On Saturday, May 20, I’ll be at the Ironwood Library in Chandler, Arizona discussing the Weird and Wild West on panels with such authors as Jeff Mariotte and Hal Astell. On one of the panels, we’ll be discussing all the flavors of westerns from Spaghetti Westerns to Steampunk-flavored Westerns to Space Westerns. One thing most Westerns have in common is an optimistic outlook, but there is one flavor of Western that looks unflinchingly at the dark side of the American West and that’s the so-called acid western.
The term “acid western” was coined by critic Pauline Kael to describe the movie El Topo directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jonathan Rosenbaum further refined the term in his review of the Johnny Depp western Dead Man. Acid westerns are said to have a hallucinogenic quality with aspects derived from 1960s counterculture. In the traditional western, the west is often viewed as an optimistic place. In the acid western, the west is often seen as an almost nightmarish place. In acid western films, the music score tends to be more modern than in a traditional western.
Dead Man tells the story of an accountant named William Blake who is promised a job and travels to the town of Machine. At the town’s one, large factory, Blake learns someone has already been hired to fill the job. Despondent, Blake goes to the saloon, meets a local girl and they immediately have a liaison. Afterwards, the girl’s ex-lover appears, hoping to make up. Blake and the lover exchange gun fire. After which, the girl and the lover end up dead despite Blake’s lack of skill with a gun. Unknown to Blake, the lover is the factory owner’s son. Blake runs, but he’s wounded and passes out. He’s awaken by a Native American man who is trying to dig the bullet from his chest. The Native American man, who calls himself Nobody, then nurses Blake back to health. When Blake is well enough to talk, Nobody believes the accountant is really the famous poet reincarnated, only now he will make poetry with his guns and kill white people. All of this is accompanied by a haunting guitar score by Neil Young.
I’d argue another interesting example of an acid western is the anime Gun Frontier by legendary artist Leiji Matsumoto, who recently passed away. Gun Frontier shows us a bizarre west. Each of our primary characters has a superpower of sorts. Harlock is a former sea captain, good with his guns, and very much the image of a traditional western hero. Tochiro is short and can’t see without his thick glasses, but he’s an amazing swordsman. They travel with a woman named Sinunora, who uses her sex appeal like a weapon and wastes little time getting out of her clothes in many episodes. In one town, everyone can literally do anything they want, no matter how outrageous. In another episode, only people taller than five feet can enter the town, which leaves Tochiro out. The connecting storyline is Tochiro’s quest for his long-lost sister. Matsumoto’s series is based on an earlier manga and gives us a psychedelic and dark vision of the west. The score is Japanese pop, similar to many other anime series of the early 2000s.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is almost certainly the best known example of a literary acid western. Based loosely on historical events, the story follows a teenager from Tennessee known as “the kid.” Much of the story follows his experiences with the Glanton gang, a group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others along the border of the United States and Mexico for bounties and their own sadistic pleasure. Set in the 1850s, Blood Meridian is a brutal, violent novel that serves as a counterpoint to more traditional, optimistic westerns.
I’m currently reading Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. The novel is set all around the world, but does have key scenes in the wild west of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s no question Pynchon relishes in psychedelic storytelling that doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the Wild West.
I have never tried my hand at writing an acid western, but I find these dark westerns provide inspiration for villains and weird situations my characters may encounter in my more Steampunk-flavored westerns. If you’re looking for dark storytelling that sits a little outside the traditional horror tropes, you might venture into the psychedelic world of the acid western.
2 responses to “The Dark Side of the Wild West”
As “sort of” part of that counterculture, you’d think I’d be more up on this stuff. My awareness of the Acid Western extends no further than Zachariah. Paul Newman’s Hombre was pretty dark as well, and I didn’t care for either one of those. Maybe being considerably more mature (or at least older!), I’d take to them better now, but I’ve always preferred positive entertainment where good wins out. I get enough of the alternative from real life…
But I thank you for this meaningful dissertation and a decent list of where to look should anyone wish to go down this road. Entertainment is what you enjoy, after all, and if people didn’t enjoy this, there wouldn’t be a genre. And if you’re reading this and thinking about trying something in the field, let me assure you that David doesn’t recommend any junk!
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I tend to agree, I don’t tend to “enjoy” acid westerns the way I enjoy westerns (or any story) with a more positive outcome. However, I often find the questions these movies raise to be compelling. I will note, despite the more psychedelic and dark nature of Gun Frontier as a whole, the anime does have a positive, if unexpected, ending. Another film that fits in this genre is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I find a tough movie to watch because it’s so grim, but did give us the Bob Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
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