True Grit: New Mexico's Western Mythos

Hollywood has a special affection for New Mexico

In 2008, the lurid drama No Country for Old Men won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A gloriously creepy essay on violence—in which a madman toting a cattle gun teases victims into calling a coin flip to determine whether they may go on living or be slaughtered at his hands—the film embraces a merciless western mythos. That so many of its scenes were filmed in New Mexico (Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe, in particular) fits a pattern. Some of the best—and most complex—Westerns of all time were made here.

New Mexico’s landscapes continue to draw filmmakers by the dozens each year. One particular aspect has drawn directors to the state since 1898 (Thomas Edison, Indian Day School). “New Mexico has kind of a glow to everything, because we have such great sunlight,” says Alton Walpole, a producer whose credits include New-Mexico-filmed flicks The Book of Eli and Crazy Heart. The light and colors in our Land of Enchantment—reds, browns, and blues, predominately, with a touch or two of green—are certainly part of why Hollywood so often comes calling. But those qualities are surface aesthetics. Watching the greatest movies filmed in New Mexico, a viewer finds something darker at play; in the shadows cast by all that sunlight, we find evidence of the state’s gritty character.

All year long, the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque is showing The Centennial Film Series, screening once a month. Many of the classic films selected have something deep to say about this state. Fierce characterizations—from Billy the Kid (1930) through the psychopath Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men—personify the raw, outlaw legacy of a territory where wars were fought and blood spilled.

Many of these films (The Texas Rangers, Lonely are the Brave, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Hi-Lo Country, 3:10 to Yuma) are honest Westerns, born from bygone times unique to this sector of the country. Westerns, done well, are a special sort of story representing the collision of dark aspects  of human nature. They’re about loners and outsiders, guns and money, and hard fights over brutal terrain.

Westerns are mean, even when they’re supposed to be funny. The Cheyenne Social Club, starring Jimmy Stewart, is rousing and hilarious, but it takes place in a brothel and features numerous men shot dead. The Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford, is an upbeat ensemble film about a small rural village banding together in a feud against wealthy developers. The movie is sweaty and fun, but it also burns with generations-old class anger and, again, gunplay.

Sad, sudden death awaits the iconic misfit bikers in Dennis Hopper’s classic Easy Rider, while loner cowboy Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave loves his horse more than his freedom, and winds up losing both.

Consider the light-and-dark dichotomy at play in 3:10 to Yuma, one of the great 21st-century Westerns. A fast-paced yarn featuring kinetic daytime scenes of gunfighting and horse riding (one horse even explodes), the film is ultimately tragic, about a despondent Civil War veteran outlasted by a lawless goon.
These are New Mexico products, through and through. Although 3:10 to Yuma ostensibly takes place in Arizona, that’s Diablo Canyon, a short drive from Santa Fe, in the background when Ben Wade and his gang battle a Gatling-gun–equipped stagecoach full of cash and well-paid lawmen.

This dark-side current extends beyond film. The widely celebrated AMC television show Breaking Bad is filmed in Albuquerque, and throbs with Western themes of immorality and violence. It is powerfully, proudly New Mexican.

As are the novels of New Mexican author Cormac McCarthy, whose bloody, brilliant prose somehow deftly walks a tightrope between utter revulsion and beauty. No Country for Old Men was a McCarthy book before its film version could ever capture Oscar glory. In either iteration, an essential truth is laid bare: Life is not warm or fuzzy, and a cold end awaits us all. The hero is dead by the story’s final scene, the villain running free.

New Mexico’s sunlight may be lovely, but on film it often illuminates the harsh reality of this region’s past, personified by scoundrels. The best movies shot here are celebrated because they’re thrilling and beautiful. They endure, however, because they hit a sweet spot in our guts.