Empty Shells & Dead Ends: Extreme Prejudice and the Post-Frontier Western

Walter Hill’s modern-day pulp western proves an intriguing if somewhat flawed experiment

Certain myths endure not because they’re true, but because they stoke and satisfy very real hopes and fears. There’s a cottage industry for explaining why the Western myth has been relegated to the VOD dustbin or Oscar bait, but it’s not that the genre merely stopped being relevant. Its conventions (and pleasures) have been so well integrated into American pop culture they’ve become invisible: climactic showdowns, the wandering, haunted hero arriving to save the day, violence as the vehicle for establishing (or restoring) civilization, and so on.

This doesn’t dismiss the fact that the Western, in its traditional get-up, has gone niche. There are still filmmakers eager to get their boots dusty and explore their own Monument Valleys, and recent entries like Meek’s Cutoff, The Homesman, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all belong with the best of the genre, while rejiggering the values and payoffs to fit our particular moment. It’s a shame audiences avoided them like museum trips because of the hats and the horses. These newbies understood the Western as a mythic landscape first and foremost, and delivered satisfying riffs for it.

Which makes Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice one of the most intriguing experiments in updating the Western, not just for what he does right, but what goes wrong. Hill has often sold himself as a director who only makes “Westerns,” even if during the first few chapters of his career, few take place in that era or region. He has a clear affinity for the genre, borrowing its clean plot lines and concerns in the likes of Hard Times, Southern Comfort and even the decidedly modernist The Driver. And his first classic Western, The Long Riders in 1981, was one of the last great pulpy “oaters” before the genre hibernated through the eighties.

Then in 1987, Hill directed Extreme Prejudice, which set a traditional Western plot in present day, and played it out in true old school fashion. And by doing so, it revealed something vital about the genre, one that might not have been as evident without this attempt. And along the way it shows the tensions, and substantial rifts, among three of the most influential “macho” filmmakers of the twentieth century.

Extreme Prejudice concerns a Texas Ranger (Nick Nolte) attempting to bring down an American drug kingpin (Powers Boothe) who lives like a feudal lord across the border in Mexico. Nolte’s effort is complicated by his childhood friendship with Boothe, and a squad of covert Special Ops soldiers with their own score to settle with the kingpin. Michael Ironside leads that team, consisting of a who’s who of underrated B-movie hombres, including Clancy Brown and William Forsythe.

The project was launched by one of the legendary bad hombres of New Hollywood, John Milius, primarily known as the chief screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Conan the Barbarian. He inspires reverence and distaste in equal measure for being that rarest of things, a truly accomplished right-wing artist. His power as a storyteller was undeniable, as was his influence, perhaps not in Hollywood, but certainly in the fantasias that became the bedrock of current right-wing mania. The Western, and its paranoid urban stepchild from the 70s, still fertilizes the mind of the American conservative, with crime-ridden big cities and their only savior, the right kind of a man with a gun, who arrives to protect the priorities of nice white folks.   

Milius wrote the first draft of Extreme Prejudice in the mid-seventies to be a right-wing “Costas-Gavras” film, about drug dealers taking over a small Texas town until a Vietnam vet stops them, only to reveal that the US government sent those drug dealers as a social experiment to find out what it would take for American citizens to rise up, and fight back. Little did Milius know all the government needed to do was ask folks to wear masks in the midst of a pandemic, but those were saner days in such respects.

Well hell, I said “morning.” I didn’t say “good morning.”

Sheriff Hank Pearson

The Milius script fell into development purgatory, and was eventually picked up in the early eighties by Carolco Pictures, the house that Rambo built and that Schwarzenegger grew into an empire. Eventually Walter Hill, and his screenwriting partner, Larry Gross, came aboard the project, and they rebuilt the script to center around a Texas ranger trying to stop his childhood pal turned drug lord, and those US-employed drug dealers of Milius, became a squad of Special Forces soldiers, all officially “dead” but still covertly killing for the stars and stripes.

With their retro sensibilities, one might think Hill and Milius would make a fine marriage, but Extreme Prejudice suffers from their competing priorities. Hill aspires to a classic Western that transcends (or simply ignores) politics, and Milius wants a paranoid thriller that feeds his daft politics. And in trying to serve them both, it succeeds at neither. Hill has frequent competing desires within himself, as he tries to balance his thrill at delivering pop delights with his inclination to strip the bullshit out of those same delights. His spartan genre exercises forget that audiences adore the extras, like a love interest to soften the hero or the long-winded rationales for why that character is so evil, or so noble. These are luxuries, like seat warmers in an Escalade. Yet, Hill would remain baffled that audiences didn’t love his stripped-down vehicles more. That approach wouldn’t yield many hits, but it continues to influence filmmakers to this day. His biggest hits like The Warriors and 48 Hours feel the most foreign to this distinctive voice, like castoffs, rather than the works that define him. And with Extreme Prejudice, there’s a third creative spirit here, further complicating Hill’s effort.

