WALTER HILL ON 'THE COWBOY ILIAD' (PART 3 OF 3)


Walter Hill made his name as the screenwriter of the Sam Peckinpah classic THE GETAWAY (1972), and following his directorial debut in 1975 with HARD TIMES, went on to establish himself as one of Hollywood's biggest filmmakers, achieving success and acclaim across many genres: the Western (THE LONG RIDERS, GERONIMO, WILD BILL, BROKEN TRAIL, the pilot to the Deadwood TV series); crime movies influenced by noir, the Western or ancient Greek literature (THE DRIVER, THE WARRIORS, 48 HRS, STREETS OF FIRE, EXTREME PREJUDICE, RED HEAT, JOHNNY HANDSOME, TRESPASS, LAST MAN STANDING, A BULLET TO THE HEAD, THE ASSIGNMENT) and comedy (BREWSTER'S MILLIONS). He also co-wrote and co-produced the first three ALIEN films (1979-92), and was an executive producer on the anthology TV horror series Tales from the Crypt (1989-96). Hill is most closely associated with the Western genre, and he returns to the Old West with his new project, the audiobook The Cowboy Iliad - A Legend Told in the Spoken Word. It tells the story of a legendary shootout that occurred in Newton, Kansas in 1871. Produced by Bobby Woods, with music by Les Deux Love Orchestra, the album is narrated by Hill himself. In the final part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Hill about being in line to direct John Wayne's last film THE SHOOTIST (1976); how he feels about the resurgence of interest in his work; whether he considers the Western to be the true American genre, and whether he believes the Spaghetti Western helped to kill off Westerns. 

Parts one and two of the interview.

Is it true that after seeing HARD TIMES, John Wayne wanted you to direct THE SHOOTIST?
Well, what happened was, I had done HARD TIMES and the producer of THE SHOOTIST sent me the script. At the same time, he also sent HARD TIMES to Mr. Wayne down in Newport. Wayne ran the film and evidently liked it and wanted to see me about doing the movie. I read the script and I didn't like it, to tell you the truth, so I begged out of the situation. It wasn't a bad script, I don't mean that. It was that it wasn't perfectly to my taste and I just thought that I didn't want to see John Wayne dying of cancer in a movie. I wanted to see him in RED RIVER (1948) or something. THE SHOOTIST turned out to be his last film, and it turned out he was dying of cancer himself. This sounds small of me, and I don't wish it to come across in a mean way, but I was not really fond of the movie when it was made. I thought I was, in a sense, right. It seems to me his last film was really TRUE GRIT (1969). That's the way I like to think of him in my head, saying goodbye. I didn't know him or anything like that, though. We never met about the film.

You've had a very long career, starting as a screenwriter and then as a writer-director, and recently there's been a resurgence of interest in your back catalogue, with THE DRIVER being cited as influences on DRIVE (2011) and BABY DRIVER (2017), for example. How does that make you feel?
I think attention is great. I mean, you do make these things for audiences, but you kind of make them for yourself and you hope somebody else is interested in watching. It makes an old man happy to think somebody is interested in his stuff and wants to look at it.

I got a call last night that 900 people listened to The Cowboy Iliad on one of the outlets, and we expected to not even move one unit. This was absolutely done for the fun of it. The idea that it would be a commercial enterprise is something we still laugh about! But I'm glad that are some people interested in it. I dedicated it to 'the old cowboy on the porch' and I have to think that's probably who's listening. That dedication came out of a joke really. Bobby asked me ''Who the hell do you think the audience is for this thing?'' I said ''Well, there are very few left, but there are some old guys. They sit on rocking chairs on their porch. They usually are in the summer. Most of them are in Kentucky and Tennessee and Oklohoma and places like that. They might be interested. That's our audience!'' I said ''My daughters are not going to rush out to hear it!''

Do you feel that the Western is the true American genre?
No. We are a big country. We are evolving. I don't think the Western is any truer of America than noir films. I love noirs. I think the dark and underside of America is better shown with the noir films. They are just as true. I think there's something about Westerns that are true in a positive way even when the stories are negative. They are very positive about American feelings about America. I think there's that to be said. They have declined and the decline was inevitable. They are never going to be what they were. In a sense, it's physically impossible. The audience has lost its collective memory of their agrarian past. My parents and my grandparents talked about country things that meant a lot to them, and so Westerns meant something very different to them than they do, say, to my daughters, who grew up in the big city, and their parents lived in the big city. The evolving part of the large audience that Westerns, and all films, have to have is not there anymore. Also, the Western genre has been largely exhausted. There were so many endless variations on the genre from the 1930s to the 1960s. The other thing is that the Western, of all the classic film genres, is the easiest, and most subject to parody. I think once you move something, even in the most half-assed way, over to the parodic category, it's something that you never quite get back into the mainstream.

Do you think the Spaghetti Western genre killed off the traditional Western?
Well, I think you could make the argument. I don't mean to sound like a Smart Alec but in a sense, the Spaghetti Westerns were parodic in themselves. They took the kind of 'highs' if you will of the kind of classic Western stories and were kind of operatic pastiches. They don't go five minutes without a gunfight. When you look at the really classic Westerns of the 30s, 40s and 50s, that's not the way they were. They had action sequences, but the Italian Westerns became something very different. I've heard very serious arguments about whether or not they are even Westerns. Are they really more operas than Westerns? I'll leave all that to people smarter than I am! 

The Cowboy Iliad is available on Amazon on CD, MP3, and as a companion book, written by Walter Hill. 

Extract from the audiobook.

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.