From Steampunk to Space Cowboys: Movies That Combine Sci-Fi and Western Sensibilities

Sheriff! There’s a stranger rid into town and he ain’t using no horse!

As you might imagine, the subject of cowboys and SF is in the front row because of Cowboys and Aliens opening this past weekend. The question is: just how did moviemakers get from westerns to outer space so effortlessly? How is it the horsepower age became an endless source of plasma drive adventures? Just as important – how successful have these films been – classics or tagged for disposal in the local black hole?

Here’s how Film Junk looks at it.

First, a director will set his or her film on a vast frontier. Then add a rugged individualist (maybe even an outlaw or a bounty hunter). Make law and order shaky at best. Mix in an ethnic conflict or a territorial dispute and explore the moral dilemmas. What do you have? A western or science fiction? What’s on their heads – hats or space helmets? And even with that giveaway, some of our best filmmakers have still found ways to blend these two genres into engaging films that stand on their own.

Basically, westerns and science fiction share the same narrative roots. The powerful mythos established by movies like Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, and 3:10 to Yuma has been hard wired by endless repetition. However, the interest in Westerns waned as technology and science waxed into a new moon. These growing cultural streams motivated filmmakers to explore the classic western themes in this fresh setting. Soon the old west was inspiring new science fiction dramas with support from one of these technologies – CGI.

No easy categorization for ScFWest films

The best and most challenging of these ScFWests (pronounced “scefwest”) are a fusion of western elements and SF tropes. They deliver an engaging story, memorable characters, and a great cinematic experience. It’s in the details. Let Spock explain: “I was asked to knock out a bad guy with the butt of my phaser. I suggested the neck pinch which was more in keeping with my character and our setting”. At their best, these fusion films absorb the western elements so deeply, they disappear in the reality of the SF story.

Other variations like mash-ups and techno

Other ScFWests are like mash-ups. They use classic Western elements (the bounty hunter, the renegade, the lawless frontier, the duel) and tapestry them into an appealing story, stitched together with SFX. Pasting in other genres (e.g. war movies, horror stories or swords and sandals) is OK too, although cinephiles may get a little slap happy keeping up with all the allusions.

Some film directors have moved technology concepts back in time and created the steampunk style. It’s stuffed with technology that seems to have been frozen in an earlier era. Your piece of cake if you like anachronisms.

Hey! That’s my idea.

Another common style is the homage/rip-off. This category is the trickiest because you need to have been there when the first gleam of the idea came about. (If you want to know what I mean, google Harlan Ellison and James Cameron for details on their settlement re: The Terminator). Is it an original idea, an homage, or a rip-off? An existing story can let a director ascend to brilliance (e.g. Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight) or crash and burn (same director for you know what). Whichever side of that debate you come down on, there’s no arguing that some of the best ScFWests are in this category.

As always in these discussions, there is a “What were they thinking category”. See if you can spot the candidates from the following list. (There is also one gem that’s been hidden from a wider audience for years).

The Phantom Empire (1935)

(Possibly the first ScFWest?) Who would have expected this film (inspired by tooth extraction drugs) to be the breakout vehicle for Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy and his horse Champion. The creative premise was the existence of a superior race of humans called Muranians who lived beneath Autry’s ranch. In the movie (as in real life) Autry was contractually obligated to do a weekly radio musical. Only the Muranians were in the way. With this kind of tension built into the plot, radio listeners were forgiven the occasional fainting spell.

Serenity (2005)

Absolutely one of the best fusion SF films, in Serenity, a gang of misfits comes together after a galactic civil war has left them as outlaws on the losing side. The western cues range from subtle to overt but characters and story are the heart of this great effort. A darkish leader, counter-intuitive relationships, and unconventional character mixes make you want more.

Wild Wild West (1999)

Here’s a Will Smith vehicle that never quite reached the heights of his other films. Perhaps it was the steampunk tone that permeated the pseudo-science and anachronistic gadgets in the Western setting. Audiences were torn between real and fantasy and never engaged with the premise.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

This was a pretty obvious attempt to inject new spirit into the franchise by leveraging the western dynamic into the story of Marty and the Doc. It didn’t work. You can layer the west onto an idea but if you’re not paying attention all you’ll get is wallpaper for six year olds.

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982)

The underappreciated Fred Ward had his chance for stardom in this time travel story. Riding his motorcycle in the desert, he blows through a time machine force field (don’t ask) and he and his bike lose a full century, ending up in the American west. Outlaws, a love interest, and confusion about his mechanical horse just didn’t come close to a classic. But Fred learned to act as he demonstrated acting toe-to-toe with Kevin Bacon in the awesome Tremors.

