Western Week: Open Range (2003)

Over the course of this week, I'll be looking at five Westerns from the past 20 years, a particularly fascinating period in a genre that has long since left its glory days, but continues to produce some gems.

"Seems like you got it all figure out." "Yeah... Except for the part where we don't get killed."

"Seems like you got it all figure out."
"Yeah... Except for the part where we don't get killed."

Adapted from: The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine

Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna

Written by: Craig Storper

Directed by: Kevin Costner

Open Range follows a small group of freegrazers, roaming the land in order to feed their herd of cattle. There's Boss Spearman (Duvall), an older freegrazer who's getting worn out with the life; Charley Waite (Costner) who knows no other life; Mose (Benrubie), a giant of a man and Button (Luna), a kid adopted by Spearman, still a little green but eager to learn. When they cross paths with rancher Denton Baxter (Gambon), they're entered into a battle for their very existence.

Lauran Paine was an incredibly prolific author with over 1000 works credited to that name and his various pseudonyms. His immersion in the history of the West (having written several non-fiction books on the topic too) gives the story a near-universal feel for that genre, but it also means there are times when it can feel quite cookie-cutter. There are, however, revisionist undercurrents running through it, something which is teased out beautifully by Storper's screenplay and Costner's direction. It's a novel of second chances and beginning again, for both Charley and the people he comes into contact with.

Costner is a fan of Paine's work and the affection for the material seeps through the fabric of the film, but he's not averse to making changes in order to streamline the narrative and broach deeper themes. A particular focus is on the inherent violence with the Western way of life and there's the tension that's always been at the heart of the Old West at play; the great American mythic individualism versus the humanity's need for belonging. Paine and Costner explore this tension through the freegrazers' relationship with the townsfolk; some people won't have anything to do with them, but those that the freegrazers have helped (rescuing a drowning puppy) are keen to lend a hand.

Costner's adaptation chooses to go for a real big finale, at first limited to just Boss and Charley, as they fight against Baxter's men in a classic genre shootout, but soon getting just about the entire cast of the film involved. It's the cinematic West where bullets fly, guns are slung and battles are won by the skins of teeth and whilst the set-piece is a divergence from the book, the aim of it stays true. It's a town uprising against the negative, individualistic conquest of Baxter and the townsfolk rebel against him to preserve not only their own businesses, but their way of life. They recognise that there is no future in one man controlling so much and use Boss and Charley's fight as a way to win back their freedom.

In the book, the final battle doesn't take place within the town, nor does it take place with Boss. He's shot on the sly by one of Baxter's riders, prompting Charley and the non-corrupt, conveniently arrived US Marshal to go after them, hunting down Baxter and his gang in a thrilling chase far away from Harmonville. In truth, it's a little anticlimactic, particularly if you viewed the film first, and it doesn't quite get that triumphant sense of revolution that Costner goes for in his own version of the finale. However, it does operate on similar themes. The law is on Charley's side, literally in the form of the US Marshal and Judge Ambrose Collins, cut from the film. It's a defiant statement from Paine about the need for community within the West which Costner retools into rebellion. The isolationism and liberty of the freegrazers isn't sustainable any longer and it's through the help of the townsfolk that Charley comes to realise that. 

Given his love of the genre, it's not surprising that Costner manages to get some good old fashioned Western romanticism into his tale, chiefly through the figure of Boss. In Paine's novel, Spearman is a relic, a man unable to change with the times and killed before he has the chance to. Costner instead keeps Boss alive, surviving to the end of the film and allowed his shot at running the town saloon and bringing Button up in a trade as he wished to do. The reprieve for the character gives the film a more hopeful ending instead of seeing Boss pass away alone in the doctor's home, killed by the life he was longing to break free from. 

At the heart of both film and novel, there's Button. Button's an interesting figure, though the majority of his story plays into the background of Charley and Boss' ongoing battles. They're the older generation, those who have seen war, survived it more or less, and trying to make their way in a world that's changing and moving away from them. Button, in contrast, is the changing time that Baxter wants to put a stop to and that Boss wants to protect. In the film, Button's body becomes the literal battleground over which the feud between Baxter and the freegrazers is fought as the boy is used as a hostage. Boss' role as protector over Button functions across both texts. He wants Button to settle down and learn a trade, to reject the ranching lifestyle in order to make something of himself. In the book, Charley contributes to this by donating half of his inheritance to Button. The boy stands as a symbol of a new beginning, granted one of his own by Boss and representing that chance for other characters. Sue Barlow, who tends Button, works in a similar fashion.

Her romantic relationship with Charley is given a greater weight in the film, one of the key changes from Paine's narrative. Both Sue and Charley are older than their literary counterparts, something which fits better with the ideas of second chances and renewal. Bening gives a wonderful performance in the film, possibly its best, as a woman who's seen a lot of violence in her life and has come to terms with its necessity as well as with the people who inflict it. She also functions as the catalyst for the Harmonville residents to get involved in the big fight as she tries to save Button, which again reinforces the idea that she represents new possibilities, both for Charley and the town, free from corruption.

My one disappointment with the film as an adaptation revolves around Sue, who is proposed to by Charley, returning for her instead of riding away on his own (there's that individualism versus community again). In the book, he attempts to make a bumbling admission of his love for her until she seizes the initiative and ends up proposing to him herself. It's a really nice twist on the usual Western gender roles and it would've been brilliant to see this transferred across, particularly because Bening is so good in the role. Not only that, but it would have worked better for her character, acting as she does as Charley's shot at a new beginning. 

In both Lauran Paine's novel and Kevin Costner's film, Open Range starts as if it's going to be yet another tale of strangers passing through a town, causing trouble and then buggering off again. Instead, it's an elegy to a dying way of life, evolving into an ode to the importance of community and the hope that comes with a second chance.