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Audrey Kupferberg: News Of The World, Deadwood

Audrey Kupferberg

The most recent film from Tom Hanks is a 21st Century Western called News of the World.  After a few months of limited availability, this film is now widely viewable on home devices.

It is a 21st Century Western not only because its original release date is Christmas 2020, but by definition.  Westerns throughout the 20th Century tended to be formulaic.  Low budget B Westerns were made to thrill the neighborhood kids on weekend matinee days, but plenty of adults shared in the fun.  Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes, “Hopalong” Cassidy, George O’Brien, even John Wayne starred.  So many more familiar faces making hour-long action pictures. Each film had rustlers, dance-hall girls, gunfights, and good-hearted settlers sleeping in mud-covered dugouts and eking out livings where farming and grazing land were scarce. 

Then there were the 20th Century classic Westerns, with higher budgets; in some cases, they are masterpieces of cinema:  Stagecoach, Red River, My Darling Clementine, Shane, The Wild Bunch, How the West Was Won.  Films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, and later Sam Peckinpah.

Although News of the World hardly measures up to the best of the Western genre, it is a fine entertainment.  As a recent Western, the film shows the unsettled world of post-war Texas as more than a cliché; it is at times a bleak uncivilized place where people talk and act with brutality.  The realist style is taken into consideration.  Even the settlers, who often used to be portrayed as stereotypical kindly family folk here are portrayed as shamefully callous.

Tom Hanks plays a veteran captain of the Army of the Confederacy who travels through Texas among the crestfallen Southern population.  He makes a living by reading newspapers and giving recitations about interesting news items to inform those willing to pay a dime for the opportunity.  Along his route, he discovers a sullen blonde girl in Kiowa garb who speaks the Kiowa language.  Circumstances make it difficult for him to part with the child. That’s the crux of the plot.

Hanks is the only living actor I can see in this role.  His character is mild-mannered, kindly, but ruthless about protecting the child.  He is, simply-speaking, a good man in a troubled world.  If times were different, the character would have been played by James Stewart, another star whose eyes bespoke rock-solid goodness. 

Of course, the more time the child and her unwilling caretaker spend together, the more intricate their relationship becomes.  The more people they run across—most of them unpleasant-- the more challenging it becomes to place the child.  Even with a cast that includes more than a few good-for-nothings, there is an emphasis on moments of warmth and sentimentality.

Seeing News of the World brought me back to my deep appreciation for the HBO series Deadwood from 2004-2006, one of the finest examples of the Western genre ever made.  I just took a second look at the 2019 sequel Deadwood: The Movie.  Created by David Milch, all the parts of Deadwood are examples of the modern Western genre.  The characters include truthful interpretations of Calamity Jane and her lesbian lover; plus the most powerful man in town -- the saloon owner.  There also are the whores, the corrupt politician, the ghettoized Chinese, the black man who remains an outsider, and the admirable lawman and his partner in business-- the pushcart Jew who becomes a department store owner.  Milch drew gritty details of Deadwood with historical accuracy.  It’s the Wild West after all, so... some drink too much.  Some cuss in disgusting ways.  Some maim and murder.  Corpses of badmen get thrown to the pigs for dinner.  Some are decent folks.

News of the World is fine entertainment. No doubts about it.  But Deadwood is a classic, a brilliant creation, not for the little tots, but exciting -- a master work.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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