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Costner returns to Western roots

The director as cowboy on the 'Open Range'

By Thom Patterson

Kevin Costner in a scene from "Open Range."

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Cliches have virtually buried the Hollywood Western, but Kevin Costner -- refusing to let the genre ride off into the sunset -- is gambling that moviegoers will like the realistic gunfighting, true-to-life love stories and flawed cowboy hero in his new film "Open Range."

"Anybody can start a movie off where their family is killed, and then for the next two hours there is this gigantic blood lust that you're supposed to accept because anybody can tie into the idea of revenge," Costner said.

"But it's another thing to actually try to humanize these people so that they're relevant to us in 2003."

At a recent screening of "Open Range," Costner was asked why more Westerns aren't made these days. "Filmmakers have ignored them because a lot of them are not very good," he said. "People have not been able to relate to them."

Costner -- director of one of the most acclaimed Westerns of all time, the Oscar winner "Dances with Wolves" -- is trying to breathe life into a genre that continues to fail attempts at revival.

"Open Range" is Costner's first film he has directed since his 1997 flop "The Postman," and his first Western role since the ill-received "Wyatt Earp" in 1994.

In the post-Civil War movie, Costner plays the troubled, gun-slinging, free-range cowboy Charley Waite.

Waite's partner -- timeworn yet trustworthy Boss Spearman -- is played by Hollywood legend and fellow Oscar winner Robert Duvall. Very early on, their wandering cattle team becomes tangled in a deadly standoff with an evil rancher portrayed by Michael Gambon.

Costner -- dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots (but no hat) -- explained how one of the film's opening scenes helps set a tone for realism.

"These older and wiser guys are digging, trying to get a wagon wheel out of the mud after a storm, and the two younger cowboys -- who are supposed to be helping -- are doing nothing -- just like boys will tend to do," Costner said. "It's things like that, that make a movie real."

'First we have to try something different'

Open Range
In "Open Range," Costner plays a cowboy who works with cattleman Robert Duvall.

"We recognize ourselves in Westerns," Costner said. "I believe the Western can orchestrate moments around reality. The reality can be as entertaining to us as the lie."

Making the film, Costner said, was walking a fine line between making it realistic while remaining true to traditional Western conventions.

"I tell people, 'We're going to get to the gunfight ... we will get to it,'" he said with a grin. "'But first we have to try something different.'"

What's different? Costner wants his gunfight to be real enough to scare you, because real, Old West gunfights were really terrifying, he said. Bullets hurt, and somebody had to clean up the bodies.

Costner -- who at 48 is newly engaged to 29-year-old Christine Baumgartner -- chose to direct "Open Range" because "many things that would have driven the movie would have been cut."

But "things that I want to do, I gotta pay for," reminding himself about chances he took while directing "Wolves."

Back then, a test screening of the film prompted audiences to beg "not to kill the wolf," Costner said. "Well, I understand, but bad things have to happen. That's real. There's death in 'Bambi.' That's real."

Coming to terms

Love of the Game
Among Costner's own favorite roles is pitcher Billy Chapel in "For Love of the Game."

Throughout the two decades Costner has been starring in films, Hollywood has produced only about a dozen cowboy pictures, most of them forgettable. But Costner's four Westerns have done much to remind audiences that the genre may be down, but it's not out.

1985's Lawrence Kasdan-directed "Silverado" -- with its impressive cast and clever script -- made Costner a recognizable film actor. Five years later, "Wolves" made him a movie star and gave him three Oscars.

"Wolves" became the top moneymaking Hollywood Western of all time, with a domestic gross of $184.2 million.

That's more than Clint Eastwood's 1993 Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" and 1994's Western comedy "Maverick," which both grossed about $100 million each, according to

"Wolves" also topped grosses for "Blazing Saddles" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

The film propelled Costner to the top of the film world. But the string of successful films broke after 1992's blockbuster "The Bodyguard," which was followed by disappointments such as "A Perfect World" and "Wyatt Earp," an ambitious Western that was accused of being long and uneven.

In 1995, critics trashed "Waterworld" despite the fact that the pricey, futuristic sea-adventure won its opening weekend and eventually grossed more than $255 million worldwide.

Today, Costner looks to cowboy pictures from his parents' generation for inspiration, including "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," both directed by John Ford.

"If you think of 'Liberty Valance' or 'The Searchers,' there are moments in there that you'll never, ever forget," Costner said. "And it does not matter what century you are from."

"There is a moment in time in a Western, unlike maybe any other genre, where you can sit in the dark and you can really measure yourself against another man or woman, and you can see a code of honor," Costner said.

"And I know that in times like now that we live in, sometimes you got to find a code of honor."

Costner said he's been trying to get "Valance" remade for years and -- although he said it's unlikely such a project would be his next film -- he acknowledged he has "an idea" about doing a fifth Western.

It's an idea that Costner is keeping to himself, for now.

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