It’s like I’m back in high school, watching old Westerns with my mom
I haven’t been this excited about a western in years.
I know, you’re probably thinking, since when have I ever been excited about westerns?
My mom (rest her soul) was quite the western buff. My dad introduced them to her before I was born. She identified with the lone cowboy protagonist central to the genre. Chafing under the white upper middle class gender roles expected of women, she was considered an oddball and outcast in her family. The freedom and autonomy of the western icon spoke to her soul and offered a fantasy she could fully immerse herself in. And, of course, there were the horses. If animal spirit guides exist, that’s what horses were for my mom.
During my late teens and early twenties, when the old westerns made a comeback on classic movie channels, I bonded with my mom over the favorites of her day. We spent many a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon huddled in front of the TV, watching the sagas of vengeance and justice playing out across desert landscapes and in dusty towns. Post viewing, we’d spend hours breaking down and analyzing the themes and character arcs and dishing about our favorite cowboys and whether the women were given enough agency for our feminist sensibilities. (The answer was usually “no” or “well, okay for the time period in which it was made.”) Sure, there have been other modern westerns, such as Unforgiven, The Missing, and Django Unchained. None of them resonated with that familiar satisfying mythical tale that I experienced from the old classics. (Not to mention the more modern versions were often as problematic regarding gender and/or race, if not more so, than their predecessors.) As soon as the opening credits of The Harder They Fall flashed on my TV screen last Saturday night, however, I felt the connection not only to the old classics, but to my mom’s spirit as well. It was like she was right there with me.
I was getting Once Upon a Time in the West vibes
Family legend goes that my mom was at home one afternoon minding her own business when she got a frantic phone call from her best friend C. C said to turn the TV on to this channel now. My mom did. C said, “Are there men standing at a train station?” “Yes,” Mom said. “Good, you’re on the right channel,” said C. “‘Bye!” Mom sat through the whole rest of Once Upon the Time in the West and was entranced. Years later, she introduced the movie to me, and I, too, became hooked. It’s a nearly three hour long epic, yet I was riveted. I was reminded of this movie at the beginning of The Harder They Fall. Similar to Once Upon a, the central story is about a traumatized child (Jonathan Majors) who grows up driven by a vendetta as his sole purpose. Bold, sweeping, panoramic tracking shots that show off our unique New Mexico landscape, as well as quietly tense moments that focus on a character’s face harkened back to the Sergio Leone technique. And then the music. Music that brings tears to your eyes. Turns out the multi-talented director and co-writer of THTF, Jeymes Samuel, is a singer-songwriter as well and wrote a lot of the movie’s stunning soundtrack.
I was getting The Magnificent Seven vibes
The clattering of horses’ hooves on the desert rock precedes the entrance of fun and charismatic gunslingers (RJ Cyler and Edi Gathegi). A similar dynamic characterized the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven. How gratifying now, though, for this group of people to be Black. TM7 was probably my mom’s second favorite Western, and my introduction to it at a young age went hand-in-hand with the innocence-shattering realization that compelling storytelling often involves killing off beloved characters. If you don’t care about the characters, you don’t care about the story. This enduring hope/fear of human survival drives The Harder They Fall as effectively as in the old classic.
All the other Western vibes
I mean, there are a lot of them. High Noon. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One-Eyed Jacks. Shane. Gunfight at O.K. Corral. The Harder They Fall resurrects the trope perfected and expected in the old western genre—the long, tense build-up to the climactic showdown. Whoo-ee, that was an experience and I was here for it. Jeymes Samuel really knows his westerns.
“I loved Westerns so much growing up that, when they invented Google, I began to research all these great characters that we never got to learn about through movies,” says Samuel in an interview with Adrian Gomez in the Albuquerque Journal.
The New Old Classic Western
Historically, 1/4 of all Cowboys were Black, although you wouldn’t know it from the westerns my mom watched with my dad and that I later watched with her. I bet my dad would really appreciate this movie now. My mom, too, for that matter. She’d particularly enjoy the strength of the three female characters, an embodiment that wasn’t cinematically available during her time. I wonder which one she would’ve preferred? Trudy’s cold efficiency and don’t fuck wit me attitude (Regina King)? Mary’s brash energy and sexual confidence (Zazie Beetz)? Cuffee’s gender fluidity and self-assuredness (Danielle Deadwyler)? I can only guess. Giving me yet one more way to connect with her in spirit as I rewatch The Harder They Fall.