10 great acid westerns

Turn off your mind, relax and saddle up…

9 January 2020

By Matthew Thrift

El Topo (1970)

The western, for better or worse, has always been the American cinema’s most versatile genre when it comes to reflecting the concerns of a given era. Whether revisionist, apologist or mythologically-inclined, it’s usually not too difficult to take a stab at a given film’s year of production (give or take) on the basis of what’s bubbling under the surface of its ubiquitous, shared iconography.

If the 1950s saw a shift towards psychological concerns, and the 1960s rang the death knell of what might be called the ‘classical’ western, the emergence of the counterculture and the New Hollywood movement in the 1970s saw an unprecedented subgenre take root, one informed by notions of social upheaval and copious amounts of mind-altering substances.

The term ‘acid western’ is an elusive one. First coined by Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), it wasn’t until 2000 and the publication of his monograph on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) for the BFI Modern Classics series that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum would expand upon the terminology more specifically.

“What I partly mean by acid westerns,” wrote Rosenbaum, “are revisionist westerns in which American history is reinterpreted to make room for peyote visions and related hallucinogenic experiences, LSD trips in particular.” He distinguishes these from the “less radical… upheaval of generic norms” that colour “the influence of marijuana on the drifting, nonlinear aspects of the style of McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971),” setting the ‘acid western’ apart from what he calls the ‘pot western’.

Encompassing the novels of Rudolph Wurlitzer and Jim McBride, Rosenbaum’s cited examples prove pretty comprehensive within his defined parameters; all challenging films that expand and interrogate questions of genre and the sociocultural circumstances of their creation.

Here are 10 of the best.

The Shooting (1966)

Director: Monte Hellman

The Shooting (1966)

Whether the stuff of urban legend or sage advice from those in the know, LSD lore suggests it’s a bad idea to stare at your own reflection on a trip. It’s a notion that informs Monte Hellman’s radical, Beckettian western The Shooting, a film that holds up a distorting mirror to both genre conventions and the existential trek of its leading man, Warren Oates’ Willett Gashade.

“The reason for the hunt is the kill,” says the unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who’s enlisted Gashade to take her to the town of Kingsley. They’re being followed by a mysterious gunslinger (Jack Nicholson), but the roles of hunter and hunted prove as mutable as Hellman’s take on the genre signifiers of the American western. The ambiguous doubling effects that begin with Perkins and Nicholson’s enigmatic similarities reach a dizzying, abstracted peak at the end of Gashade’s journey, a crippling traipse that suggests allusions to both Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Sartre’s No Exit. The first acid oater, perhaps, and one Rosenbaum described as “the best western Alain Resnais never made”.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Director: Monte Hellman

Shot back-to-back with The Shooting on Roger Corman’s dime, this time from a script by Jack Nicholson, Ride in the Whirlwind might be the more conventional of Monte Hellman’s western diptych, but it’s no less emblematic of the duo’s countercultural means and ideals.

Surface iconography puts us in familiar genre territory, but Hellman – as with the first of the 2 films – sets out to recalibrate the priorities of the western. Not as Budd Boetticher had in moral terms, or Anthony Mann had in psychological, but through his own existentially inquisitive and ambiguous visual strategies. It’s a modernist approach that shares more with Antonioni than any of his native contemporaries, albeit replacing that filmmaker’s Xanax hum with a more potent brew of elliptical distortions.

Unlike the sun-baked plains of The Shooting, here boxed-in canyons dwarf the protagonists – men at once impotent against and perturbed by the mythic forces of landscape and genre they find themselves pinned down by. 

El Topo (1970)

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

El Topo (1970)

When Pauline Kael coined the term ‘acid western’ to describe Alejandro Jodorowsky’s singular brain-melter El Topo, it was hardly from a position of approval. “The counterculture is buying mystical violence,” she wrote, taking aim at the stoner crowd who flocked to its initial midnight run at New York’s Elgin Theater. Exactly the audience the Chilean filmmaker was courting, it seems – one “eager to mutate and move to a higher level of consciousness”.

With its creator kitted out as a gunslinger dressed in black, the opening minutes might suggest a surrealist, Buñuellian take on the spaghetti western, but good luck trying to decode what follows in anything approaching either literal or allegorical terms. Pregnant with arcane religious symbolism that leaps from New Testament to Siddhartha, Jodorowsky described it as an ‘eastern’ – “incorporating ancient eastern wisdom in the materiality of American cowboys”. Better to just kick back like those midnight crowds (which included superfans John Lennon and Yoko Ono) and take flight with its myriad, visionary eccentricities.

A Girl Is a Gun (1971)

Director: Luc Moullet

A Girl Is a Gun (1971)

With McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Hired Hand, Red Sun and The Beguiled to add to the 4 films we’ve included here, it seems 1971 was quite the year for watching the western get weird. Few come as kooky as this larkish number from the far fringes of the French New Wave, a no-budget genre reduction that sees the movement’s poster boy, Jean-Pierre Léaud, take on the legend of Billy the Kid.

Affectionately piss-taking in its riffs on the American western, there’s little plot to speak of, and little by way of intelligible dialogue; in fact, a brief appearance on US DVD saw the film unsubtitled and nonsensically dubbed at its director’s bidding. Edited by Jean Eustache (future director of The Mother and the Whore) and with imposing landscapes part of a visual scheme to die for, its trippy rhythms and two-handed, farcical ramblings play like a spoof of Philippe Garrel’s La Cicatrice intérieure (1972) a year ahead of time. The UK is still waiting for the Luc Moullet retrospective that played Paris a decade back; any chance to see this one on the big screen can’t come soon enough.

