They can be set anywhere from Australia to Pakistan – and increasingly it’s women who are shooting from the hip. With new westerns such as My Pure Land and Brimstone, the gunslinger genre continues to reinvent itself
Always changing, the western never changes. Whatever era it is, the essence remains. If I told you about a pivotal scene in which a gunslinger turns to the camera and stares, hard-eyed, at the audience, I might be describing The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903, a silent cinema milestone whose star, Justus D Barnes, was a middle-aged stage actor. Or I could mean My Pure Land, a new film about three women in rural Pakistan defending their home from bandits. Its star is Suhaee Abro, a classically trained dancer in her first major role. Thousands of miles and more than a century apart, she and Barnes share a western moment.
Westerns in 2017 are politically open-minded, geographically flexible – cinematic Lego to be assembled as you like. The director of My Pure Land is Sarmad Masud, a British-Pakistani film-maker from the east Midlands, for whom the genre usefully shaped his ideas. Old and new meet again. My Pure Land is based on a contemporary true story: a young woman called Nazo Dharejo defended her family home from 200 armed assailants. And while we mostly know the western as a period piece, for the nickleodeon thrill-seekers of 1903 it was not. The Great Train Robbery, too, portrayed real events – ones that had taken place three years earlier on the Union Pacific Railroad; the culprits were led by Robert LeRoy Parker, also known as Butch Cassidy, then still at large in south America.