How difficult it must be to make an original Western. The genre is so diverse in its narratives, yet they all have a certain look and feel connecting them all as one lump group. Westerns made today all pay homage to what came before. What was the Old West really like? Some historians may know, but the reality and mythology of late 19th-century frontier America combine for a new truth perpetuated through literature, television, and movies.
Always masters of the pastiche, Joel and Ethan Coen make films that are filtered through others, and their Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no different. While the ingredients are not always blatant references, the six stories that make up the new Netflix movie share DNA with some essential classics, a select bunch of which I recommend below. They join with a few related Coen Brothers works that need to be seen in conjunction with this one.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is undoubtedly the most famous cinematic depiction of the Grim Reaper, but decades earlier there were two important films with Death as a character released in 1921. And both involve a carriage, not unlike the stagecoach with the two “bounty hunter” reapers in the Buster Scruggs segment “The Mortal Remains.” One is another Swedish feature, Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, which is credited as the film that got Bergman wanting to make movies.
The other, which I find more interesting for recommendation after Buster Scruggs, is Fritz Lang’s Destiny (aka Weary Death: A German Folk Story in Six Verses), which is also sort of an anthology film, albeit one where the stories are all tied together with a bookending tale. After meeting a couple in a carriage and then killing off the man, Death makes a bet with the woman to save her love. We then see three separate, multicultural stories of Death’s dealings in tragic romances before returning to learn the fate of the desperate woman.
By the Law (1926)
The one chapter of Buster Scruggs that’s directly based on a previous work is “All Gold Canyon,” which is adapted from the Jack London story of the same name. The tale of a lonely prospector in search of a pocket of gold was previously turned into a short film in 1972 by Czech director Zdenek Sirový, but that’s not easily available so I suggest viewing a much earlier foreign London adaptation involving prospectors and the wickedness that comes with their territory.
By the Law (Po Zakanu) is a silent Soviet feature by Lev Kuleshov, who is best known for demonstrating the “Kuleshov effect” of montage editing, and is based on London’s short story “The Unexpected.” The film follows a party of prospectors who’ve found fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush, but when one of the five suddenly shoots down two of the others, the remaining couple ponder what to do about their murderous colleague. It’s a tense little character drama and surprisingly not yet been remade — there is an American film adaptation in development according to IMDb, however.
The Big Trail (1930)
For many of us, the old Oregon Trail video game is what first comes to mind with the image of a wagon train. But the cinematic depiction of this iconic venture of Manifest Destiny goes back to at least the 1910s and a number of films by D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, William S. Hart, and other legends. Also, the apparently lost feature The Westerners, which like the Buster Scruggs wagon train story “The Gal Who Got Rattled” originated from a work by prolific Western author Stewart Edward White.
Raoul Walsh and Louis R. Loeffler’s The Big Trail is one of the best films depicting a train on the Oregon Trail and stars John Wayne in his first major lead role (and his first credit with his stage name). The actor plays a trapper who becomes a guide for a train of covered wagons, mostly to follow some villains fleeing westward. Along the way, he falls in love, of course. And obviously, there is some trouble with Native Americans. The Big Trail, which is said to have used 185 wagons in its production, is credited as an inspiration to Buster Scruggs production designer Jess Gonchor in a recent MPAA interview.
Riders of Destiny (1933)
If you’re thrown off by the ruthless nature of the title character in Buster Scruggs, you’re not versed enough in the history of the singing cowboy. While pure-hearted heroes later played by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers are best remembered as the image of the character type, John Wayne was actually one of the first singing cowboys — though his vocals were dubbed — and as Singin’ Sandy in Riders of Destiny, he was a crooning gunman whose lyrics focused on blazing guns and blood-filled streets.
You can see (but not exactly hear) Wayne as a couple more musical cowboy roles in 1934’s The Man from Utah, in which he’s a more heroic individual playing guitar and singing on horseback as he rides into a town in need, and 1935’s Westward Ho!, in which he’s leader of a gang of singing vigilantes who join up with a wagon train. When Wayne declined to keep doing the singing cowboy shtick, though, Republic Pictures looked to Autry as his replacement, and the white-hat version persevered.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Sorry, Stagecoach fans, two John Wayne movies is enough to recommend for now — and hopefully, everyone knows that Stagecoach is one of the primary essentials to see if you love movies anyway. Instead, here’s another, more underrated Western from 1939 with a certain link to Buster Scruggs. That song the title character sings after killing Surly Joe, seemingly titled “Surly Joe,” is a redone version of “Little Joe, the Wrangler,” which is sung in a saloon here, partly by Marlene Dietrich.
James Stewart also stars Destry Rides Again — this was his first Western — as the titular moral and nonviolent deputy called in to bring law and order back to the town of Bottleneck after the sheriff goes missing. Eventually, Destry figures out that he was killed by the local crime-boss saloon owner (Brian Donleavy). It’s the sort of classic of the genre where the good guy charms the bad girl (Dietrich) to the point where she falls for him, but he winds up with the virginal type (Irene Hervey) instead.
Wild Geese Calling (1941)
Stewart Edward White was a popular novelist of the Western genre in the early 20th century, just as cinema was taking off, and of course adaptations of his work began almost immediately (he even starred in a short documentary shot at his home). Unfortunately, while some of the films do still exist, few are easily available and of those, some aren’t very good (such as the heavily protested Under a Texas Moon). Even the segment in Buster Scruggs isn’t exactly an adaptation since only the last bit of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is based on the last bit of his story “The Girl Who Got Rattled.”