The ghost of Sam Peckinpah haunts this movie, with Hill himself making a point to tip his hat to the legendary asshole and auteur during the press junket, positioning this as an homage to an old friend. Hill had written the script for one of Peckinpah’s biggest hits, The Getaway, and “Bloody Sam” might seem like the grandfather to the likes of Milius and Hill. But Peckinpah had a voice that stands in stark contrast to both. Hill might have wanted to deliver an homage, but in adopting Sam’s tactics, it only served to highlight their differences.

Hill wanted a throwback Western set in modern day, without realizing he’d be sacrificing one of the core pillars that make the genre work: the frontier. For all its pleasures, and there are many, its ambitions to play Western are thwarted by a missing frontier. Early in the genre, it might be about taming that wide-open Eden, but even the revisionist visions were about how we, the settlers, had sullied that frontier’s pristine beauty. Peckinpah clearly had a deep affection for the actual deserts of the US and Mexico and imagined a spoiled paradise, that would still be there if we left the Indians and the crackpots alone.

David Milch’s landmark series Deadwood, with its pilot directed by Hill, managed a far cannier feat by bringing the genre full circle, with its revisionist stance on the creation of a community, where it took everyone, the natives, crackpots, killers, criminals, prostitutes, religious nuts, craven shopkeepers, and yellow journalists all pitching in, sometimes saving the day, sometime ruining it, as they try to create a town big enough and strange enough to fit them all. It’s still America, so Milch made sure there was a robber baron there to ruin their best efforts.

But that could be done because the story took place back when there was the “idea” of a frontier that needed a community in the first place. A Texas border town in the 1980s resembles any other decaying American metropolis, just with shorter buildings, and fewer people. Extreme Prejudice looks and ambles like a Western, right down to the sweat, blood and dust that Peckinpah treated like salt and pepper in his work, but without the moral urgency that made that work unforgettable. Setting this in the modern era reduces the stakes to a criminal enterprise and the safety of the nameless, faceless locals. Those wide-open spaces are no longer untouched, or ripe with potential; they’re merely abandoned. An open frontier, a long time ago, enlarges the personal to the mythic. Even if the decisions are personal in nature, the backdrop gives them the feel of a mythic origin of that whole town, or even the country.

The grandest revisionist Westerns center themselves around this. Both Unforgiven, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, understand that how we remember stories, and how we retell them shape our world. Eastwood’s masterpiece is singularly concerned with how rumors and tall tales are a virus, infecting folks with stupid and romantic notions that rarely improve things. Their acknowledgement of the Western as only a myth, gains weight and consequence from taking place in that same mythic time and space.

This is not to say Extreme Prejudice falters in some irrevocable way. Nolte’s lead performance is a true outlier for him, bearing no trace of the perpetually flustered grizzly bear that’s muttered and shrugged, howled and growled during four decades worth of movies. Instead, he channels Gary Cooper, and admits this ranger was the only “morally perfect” character he had ever played. That tension between persona and character works its magic, as we imagine if his top button ever came undone, the Nolte beast would bust out. But by the end, his characterization prevails, and we no longer see the star, but the ranger- a rare feat for a star of his caliber.

His performance is matched by Powers Boothe, in a white suit that has to be courtesy of Warren Oates in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Plenty of people adore his villainous turn in that great pop opera Tombstone but his character here has a layer of self-awareness that would make him the center of a Peckinpah film, rather than the big bad. Yet, Hill never lets Booth’s self-awareness interfere with his mustache twirling. The movie’s best scenes are between these two, as they reminisce about their childhood, and even their shared sweetheart (Maria Conchita Alonso), hunting and pecking for a way to skip their inevitable showdown.

The Biblical simplicity of this stand-off is thwarted by Milius’ squad of black ops soldiers, oozing 80-proof ill will and backslapping camaraderie, all in the service of what turns out to be a corrupt scheme. The characters, and the filmmakers, wish such contradictions away by shrinking military duty to a loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers and no one else. Most modern conservatives take his stance as a way to feed their military fetish without having to say anything nice about the only real terror in their lives: Big Government.

