For almost 20 years now, I’ve lived in “The West.” It’s been fun for this kid from the suburbs of Chicago taking in all the cowboy history that is celebrated here in Colorado. That’s rubbed off on my movie viewing habits, as well. There’s just a different feeling for me now when I take in a western. When I first started to transform into a movie fan in the 80’s, westerns were rarely showing up at the local multiplex. However, in 1985 there came today’s film which serves as both a spoof and a love letter to the B-westerns of the 30’s and 40’s. From the director of the original “Police Academy” it’s “Rustlers’ Rhapsody.”
The film begins in black and white, as if we were watching a western from back in the day. A narrator (G.W. Bailey) recalls the films of cowboy hero Rex O’Herlihan (Tom Berenger) and begins to wonder what they would be like if these films were made today. From there, we shift to color and begin with a Rex O’Herlihan adventure for an 80’s audience.
Rex rides into the town of Oakwood Estates on his wonder horse Wildfire. Rex knows the drill for this stuff: he rides into town and immediately heads for the local saloon. There he meets the town drunk, Peter (Bailey…our narrator) who, in exchange for a drink, gives Rex all the info he needs on the town. The situation is that a group of peaceful sheep-herders are constantly dealing with problems brought on them by the evil cattle ranchers led by Col. Ticonderoga (Andy Griffith). In fact, while Rex is in the bar, a bunch of the Colonel’s henchmen come in to torment some sheep-herders. Rex manages to deal with them, though, using his great skill of shooting bad guys in the hand. This all impresses Peter, who is anxious to become a hero’s sidekick, as well as Miss Tracy (Marilu Henner), a prostitute working out of the saloon who never moves beyond just talking with her clients.
Rex decides to set up camp just outside of town. That night he gets several visitors, including Peter, now in official sidekick garb, as well as Miss Tracy and the Colonel’s daughter (Sela Ward), both of whom have their eye on Rex for other reasons. Meanwhile, the Colonel has teamed up with a group of evil railroad men from a spaghetti western, led by Fernando Rey, to try and get rid of Rex. Eventually, though, they have to call in another “good guy” (Patrick Wayne) to face Rex…since the good guy always wins.
“Rustlers’ Rhapsody” was co-written and directed by Hugh Wilson, who at this point was just coming off of “Police Academy.” We remember that film today for it’s seemingly endless stream of sequels that followed, but we forget that it really was a huge hit back in 1984. Wilson probably had a bit more freedom to make the film he wanted after such a big success. Though “Rustler’s Rhapsody” could be described as a silly comedy, it can also be seen as a loving salute to the old westerns. It certainly pokes fun at the many tropes of those heroic cowboy stars. At the same time, Wilson also seems to be admitting that while he’s making fun of those things, they are also what made genre so much fun in the first place.
I found the script to be pretty clever…going back and forth between some laugh out loud funny lines and other bits of dialogue that could’ve been plucked right out of a Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy flick. One of my favorite exchanges comes early on when Rex orders a warm milk from the bar, then upgrades to a sarsaparilla when the bartender gives him a dirty look, then finally is forced to order something much tougher…a glass of warm gin with a human hair in it. Moments like this are handled perfectly by Tom Berenger, who actually plays his role pretty straight, which results in the material being all that much funnier. G.W. Bailey (who is a regular in Wilson’s flms) is also very well cast as the typical western sidekick. Only the two ladies, Marilu Henner and Sela Ward, really fail to contribute much to the proceedings. They really aren’t given much to do, but I suppose you could say the same thing about many of the ladies who appeared in the B-westerns of the past.
It’s clear the filmmakers also had a lot of fun with the look of this film. The film is filled with those great western sets and props that have a wonderful less-than-authentic feel to them. About the only thing missing to make this film really feel like a classic B-western is the black and white. I guess it’s asking a bit much that a major studio would release a spoof like this in the 80’s in black and white, but I really think that would’ve added another level of atmosphere and comedy to the proceedings.
I won’t go as far as to say that “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” is a comedic masterpiece, but I had an awful lot of fun with this movie. The filmmakers clearly knew the subject they were spoofing, and they certainly pull no punches as they poke fun. Yet, it’s all done in a loving way that made me remember what makes westerns so special.