Zachariah (1971)

Director: George Englund

“Howdy stranger! What ya do, lose a wheel off yer horse?” asks an unrecognisably youthful Don Johnson of his pal Zachariah (John Rubinstein), doubling down on the preceding anachronism that saw an acid rock band shredding it in the desert as the titular wannabe-gunslinger rides by, en route to opening his mail-ordered pistol.

Billed as “the first electric western”, this loose adaptation of that ubiquitously appropriated countercultural text, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, is a musical of sorts, setting its tune-in-drop-out-go-find-yourself narrative against all manner of far-out numbers from the likes of Country Joe and the Fish.

Charmingly silly, and entirely of its moment, it’s worth the entrance price alone for jazz drummer Elvin Jones’ appearance as super-villain Job Cain, who gets to shoot a man down before strolling to his kit to sock out a killer solo.

Glen and Randa (1971)

Director: Jim McBride

Glen and Randa (1971)

In the chapter on the acid western in his Dead Man monograph, Rosenbaum expanded his definition beyond the parameters of the historical genre film to include those based on models “derived from westerns… an important part [being] the replacement of capitalism with alternative models of social exchange proposed by the counter-culture that took roots during the 60s”.

Along with Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Alex Cox’s Walker (1987), Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa is one such cited example, a post-apocalyptic road movie that, while set some decades in the future, appears to exist out of time, if seemingly haunted by the ghost of the western. Neither utopian nor dystopian, the film opens with the titular couple naked in the woods, an Adam and Eve born after civilisation’s fall. Amid the detritus of America’s collapse – seemingly lost to ecological catastrophe – the couple set off in search of ‘Metropolis’, the city Glen has read about in old Marvel comics. With the old ways of living largely forgotten, these 2 idealistic naifs forge their own definitions in relation to each other and the world around them, on a journey to build anew in the wreckage of the 20th century.

The Last Movie (1971)

Director: Dennis Hopper

The Last Movie (1971)

Riding high on the unprecedented success of Easy Rider (1969), Dennis Hopper set off to Peru to build his directing career a coffin. For years, his second feature, The Last Movie, was almost impossible to see, its reputation resting on the near-mythological tales of madness that surrounded its making. Beautifully restored in 2018, this ugly duckling of the New Hollywood movement is now readily available to puzzle over anew.

Edited down from some 40-odd hours of footage – with an early, rejected cut reported to have been made by Alejandro Jodorowsky – there’s little denying The Last Movie’s psychedelic properties, given how much acid was dropped during its creation. A western – or rather a Peruvian – about the making of a western, it’s an endlessly self-reflexive trip trading in questions of ritual and exploitation. Stewart Stern (Rebel without a Cause) wrote the screenplay that Hopper threw out, citing Godard’s mandate that a film needs “a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. One of the most defiantly avant garde and exhilarating works to come from a major Hollywood player in any era, it was described by Hopper in a 2007 filmed introduction as “not a very pleasant experience for most audiences”. What does he know?

Greaser’s Palace (1972)

Director: Robert Downey

Greaser’s Palace (1972)

“An extraordinary American vision of something or other,” was how director Jonathan Demme described Greaser’s Palace, “[a film] with no eye on the marketplace whatsoever.” He was in conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson – another major Robert Downey stan – at the Austin Film Festival, attempting to get a handle on the myriad pleasures of this little seen gem.

Appreciation for Downey’s work has been pendulous over the years, if now firmly in the rediscovered and appreciated camp thanks to a Criterion Eclipse set back in 2012. He emerged from the New York avant garde scene, and is best known for cult favourite Putney Swope (1969) – as well as siring a certain Iron Man – though Greaser’s Palace saw him up-sticks from his usual urban stomping ground to shoot a Christ parable (of sorts) in New Mexico. Said definition does little to convey this filthy, violent and hilarious little exploitation number, packed with long takes, musical numbers and few concessions to mainstream culture or taste. A wild ride with a doozy of a final shot; Inherent Vice (2014) fans will dig.

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Director: Clint Eastwood

High Plains Drifter (1973)

A stranger emerges from the desert, as if from nothing, and rides into the town of Lago. Hired by the “god-fearing” townspeople to protect them from the 3 outlaws about to be released from jail, he begins a systematic deconstruction of the town’s social, economic and political hierarchies, before painting it entirely red and renaming it ‘Hell’. His agenda – perhaps tied to the death of the lookalike sheriff we glimpse in dream and flashback – appears to be the town’s total obliteration, punishment for the moral decay of its inhabitants; before he vanishes, like a spectre, back into thin air.

Less a subversion than a pointed desecration of western iconography, with its weird, sci-fi soundscape High Plains Drifter is more alien than revisionist in its genre reconfigurations. Not everyone was impressed, as John Wayne wrote in an unanswered letter to Clint: “That isn’t what the west was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” It’s amazing enough to think this was a mere second feature – a studio picture at that – let alone a second feature from a star of Eastwood’s standing.

Dead Man (1995)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Dead Man (1995)

A spectral presence also haunts the purgatorial netherworlds of Jim Jarmusch’s greatest film, the 1995 monochrome western Dead Man. Johnny Depp is William Blake, a clerk headed for the town of Machine – “the end of the line”. It’s a journey into death, a Dantean odyssey guided by a Native American Virgil called Nobody (Gary Farmer). If psychedelics serve as a vessel for self-detachment, the sense of disembodiment is echoed in that name, and in Nobody’s insistence that Blake is in fact the 18th-century poet and artist.

As with the Eastwood film, Dead Man seeks to question its protagonist’s relationship to genre iconography, not least the landscape and questions of Native American representation. It’s a dislocating experience, one that seems to unfold out of space and time, fuelled by the repetitive soundscape of Neil Young’s improvised electric dirge. A hallucinatory meditation on death, and by extension the death of a genre, it’s perhaps the richest and most cohesive of acid westerns.

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