Acid Western is a sub-genre of the Western film that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combines the metaphorical ambitions of top-shelf Westerns, like ‘Shane’ and ‘The Searchers,’ with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the counter-culture. Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of earlier Westerns to ‘conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.’
The term ‘Acid Western’ was coined in 1996 by Jonathan Rosenbaum in a review of Jim Jarmusch’s film, ‘Dead Man.’ Rosenbaum expanded upon the idea in a subsequent interview with Jarmusch for ‘Cineaste’ and later in the book ‘Dead Man’ from BFI Modern Classics. In the book, Rosenbaum illuminates several aspects of this re-revisionist Western: from Neil Young’s haunting score to the role of tobacco, to Johnny Depp’s performance, to the film’s place in the acid-Western genre.
In the chapter ‘On the Acid Western,’ Rosenbaum addresses not only the hallucinogenic quality of the film’s pace and its representation of ‘reality,’ but also argues that the film inherits an artistic and political sensibility derived from the 1960s counterculture which has sought to critique and replace capitalism with alternative models of exchange.
In the traditional Western, the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement, but in the Acid Western, it is the reverse, a journey towards death; society becomes nightmarish. Rosenbaum used the term ‘Acid Western’ to describe a ‘cherished counterculture dream’ from the Sixties and Seventies ‘associated with people like Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper, Jim McBride, and Rudy Wurlitzer, as well as movies like ‘Greaser’s Palace’; Alex Cox tapped into something similar in the eighties with ‘Walker.’ The Western pictures of Hollywood director William A. Wellman may have been an early influence on the genre. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943) and ‘Yellow Sky’ (1948) feature characters that are forced to step out of society and take a stand against it. Yellow Sky in particular set up many elements that director Monte Hellman picked up two decades later.
Monte Hellman’s cult film, ‘The Shooting’ (1966) could be considered the first Acid Western. The film stars Will Hutchins, Warren Oates, and a young Jack Nicholson, and was anonymously financed by Roger Corman. ‘The Shooting’ subverts the usual priorities of the Western to capture a sense of dread and uncertainty that characterized the counterculture of the late 1960s. Hellman quickly followed up with ‘Ride in the Whirlwind’ (1966).
Rudolph Wurlitzer is considered ‘the individual most responsible for exploring this genre, having practically invented it himself in the late 60s and then helped to nurture it in the scripts of others,’ such as McBride’s ‘Glen and Randa,’ Hellman’s ‘Two-Lane Blacktop,’ Cox’s ‘Walker,’ and Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett’ and ‘Billy the Kid.’ Wurlitzer worked on the script of ‘Gone Beaver,’ which Rosenbaum describes as ‘a visionary script’ for Jim McBride. It was an extremely ambitious big-budget Western about early American trappers and Indians, for which a virtually invented language of ‘trapper talk’ was devised. The film was aborted one day before production. Wurlitzer’s unproduced 70s screenplay ‘Zebulon’ inspired Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man.’ Wurlitzer later transformed his script into the novel ‘The Drop Edge of Yonder.’
Early 1970s films such as Robert Downey Sr.’s ‘Greaser’s Palace,’ George Englund’s ‘Zachariah,’ and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’ (‘The Mole’) blend religious allegory, John Fordian Americana, Thomas Pynchonesque satire, and counter-cultural fantasy. Luc Moullet directed ‘A Girl is a Gun’ (‘Une Aventure de Billy le Kid’) featuring French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy the Kid. The film swings wildly between slapstick insanity and delirious experimentation set in a bizarre, elemental wilderness. The acid western reached its zenith in the 1970s, depicting the Old West as an imaginary, post-apocalyptic wilderness populated by degenerate hippies and loners.
Grim Viet-era acid Westerns include Robert Aldrich’s ‘Ulzana’s Raid,’ Robert Benton’s ‘Bad Company,’ James Frawley’s ‘Kid Blue’ (starring Dennis Hopper), Stan Dragoti’s ‘Dirty Little Billy,’ Peter Fonda’s ‘The Hired Hand,’ and Sydney Pollack’s ‘Jeremiah Johnson.’ Rosenbaum calls ‘Dead Man’ a ‘much-delayed fulfillment’ of the Acid Western, ‘formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda.’