OPEN RANGE and THE ALAMO (DVD): The return of the real Westerns?

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OPEN RANGE and THE ALAMO (DVD): The return of the real Westerns?

Recently the Kevin Costner movie Dragonfly from 2002 turned up on television. You'd probably never heard of it. I hadn't.

It's hard to believe that after Dances with Wolves of 1990 and the inexplicably popular The Bodyguard of just two years later that it could all go downhill so fast for Costner.

Just three years after getting up close and personal with Whitney he was floundering with Waterworld then riding into oblivion with The Postman. Sure, Tin Cup was okay but the tight-lipped monotone which is Costner's aural signature hasn't been heard much on the big screens lately.

Thirteen Days and the romantic weepy Message in a Bottle had short runs, but did For Love of the Game and 3000 Miles to Graceland ever make it to cinemas in New Zealand?

Costner's best film since Wolves came out in 2004 -- and went straight to DVD here despite a double-page spread in Time on its release. It is Open Range and has Costner at his most taciturn. Perfect for a loner cowboy riding to escape his murderous past.

And right there -- the big landscape, the loner, the man with a past -- you can feel the leather of a classic western. Add in Robert Duvall as the weatherbeaten trail boss, a town in the grip of an Irish bullyboy cattle baron (Michael Gambon), and Annette Bening as the minor love interest and you can almost feel this story in your saddle bags.

Taken at a leisurely pace before it explodes to a climax, Open Range has much in common with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, but where Eastwood injected humour and rounded characters, Open Range is almost wilfully narrow in its narrative and characterisation.

And yet because the words between Costner and Duvall are few and measured, they carry weight. These are men alone and this is a classic, elemental western, which didn't deserve to go direct to disc. And today it languishes in the discount bins.

Another that disappeared immediately to DVD was The Alamo of '04 starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton and Jason Patric. It tanked in the States, a victim of the American political climate at the time.

alamoThe bad news from Iraq was getting worse as the body count climbed and pictures from Abu Ghraib were appearing. A movie about a defeat in America's history wasn't going to capture the public mood. It failed for the same reasons as the excellent televison series Over There went down.

Yet The Alamo is an epic with more fatalistic grimness than the old, heroic, John Wayne version.

Yes, it is flawed: Quaid as Sam Houston acts like a man with a particularly nasty haemorrhoid problem; Patric as Jim Bowie is far too tanned and good-looking to be a man on his deathbed suffering a fatal combination of consumption and alcoholism; and the script is occasionally sunk by some jut-jawed speechifying.

But mostly The Alamo is an old-style epic with modern gritty realism. The star is Thornton as the down-home, self-effacing Davy Crockett who arrives at the Alamo full of bonhomie and yarns until he realises help jest ain't a-comin and these boys is all doomed to Hell.

The set is persuasively realistic -- they constructed a life-size replica of the Alamo mission and the town of San Antonio near Austin, Texas -- and by taking the story beyond the massacre into the subsequent defeat of Mexican general Santa Ana (played with malevolent relish by Emilio Echeverria) this is a big picture with a feel for detail.

Stateside it was controversial because some of it was based on a Mexican soldier's diary (he said Crockett was captured and killed, and didn't die in battle as tradition states) but that hardly matters to us.

The Alamo, like Open Range, is a movie you deserved to see on the big screen. But at least you can now enjoy them with cannon fire and gunshots fed through your home speakers.

And at budget price too. 

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