Star Wars (1977)

Our best exemplar of mash-up is Star Wars. Lucas leaves no Western trope unturned in his sterling effort to recreate the heroes and settings of his youth’s favorite movies. The motivations are simple, the characters are archetypes and they don’t get confused by complex philosophical issues. Their appeal is in their simplicity and predictability and the extravagant sights in which they are wrapped.

Westworld (1973)

Not really a Western per se, the film is about an adult theme park with three sections populated by realistic androids: Roman World, Medieval World, and Westworld. Guests live out their fantasies until the androids glitch out, turning the tables the park visitors in deadly fashion. In the shape of things to come, Yul Brynner essays a great role as a gunslinger turned terminator.

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

Yes this is real. On the run, Jesse James finds shelter in the castle of Maria, Baron Frankenstein’s granddaughter. Maria sees an opportunity to further her grandfather’s work by doing a brain transplant on Jesse’s sidekick, the already not-to-bright Hank. I can’t write about this anymore – you’ll just have to see it yourself.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

In order to boost attendance for a wild west show, James Franciscus as Tuck Kirby hears of a lost valley in Mexico with rumours of unusual animals. Before the second reel, Tuck finds himself in The Forbidden Valley looking for a T-Rex. He settles for an allosaurus named Gwangi who doesn’t like public life in the show. Notable for Ray Harryhausen special effects.

Space Rage (1985)

More Australian memoir than SF adventure, the narrative follows a convicted bank robber sent to the New Botany Bay prison on Proxima Centauri. There are no jails or cells – the planet has little to recommend it and the only way out is through the spaceport. Directed by Conrad E. Palmisano – who made his reputation as a stuntman – it’s a lift of Escape from New York. Although the pseudo-western elements proliferate, the SF is pretty much all in the title. Only for masochistic cinephiles.

Outland (1981)

This movie is powerful cinema. Sean Connery plays the Marshall of a mining town on the Saturn moon Io. For the managers, miners, and staff who are unfortunate enough to be there, it’s a grinding existence. The visual texture is understated, gritty, and ultimately believable. The acting is first rate – Connery especially as the taciturn Marshall who finds his deputies and friends deserting him as the hired guns arrive to take him out. By now you know the story is High Noon and Director Peter Hyams re-renders it marvelously with the spirit and authenticity of the original intact.

Avatar (2009)

A compelling blend of story and movie technology, Avatar has set the bar for the next decade. In spite of the monumental accomplishment of creating a new world in exquisite detail, one couldn’t help get the feeling that the story came second to the visuals. Nonetheless there was enough effective use of real SF principles (e.g. the idea of the avatar), intensity from the actors, and extravagantly realized planetscape that it will be a benchmark for all who follow.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

This movie is arguably the most unique blend of pulp and cheese ever made. As such is arguably the source code for some of the best and worst SF films we have seen since it was released in 1980. Unashamedly lifting the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven storyline, Richard Thomas (yes that Richard Thomas) leads a gang of mercenaries as they try to stop Lord Sador from turning their world into a sun. Fortunately the other gang members come with more swagger e.g. George Peppard, Robert Vaughan, Sybil Danning (think Frazetta). As for pedigree, Corman, Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd all had a hand in this effort. Spoiler alert: mimes were hired to play androids – how does that work for ya’.

Where do we go from here?

You could say there’s no way Cowboys and Aliens is going to work. (As of this writing, I haven’t seen it). It’s one thing to insert a western morality story into an SF setting (e.g Dances with Wolves and Avatar). But it’s totally different to mash historical periods with genre conventions – like Spartacus Meets the Saucermen. On the other hand the creative talent being applied to Cowboys and Indians might just do what they’re famous for – creating something brand new.

So did we miss any noteworthy ScFWests? Where does Jonah Hex fit into all this? And how did the horses of those early cowboys – Gene Autry, Roy Rogers – get second billing? Was there a Hollywood law firm that specialized in representing horses? If the director didn’t agree to the horse’s terms, he would be visited by a couple Clydesdales? Sound off in the comments below with some of your own favourite space westerns, and let us know what you think the next successful mash-up will be.

  • Vikke_AJ

    Nice to see Outland and Time Rider on this list.

  • BubbleDubble

    BTTF3 worked just fine.

  • Mason

    I recently watched “Timestalkers” from 1987 (on Netflix Instant), starring William Devane and Klaus Kinski. Kinski plays a scientist from the future who disagrees with his colleagues on the applications of a time travel technology. To get his main opponent out of the way, he aims to go back in time to the old west and stop the man’s family from gaining political influence and power. He also goes to the 80s to get information and break into places looking creepy. Not a great plot, but it definitely fits in the genre. The climax involves the ambush of a stagecoach carrying President Grover Cleveland.

  • Anthony

    “(same director for you know what)”

    Someone needs to fill me in as to what movie he’s referring to.

  • antho42

    the Cowboy Bebop show>>>> all.

  • Comprehensive and interesting article, Curt.