Wild Geese Calling is one of the few that you can easily watch. Based on his penultimate Western novel, the movie stars Henry Fonda as a lumberjack (a profession in which White once worked) who uproots his life everytime he notices geese migrating. He winds up in a melodramatic love triangle with Joan Bennett and Warren William, the former his new bride whom it turns out used to be the sweetheart of the latter, Fonda’s character’s best friend. The plot takes them from Washington to Alaska in a wandering storyline that, after seeing the short he inspired in Buster Scruggs, will seem to be White’s m.o.
How the West Was Won (1962) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
In the MPPA interview linked to earlier, production designer Jess Gonchor also references the opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, though he misspeaks and says How the West Was Won — you should see both, of course, the latter because even more than Buster Scruggs, it has a little of everything you could want in a Western and is broken up into different (albeit, unlike Buster Scruggs, narratively linked). And the former for many reasons, including the scene Gonchor mentions as an inspiration for the first saloon in the first segment of Buster Scruggs:
“I felt like this place needed to be a little blip in the middle of nowhere, so we made it indigenous to this arid, red clay environment, like a mushroom growing out of the ground. From there I thought about that opening scene in [1963 western] ‘How the West Was Won,’ where they go to the ticket booth on a train platform and there’s hardly any roof. We made the cantina so it’s falling apart and dusty, with all this light leaking into the place. I figured if it’s going to be a dry cantina, let’s make it bone dry.”
The Way West (1995)
Cinema made its debut around the time the Wild West period was coming to a close, but they overlapped just long enough for there to be nonfiction shorts featuring Annie Oakley, bucking “bronchos,” and other real-life remnants of true West. Between those actuality films and all the early fictional Westerns able to be compiled in the form of a nonfiction story as in Dawson City: Frozen Time, there have been plenty of documentaries featuring and/or about that side of North America during that period. One of the most essential is this six-hour PBS film (or series, depending on how you look at it) from Ric Burns.
The younger Burns brother doesn’t get enough credit compared to his brother, but this first epic project of his as a director (following two much shorter works for American Experience) is a substantial and memorable history of the Old West from 1845 through 1893. A great follow-up to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which Ric co-produced, The Way West consists of four parts, covering such subjects as the California Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad, and Native Americans, including wars against them. Follow it with the next year’s limited series The West, produced by Ken Burns and directed by Steven Ives.
Paris, Je T’aime (2006) and World Cinema (2007)
I’m always surprised the Coen Brothers haven’t made more short films. They’ve featured little vignettes within their features, such as the dybbuk prologue of A Serious Man, and Ethan Coen has published collections of his own short stories, plays, and poems. That’s why it’s a special treat that they put together a serious of short works with Buster Scruggs. Previously, they participated in another, multi-director anthology, Paris, Je T’aime, and I’ve wanted more brief sketches from them ever since.
After contributing the amusing Metro-set segment, titled Tuileries, starring Steve Buscemi, to that Paris-based omnibus, the Coens also participated in the Cannes Film Festival’s To Each His Own Cinema film, for which 35 filmmakers created three-minute pieces paying tribute to cinema in honor of the fest’s 60th anniversary. The brothers’ short here isn’t all that interesting, and it wasn’t included in the To Each His Own Cinema DVD version so as a separate entity, it’s even less substantial. But World Cinema, as it’s called, does feature Josh Brolin as a modern cowboy going to see the Turkish drama Climates, and that’s of a certain value to Coen and Brolin and Nuri Bilge Ceylan fans.
True Grit (2010)
I do not recommend True Grit (which also stars Brolin) solely because it’s the Coen Brothers’ only true Western feature (No Country for Old Men counts, but not for the traditional period of the genre). There’s also a hint that the world of Buster Scruggs, or at least the segment “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the same as that of this highly regarded remake. Grandma Turner, who is falling asleep at the dinner table of the boarding house in Buster Scruggs, may indeed be the same Grandma Turner with whom the protagonist Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) shares a boarding house bed in True Grit.
Funny enough, recommending the True Grit redo is another avoidance of recommending yet another John Wayne movie, since he starred in the original in the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn, played here by Jeff Bridges. The second version, which is again based on the Charles Portis novel of the same name, is arguably a bit better (though the first won an Oscar, from two nominations, while the remake won none, despite 10 nominations). It’s unlikely, but perhaps one day the Coens can also remake the two True Grit sequels and populate them with other very minor characters from Buster Scruggs.
Bonus: Rootin’ Tootin’ Roundup (1990)
Outside of some TV series (Frontier, Death Valley Days), I can’t think of any anthologies of Western shorts similar to Buster Scruggs. For that alone, the Coen Brothers can be thanked for their less-than-enthusiastic effort. Disney did release a collection of their Western-genre animated shorts in 1990, however, yet as far as I know, Rootin’ Tootin’ Roundup is out of print and unlikely to be put out in such form again.
Although the Coens are more comparable to Looney Tunes cartoons, which did include some Western stories mainly with the Yosemite Sam character, if you want an anthology of Western toons, just watch the Disney entries compiled as Roootin’ Tootin’ Roundup in order. They are: Donald’s Gold Mine (1942); The Legend of Coyote Rock (1945); Bone Bandit (1948); Pecos Bill (1948); The Brave Engineer (1950); Dude Duck (1951); Two Gun Goofy (1952); The Lone Chipmunks (1954).