are uncomfortable – the more difficult it will be to accommodate the child. Even with a cast that includes more than a few good-for-nothing, the emphasis is on moments of warmth and sentimentality.
Watching the world’s news brought me back to my deep appreciation for the 2004-2006 HBO series Deadwood, one of the best examples of the Western genre ever made. I just re-watched the 2019 sequel to Deadwood: The Movie. All parts of Deadwood were created by David Milch and are examples of the modern western genre. The characters contain truthful interpretations of Calamity Jane and her lesbian lover; plus the most powerful man in town – the limo owner. There are also the whores, the corrupt politician, the ghettoized Chinese, the black man who remains an outsider, and the admirable lawyer and his business partner – the cart Jew who becomes a department store owner. Milk drew grainy details of Deadwood with historical accuracy. It’s the Wild West, after all, so … some drink too much. Some swear in disgusting ways. Mutilate something and murder. Badmen bodies are thrown to the pigs for dinner. Some are decent people.
World news is good entertainment. No doubt. But Deadwood is a classic, a brilliant creation, not for the little ones, but exciting – a masterpiece.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and reviewer. She is a senior lecturer emeritus and former director of film studies at Albany University and has authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner Rob Edelman.
The views expressed by commentators are those of the authors only. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its administration.