But the Oscar-winning director of "A Beautiful Mind" and "Apollo 13" says he would prefer his new film, "The Missing," not be characterized as a "western," noting that the term oversimplifies the movie and tends to conjure up images limited to frontier folk riding horses and firing Winchester rifles.
"Absolutely it's a western," concedes the 49-year-old Oklahoma native, "but from a marketing standpoint, it's a scary label and it's a limiting label. The fear is that if you lead with that and define your movie in terms of genre, you're underestimating what's original and entertaining and involving about the movie."
Set in the 1880s in the American Southwest, "The Missing" is the tale of Maggie, a young widow (Cate Blanchett) raising her two children (Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd) alone in the wilderness. When one daughter is kidnapped by a gang of outlaws led by a madman with mystical powers (Eric Schweig), Maggie makes a desperate bid to get her back by enlisting the help of the father (Tommy Lee Jones) who abandoned her family years before to live with a tribe of Apaches.
If the story sounds a tiny bit familiar, you might be thinking of "The Searchers," the classic 1956 John Ford movie starring Wayne as a man hunting for a young niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped by Indians.
"(Screenwriter) John Sayles mentioned that to me," Howard recalls, and I said, 'It's a lot like 'The Searchers' -- except for plot, character and theme.' The deciding incident, of course, is like 'Searchers,' but like a lot of other westerns, and sort of torn from the pages of history."
Asked if he has harbored a dream of making his own western since starring with the Duke in "The Shootist," Howard replies: "The era has always interested me and there have been some great films made. But I'm not a student of the western and I haven't had the sort of burning desire. Kind of a low-grade itch."
The "Happy Days" icon had long been attached to direct a version of "The Alamo" for Disney, but bowed out of the project, citing creative differences with the Mouse House. Howard says he is not bitter about the decision, however, explaining he couldn't make the film he wanted to with Disney, nor give the studio what it was looking for, so it was best he retain only a producing credit on the project.
"The great thing is being involved with it as a producer, I didn't have to let go of it, and John Lee Hancock was my idea as a person to come in and work on it... Once the decision was made, I felt good about it," Howard said.
Release of "The Alamo," starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, was originally scheduled for this Christmas, but was recently pushed back until April 2004. The date change means "The Missing" and "The Alamo" won't be going head-to-head at the box office. Industry experts are predicting, however, that Blanchett may end up competing against herself at Oscar time with two stellar performances under her belt: as Maggie in "The Missing" and as a slain Irish journalist in the bio-pic, "Veronica Guerin."
"You just kind of pick up that feeling and I know that with the role of Maggie, it blew me away about what she did. It was not the flashy part, and yet she brings so much into each moment and it took hard work and creativity for her to bring that much detail and range of emotion into that character."
Howard said Blanchett's accessibility and humanity convinced him she was his Maggie.
"I knew we could believe that this wasn't a movie star dressed up in some costumes out on the prairie," he said. "She could embody the woman in a very realistic way and have the toughness, yet allow us to understand how emotionally damaged this woman was without being sentimental and dissolving into a pool of tears."
As for Tommy Lee Jones, Howard said he could have settled on "more reliable box-office marquee superstars or something, but I just felt that the purest creative choice I could make would be casting Tommy Lee. I loved his work in 'Lonesome Dove.' I just felt that his intellect and his creative appetite when challenged would be such that he could really do something interesting with this particular guy."