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HELL ON THE BORDER Director Wes Miller’s Top Five Western Movie Influences

hell on the border
Director Wes Miller on the movies that influenced his new western.


Action-packed Western Hell on the Border follows the true-life tale of Bass Reeves (David Gyasi, Carnival Row) as he undertakes a dangerous mission to earn his place in history as the first black US Marshal ‘west of the Mississippi River’. Teaming up with a grizzled journeyman (Ron Perlman), Bass must venture into the wild and lawless Cherokee Nation to hunt down deadly outlaw Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo) and bring him to justice.

To celebrate the film’s release on Digital Download 9th March and DVD 16th March, director Wes Miller has taken us through some of the classic Westerns which inspired his film.





Tombstone (1993)
tombstone
For my entrance to the Western genre, I didn't want to be overly stylised so I looked a lot at all the different eras. With Tombstone I was looking more for character performances and honestly, I would put Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday as one of the most classical of any Western that I’ve seen. His scene with Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) was really a tour-de-force and just great to watch those two characters with similar intents go about reaching their goals with their nuanced performances. As a filmmaker, I wanted to help actors nail strong performances and the nuances of the performances too, because Westerns often have strong characters who are silent and have to convey their intent and emotion visually.



The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I looked at this one a lot to see how a film, when on a limited budget, makes everything feel bigger than it is. And also for the performance from Clint Eastwood - here we have the same thing as Tombstone: stress, silence and that classical aesthetic. But it was a Spaghetti Western. I wanted to contrast some of the John Ford material with the Spaghetti Western material, and with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I just felt like that was one that helped me land in on framing, taking the natural backdrop you have and making the world feel expanded even though you have limited resources. In Hell on the Border there’s a scene in the middle of the film where Bass (David Gyasi) and Charlie (Ron Perlman) are together and Bass is thinking of leaving - there you have a lot of open range scenery. I had to fight for that because the producers were saying we didn’t have time but I said, “No, we HAVE to have it”. It wasn’t even a negotiation, I really like having that wide, picturesque landscape behind an emotional conflict where one character was running and another was finding his courage. It just gave it this perfect backdrop and that’s one of the lessons I learned from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.



High Noon (1952)
high noon
This is one of those classics, and the thing I took from this one is how they were able to hold an audience without a lot of action happening. It was all about the anticipation of what is going to happen to the main character. How that character was seeking help and not getting it, with everybody turning their back on him. Bass had to undertake a mission that most people did not feel he could win or succeed at. While he was not on his own, at least for a long part of that journey, he only had company because of his companion’s own self-interest. High Noon was able to keep that ticking clock moving even though there wasn’t a lot of story shifts happening. It just reminded me that there’s a universal concept of a person finding themselves against all odds and how that tension can sustain a feature. With Hell on the Border, Bass is going on a journey to find an outlaw, and there are conflicts along the way, but one of the things I wanted to establish early is how dangerous that outlaw, Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo), is and also show that Bass while he has a lot of skill he has a lot of flaws so we’re concerned with what happens to him through to the very end of his journey.



Man and Boy (1971)
Man and Boy
This is one of the few African-American westerns that I looked at. I don’t know where it was shot, but it actually shared some of the Spaghetti Western aesthetic with the classic Western aesthetic so it was kind of a blend of the two. I think it left an impression on me because it was led by Bill Cosby and I never knew he did a Western in his younger days. It was a journey where he had to go find his son after he was kidnapped and bring him back. They did deal with his character addressing racial and class divisions and it left an impression on me as it showed his character having to deal with being a black man in the west and also how he addressed it without going into a kamikaze kind of scenario. It gave me an idea of a scale of where a character could be in addressing a lot of these racial issues. It was also just inspiring to see a Western story with an African-American hero who was really grounded and very realistic. I honestly just thought Cosby did an amazing job, which makes it a lot more tragic with what’s happening now.



Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I think the reason why this one left an impression on me was because this is the first time in a Western that I saw robbers and thieves who were also the heroes. That final scene where you get the freeze frame with all the gunshots is probably one of the more effective tools I’ve seen utilised when ending a movie as your mind is left to fill in the gaps on what happened or didn’t happen. You’ve followed these characters so you want to know: Did they live? Did they not live? And for me it’s one of the more classic structural films where you’re with the bad guy but you don't want to see him die. You want to see him get away and you don't know if they do or don’t. Plus Paul Newman and Robert Redford gave tour-de-force performances.



Hell on the Border is on Digital Download 9 March and DVD 16 March.

Amazon DVD: amzn.to/36ZdW3T