The soldiers are the least effective aspect of the story, a distraction to Nolte’s story, and feels like a plotline crammed into place by a producer to triple the body count, and certainly not the centerpiece of the movie’s first draft. Here, the Special Ops crew is looking to grab a piece of intelligence from Booth, first by stealing his safety deposit box in Texas and second, by killing him in Mexico.

I’m particular who I drink with.

Jack Benteen

Their efforts may collide with Nolte, but in ways that hardly feel inevitable or even organic. It’s eventually revealed that Booth began as a government snitch, who after stopping the competition south of the border, took over the drug trade himself, and this implicates the squad’s leader, who is looking to retire on what they steal from Booth. Eventually Nolte realizes that his best chance to bring his friend in alive is by accompanying that Special Ops squad to Mexico to see if Booth will go willingly in cuffs.

This final confrontation is an overt re-staging of the end to Peckinpah’s greatest feat, The Wild Bunch, but without the moral dynamics that made that movie’s climax one of the best of its kind. In that classic, the band of soldiers had spent the movie not only being  miserable cheats and scumbags, but rallying around a code that we see, in the director’s cut, that they never ever followed. And when their friend is taken to surely die at the hands of an evil Mexican general, they go to rescue him in an act of Pyrrhic redemption, filmed with a potent visual poetry nobody’s quite matched.

Milius has no interest in sullying these elite commandoes with such characterizations. This is no final act of virtue after a dastardly life, but another operation gone south, even divorced from patriotism, as their mission turns out to be their leader’s retirement plan. So they are only trapped and routed, with Nolte left to face Powers Booth in a classic duel, as the rest of this Mexican village is devoured in bullets, blood and dust, with sure, some of the slow-motion carnage, but none of the brilliance.

Hill does understand the pleasures of a good stand off and does fine work with Nolte and Boothe’s classic man-to-man gunplay. He benefits from an era that let him stage actual explosions, and an ethos that could milk something as simple as a car stuck in the sand for a set piece. Hill understands how to make such things stylish for their own sake, and as such is more of a mythmaker than his inspiration ever cared to be. He gives Nolte a Colt 1911 in his holster, which is both anachronistic and utterly fucking cool. He’s always been a screenwriter first, looking for the cleanest, least fussy way to capture his streamlined macho rides. And while later work, like Wild Bill and Undisputed erupted in gorgeous badass images that had little to do with plot, it was to help sell those scripts’ own gonzo ethos. But Hill is Hill, and no disciple of Bloody Sam.  

What makes Peckinpah so unique, and so easy to misunderstand and even demonize, is that few filmmakers were as devoted to throwing a party, accentuating every lurid kink, as they were to throwing the lights on at 3AM, to show the full ashtrays, smudged lipstick and unsavory deeds taking place. He wanted to deliver the thrills and then reveal the moral rot that fed them, but only after audiences actually found themselves compromised by their own appetites for the vicarious sex and violence. It’s easy for hall monitor moralists to ignore the melancholy and shame that’s the blood coursing through his stories, and revel in the tsk, tsking the bad behavior with their belief that depiction is always approval. Martin Scorsese is the greatest living filmmaker to bear the brunt of such takes at the moment, but thankfully, this mob has forgotten about old Sam for now.  

Hill and Milius clearly respect Sam’s accomplishments, but have no patience, or inkling for complicating their own work in a similar fashion. They enjoy the pleasures of pulp simplicity and the energy that comes with it. Sam understood the West as a mythic landscape, which meant that it can cater to modern obsessions, but it needs to be far enough in the past to be a mythic setting for modern audiences. Alfredo Garcia was set in present day, but it takes an apocalyptic stance closer to Straw Dogs than any of his Western output. Junior Bonner was haunted by days long gone, but refrained from employing Western tropes in that gentle rodeo dramedy.

Extreme Prejudice is still a fine picture, but more than that, it’s a valuable one. A rare attempt to get Gary Cooper back in the saddle, it failed to appreciate that we need more than big sky, sand and stand-offs to make a Western. It demonstrates that the classic approach needs a frontier, in that time, a specific time, when what was at stake was the idea of the country itself. But by 1987, that idea was already mature and in decline, and what we’re watching in Extreme Prejudice is men all dressed up, with all the same hopes and fears, but now, with no place left to go.

Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Deric Washburn &
Harry Kleiner
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Editing: Freeman A. Davies, David Holden &
Billy Weber

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