Dec 8 2008 10:29am

Once Upon a Time in the West…and Space

Once Upon A Time In The WestWesterns and Science Fiction: Two cinematic genres that beautifully blend together despite their surface disparities. Both have a long history of adventures in wild frontiers; heroes vs. villains; noble, yet formidable goals; and blinding spurts of naked violence.

The two complement each other superbly. And as any Star Wars fan worth her tauntaun will tell you, George Lucas realized this, too. The Bearded One drew heavily from John Ford, along with Akira Kurosawa (also a Ford devotee).

Other SF epics by way of a Lash LaRue approved trail include: Star Trek, the “Wagon Train To The Stars”; 1981’s Outland, which is essentially High Noon transplanted to Io; and don’t forget the eloquent reinvention of The Magnificent Seven that was Battle Beyond the Stars. Recently, Josh Whedon also took up the mantle with Firefly and Serenity.

But there’s one more comparison you may not have considered—and its influence is as wide as the Montana sky. It involves two geniuses—one Italian and one Japanese.

Think you can guess the outcome…?

My trip to Sergio Leone Land happened ass-backwards.

I was a fan of science fiction films (largely space westerns) before I had watched a single actual Western. Even so, I understood—or thought I did—the whole Western influence/motif in SF films. Frankly, that aspect was part of the appeal (I’m looking at you, Bat Durston).

But that wasn’t the half of it, as I later discovered.

Everything changed the moment I watched a wee li’l film called Once Upon A Time in the West awhile back. As I sat in awe of this sweeping tale, many of the elements in the film seemed incredibly familiar to me.

Then, the answer hit me. I had seen them all before, drawn in the sea of stars.

Unbeknownst to my 12-year-old self racing home after school to catch the next episode of Star Blazers, Leiji Matsumoto had been channeling Sergio Leone in space. And you know what? It worked. The same elements were all there, it was just the milieu that changed. Cinematically speaking, space really was the new West.

Now if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking in one of Signore Leone’s epics recently, let me visually connect this for you.

Clint Eastwood

When most of us think of Westerns today, one of the first images that typically flashes through our minds is that of a hard-bitten, squinty-eyed Clint Eastwood with complementary dusty hat and poncho ensemble, right?

TochiroNow transpose that indelible image over Captain Harlock, the stalwart antihero from Matsumoto, and factor in Tochiro, Harlock’s compatriot and confident. Keep in mind that the latter also prefers a wide-brimmed hat and poncho—and even possesses more than just a passing resemblance to Sergio himself.

Then there are many of the shot compositions: Tiny, lonely figures set against a vast sea of unforgiving terrain. Whether it’s the Yamato or Arcadia rising against the blackness of space, or the silhouette of a mysterious equestrian defying the yawning desert expanse, these scenes connote the same emotion (that being coolness multiplied by 100).

Now throw in the indelible soundtracks of both directors. Instead of just mincing words, I’ll let your ears drink in the stirring goodness from Ennio Morricone (OUATITW) and Hiroshi Miyagawa (Yamato), respectively:

Rousing, aren’t they?

In addition to the music, both Leone and Matsumoto also carry a strong feeling of romance throughout their work.

To wit: In the world of Harlock, the short, rotund figure of Tochiro is a valiant hero who bags delicious babes like Queen Emeraldas just as Jill (Claudia Cardinale) swoons for Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson)—handsome men in their prime, but hardly the Tiger Beat endorsements you’d see cast today (and that’s a real pity).

I’d like to see more filmmakers today take up the Western mantle as Matsumoto does. And what about you...? What other “Sci-fi meets the Old West” tales do you appreciate?


Essential Matsumoto:
Uchu Senkan Yamato
Saraba, Uchuu Senkan Yamato
My Youth in Arcadia

Essential Sergio Leone:
Shoot…all of ’em!

1. Akheloios
The classic one was the original Battlestar Galactica. Which, unlike Star Trek, actually was a wagon train in space, constantly under attack from 'space indians'.

It was 1950's TV Western updated with shiny chrome and rocket horses. It did get a bit too Mormon in the end, with the angels and false prophets, which detracted from it's eye candy straightforwardness. Also like a Western, it's treatment of the 'enemy' as bloodthirsty savages hellbent on exterminating our 'heroes' was classic 1950s, racist and imperialist.

The whole 'space indians' theme seemed to have been copied by Firefly but the movie actually redeemed the sci-fi western genre when it actually raised the issue that those 'space indians' were driven into it by barbaric treatment on the part of the government. A nice break from traditional western cliché, and much more historically accurate than the manifest destiny race to conquer imperialist history of most westerns.
Patrick Regan
2. tazo85
Well, if we're going to talk anime, there's also the seminal "Cowboy Bebop" to consider, although it's not quite as visibly obvious (aside from the Big Shot and the space cowboy episode), it's clearly and overtly based on Old West, cowboy bounty hunters living nomadic space existences?

Oh yes.

Oh, and of course Trigun, which has less space, but makes up for it with more desert. And really, really awesome guns. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, I think the subtitle for Trigun is "Deep Space Future Gun Action!"
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
You mention The Magnificent Seven but it is itself a retelling of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (which has also been readapted as an SF-genre anime: Samurai 7)

I'll also add Bilal's Exterminateur 17 (also available in English I believe) as a good SF story using (some) old west imagery.
Heather Massey
4. sfrgalaxy
Akheloios--spot on.

Tazo85, excellent input, thank you!

Cybernetic_nomad, don't get me started on Seven Samurai! Luuurrvv it. Didn't want to overload the post or I would have mentioned it. I remember reading that John Sayles said M7 was a big inspiration for BBTS but I couldn't help but think Seven Samurai had something to do with inspiring him as well.

And thanks for that Exterminateur 17 suggestion. Haven't read it but the name is so exotic I'm intrigued. Will have to check it out.

Thanks for reading, everyone!
Heather Massey
6. sfrgalaxy
Hi, Roger! Yeah! And everyone should go check out Roger's great piece on Once Upon A Time--The Revolution:

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