- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy's gang of galloping gunmen, were still looting banks and railroad cars in 1903 when Edwin S. Porter produced "The Great Train Robbery," widely believed to be Hollywood's first movie Western.
Just as no one at that time could predict the seismic shifts in society and culture that would unfold in the United States during the next 100 years, nobody in Hollywood could predict the film genre's many successes in the 1940s and 1950s, or its later decline as standard box office fare.
Indeed, the release of "Monte Walsh," which coincides with the 100th anniversary of movie Westerns, is not produced for theaters, but specifically as a three-episode cable-television special. Starring Tom Selleck in the title role, it begins at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Turner Network Television, with two more parts airing at the same time on Saturday and Sunday.
Mr. Selleck, who also is an executive producer for the movie, told The Washington Times that film Westerns remain "one of the great American art forms."
But Mr. Selleck, who has embraced film Westerns as a personal passion since the end of his popular television series "Magnum P.I.," said the cowboy as a fictional protagonist has evolved far beyond such old-time TV fare as "The Cisco Kid" and "The Lone Ranger."
What a long, strange trip it has been. From early silent-movie stars such as Tom Mix, the cowboy persona has run the cultural gamut from starched singers like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to rough-and-tumble wranglers such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and even the comedic characters in "Blazing Saddles."
Cowboy lore and myth began after the Civil War with pulp novels by such authors as Bret Harte. The most modern and politically correct permutation of the stock character will come later this year when Marvel Comics resurrects "Rawhide Kid." The comic-book cowboy saddled up in 1955 and didn't ride off into the sunset until 1979.
This time, though, the Rawhide Kid is homosexual.
While declining to comment on anyone else's interpretation of the cowboy, in print or in film, Mr. Selleck insists the traditional cowboy character is what ropes in large audiences and gives the genre continued relevance and popularity.
"Westerns don't need to be predictable, but there's a traditional aspect to them that pays homage to a norm that I think is important," Mr. Selleck told The Times.
Producers and directors of more modern Westerns "sometimes forget about that," he said. "They think a six-shooter can't fire enough bullets. They want more guns. They have lost sight of the old ethic that has hooked so many of us on that film genre, which is one of the great American art forms. It is still as viable as ever."
Mr. Selleck said "Monte Walsh" will resonate with viewers of today. The story is set "at the end of the cowboy era when not just their jobs were fast disappearing, but their very way of life, and they were feeling left behind."
Monte Walsh "is the last of a dying breed," says the film's Web site, displaced by vast changes in technology, when "Eastern corporations [were] gobbling up Western land with little regard for the people who live and work there. They are deemed irrelevant and disposable."
It sounds almost like the lament of modern-day protesters who rally against corporate greed.
Monte Walsh fights a "life-and-death struggle to survive against the rapid and bewildering changes of society and culture."
"So many people can relate to that today," Mr. Selleck said. "Look at what we've all gone through in the last two decades, with computer technology and all that. I'm computer-illiterate, but it's a necessary and vital skill for kids growing up now. There are many parallels with Monte's situation, and I think people will relate quite well."
The movie is an adaptation of a novel by Jack Schaefer, an author whose work includes "Shane," a title that carries mythic status among the best movie Westerns ever made.
"Monte Walsh" was directed by Simon Wincer, who also directed the TV blockbuster "Lonesome Dove." Mr. Selleck co-stars with Keith Carradine and Isabella Rosellini, who plays one of Monte's closest friends, a prostitute named Martine.
"She's a hooker, but Monte doesn't care," Mr. Selleck said. "He doesn't make those kinds of judgments and she accepts and loves him for who he is. And Monte's identity, how he sees himself in a fast-changing world, is the dramatic crux of the story.
"We just went through the turn of the 21st century, so there is the same kind of anticipation of a new century that Monte must have felt," he said.
"This particular theme of being true to yourself and others is a good thing for our modern culture to see. This story was set in a simpler time when most people thought about what they should do, as opposed to what they could do."
Monte Walsh is just the latest manifestation of Mr. Selleck's fascination with film Westerns. Other cowboy credits include Louis Lamour's "Crossfire Trail" and "Quigley Down Under."
"Crossfire Trail," also a TNT original production, premiered to a 9.6 rating, the highest for a movie in basic cable history, TNT said. "Quigley," in which Mr. Selleck played the title role of a Wyoming sharpshooter who ended up protecting the Australian aborigines he was hired to kill, attained near cult status among fans of Westerns, especially those who collected guns.
Mr. Selleck, who has lent his name to promoting the National Rifle Association, of which he is a member, is an avid gun collector. His association with the NRA and his advocacy of the Second Amendment as an "individual's right" to keep firearms have not always opened doors in Hollywood, he said.
"People are always asking me why I did my NRA ad. I said, 'So I could get more work in Hollywood,'" he said with a laugh.
"But I think I'm doing OK in my work," he said. "I think the right to defend yourself, to defend your family and your property is a virtue that is the very marrow of what makes a good Western movie."


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