While it’s sold as a comedic Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West is not a very good Western at all. Oh, it may take place in the 19th century American frontier and feature pistol duels, saloon brawls and farming, but its story is completely 21st century romance. The movie is your standard “nice guy loses girl, tries to win her back and discovers a much better girl in the process” affair. The setting is nothing but window dressing. It isn’t even exploited for very many jokes, good or otherwise — and most of the jokes are bad. But there’s one upside to this misaimed move on the part of writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane. He’s put himself in similar thematic territory with an already existing film. And that film does relationships and humor much, much better.
Sherman’s March is a supremely strange piece of work. Originally, director Ross McElwee set out to retrace the route General Tecumseh Sherman took on his March to the Sea during the Civil War. Sherman earned the eternal enmity of the American South by ruthlessly razing everything in his army’s path. But McElwee wreaks a very different kind of destruction, endless self-scrutiny. Early on in production, his girlfriend dumped him, and the documentary became something new. In the film, he interviews his family and friends, with a special emphasis on the women he has known and tried (and/or failed) to romance. This offbeat journey takes him and the people he meets through a wide variety of 1980s subject matter, from nuclear war to the career of Burt Reynolds. It’s a 2½-houe epic of cringeworthy encounters, bizarre non sequiturs and moments of surprising grace or insight.
The South is not the West, although popular consciousness sometimes conflates the two regions (MacFarlane does it, at least, with a end-credits cameo I won’t spoil). But Sherman’s March captures the local color of Georgia with minute precision. It’s on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from A Million Ways to Die in the West, which might as well have been shot in the fake frontier town erected by the characters of Blazing Saddles. It’s not even that a farce has to convey any sense of time and place, but when its story easily could have happened in the modern day with just a few tweaks, then what’s the point of the setting? Sherman’s March is a far more accomplished Southern than A Million Ways is Western.
But the shared theme of romantic woe is where the doc truly blows the fiction film out of the water. MacFarlane’s main character (played by himself) experiences a classic movie protagonist dilemma in which his only problem is that he’s fallen in love with the wrong girl. She’s pretty but doesn’t appreciate him the way he deserves, and he doesn’t recognize that because he just needs a boost of confidence, darn it. And then the right girl comes along and is willing to be patient with him, and she sees him for the great guy that he is, etc, etc, you get the drift. It’s the kind of arc that could only come from a mental space of embarrassing lack in self-awareness. But it also feels very personal. MacFarlane’s character doesn’t seem too far off from how MacFarlane presents himself in reality, and considering that this film was in production at the same time that he had a breakup, it seems that this movie became a way for him to work through his turmoil. In that way, both he and McElwee are starting their respective movies from the same place.
The difference is in how McElwee approaches his courting misadventures. While he could never be described as the ideal romantic lead, McElwee diffuses any hostility the viewer might have towards his less desirable qualities through endless self-interrogation. He knows he’s flawed, and he’s trying to work through it. He engages in open, direct conversation with the many women he becomes smitten with on his journey, a marked contrast to the Hollywood fakery of the interactions in A Million Ways. And the place that McElwee comes to after all his travails, while perhaps not fully satisfying, is at least one more positive than where he was before. He’s changed, and that hasn’t fixed him, but it leaves space for hope in the future. Compare that to MacFarlane’s character, whose journey is supposed to be about finding his courage but is really about him learning how great he already was.
Finally, Sherman’s March is a much better comedy than A Million Ways. While the Western has the usual MacFarlane blend of scatological humor and repeated punchlines, the Southern exploits human eccentricity for all of its worth. And it’s not as though the doc is classier than the fiction one. In one scene, McElwee regular Charleen Swansea insists that the overgrowth they are walking through is like pubic hair. It leads her to chastise him with the golden line, “This is life; this isn’t dead. When it sits on your face, you can’t tell which it is.” MacFarlane wishes he could write something simultaneously so dirty, funny and insightful.
Both McElwee and MacFarlane made movies that were supposed to be about events in the 1800s but ended up being about the directors themselves. The difference is that McElwee turned his pain and confusion into something wonderful, while MacFarlane made something self-indulgent and awkward. Sherman’s March doesn’t appear a likely counterpart to A Million Ways to Die in the West, but it really does outmatch that film when it comes to humor, heart and regionalism.
Sherman’s March is currently available to stream on Netflix Watch Instantly and can be found on DVD via First Run Features.