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Are Westerns Dead?

               Is the Western genre dead? I’m not talking about so-called “contemporary westerns” like No Country for Old Men which incorporate common themes in a modern setting, but the gunslinger westerns, lawmen, cattle rustlers, showdowns all set in a roughly thirty year period in the American West. For a long time westerns were the popcorn films of Hollywood before they were gradually replaced by action movies and superhero franchises (of course if some of those westerns had a cinematic universe like Marvel, maybe we wouldn’t be asking this question). But now they’re really rare, the few times they’re attempted result in shlock adaptations like Wild Wild West, Cowboys vs. Aliens, and The Lone Ranger. There have been a few good ones like the remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, but they seem to pass unnoticed. Most of us probably don’t know or haven’t seen enough to consider any of them favourite movies. Hell before I started working on this the only westerns I really enjoyed were Back to the Future Part III and Blazing Saddles (though I did love Treasure of the Sierra Madre if it technically counts). In order to get an idea of whether the western genre is dead, we need to explore what made them popular in the first place.
                Westerns are very American stories at their core all about individuals standing against the rough lifestyle of the American heartland. The period was one where the south-western parts of the country primarily around California, Nevada, New Mexico, etc. were isolated from the civilization, authority, and government of the east coast. It was also a time characterized by the end of the Civil War and the repercussions were being felt. So this environment of danger, remoteness, and wilderness which was uniquely American was very attractive to Hollywood stories of heroism. One of the earliest films and likely the first western The Great Train Robbery in 1905 proved these kind of stories could work. Though a silent film, it has the treachery, action, bandits, and gunfights that would become staples of the genre. So this formula was repeated successfully. Cowboys became every kid’s idols, the Lone Ranger was one of the most successful figures across radio and eventually television, actors like Grace Kelly and Eli Wallach got their start in the genre, stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper were molded in it, and directors like John Ford managed to capture the dazzling landscapes and characters that brought this world to life. It also helped that in the early days of westerns many involved in production had memories of that time period. It was the fairly recent past and even into the 60s most were stories set less than a century ago.
                But it seemed around the 1970s the novelty was wearing off and people lost interest in these stories that were for the most part fairly formulaic. And after a while when stars like Wayne and Steve McQueen and directors like Ford and Howard Hawks were retired or dead, there wasn’t much of a replacement generation of giants. Without these kind of names attached, they didn’t seem as interesting to see, especially with the advent of special effects and greater opportunities in filmmaking highlighted by films like Star Wars. Westerns have since become a rarity, rarely a money-maker, made for the art or in paying homage rather than for storytelling, and more often than not those haven’t turned out well. Sounds like the genre’s on its last legs.
                Though maybe not. True it may be improbable that they’ll ever be the box office hits they once were, spoiled as modern audiences are to the flashy allure of big budget blockbusters, but as a significant presence in film and culture, there may be more of a chance. Society, particularly American society has always liked the idea of the rebel the outlaw operating by their own code, but still having a noble heart, heroic enough to fight off injustice. These kind of figures existed for centuries in myth and literature before westerns and still exist today. And we still love them. Han Solo in Star Wars, Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy; these are our favourite characters in their films and they’re all variations of this archetype popularized in film by westerns. The trope of wandering lawmen righting wrongs from town to town (creating the setup for many an episodic radio or TV serial) is akin to valiant knights in medieval romances; and even many of today’s superhero stories follow a like kind of principled figure moving on from one conflict and antagonist to another, selflessly risking all to protect a place and people they love. Take Captain America even further back in time replace his shield with a Stetson and you’ve got a western. And the frontier environment is also something we still relish, we’re just used to seeing it in different forms. Essentially westerns just told stories we already loved and continue to love, only they were all set in the same period of American history.
                So is the western dead? Not really. The western has survived but in forms you may not realize. Science fiction has brought the themes and characters of the genre to life. I’ve already cited the Star Wars example, while Star Trek draws even more heavily on western influences and concepts set on the “final” frontier of space. Hell Firefly the show with the biggest fan base for so few episodes was literally a western in space, right down to the visual and character designs. It’s carried over into other types of films more accessible and recognizable to a new generation. But what about traditional westerns? The archetypes and themes are still around and flourishing, but what about the Old West sagas as we know them?
                I remain optimistic. Throughout the history of the genre there have been a number of westerns that offered something new or different to the genre. High Noon directed by Fred Zinneman takes place in real time and depicts a situation where a sheriff played by Gary Cooper is unable to rally support when he has to defend his town against a gang of outlaws whose leader he put away. It addressed themes of the lone hero and American values like honour and duty over loyalty but can also be interpreted as an allegory for standing up against blacklisting (irritating John Wayne to no end). For those aspects, in addition to actually featuring a cast of developed secondary characters, it’s unique and considered one of the greatest westerns ever made. Then there’s films like the filmmaker-inspiring The Searchers and The Magnificent Seven that approached their conflicts in different ways and with somewhat darker tones.  And of course there was Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti western trilogy culminating in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But interestingly the film that many considered to be the end of the traditional western may have been the precursor to a western revival (not to mention my new favourite of the genre), and that is Unforgiven.
This was the last western made by the last true giant of westerns, Clint Eastwood and though it does have a very pro-gun message and Richard Harris was kind of pointless, it’s really admirable in its gritty realism something not seen much in classics of the genre. It dealt with aging, morality, and the cost of killing. I particularly love two scenes: one where Ned played by Morgan Freeman can’t bring himself to kill an injured cowboy from his sniper position in the rocks above, and another where the young gun who hired Eastwood’s Will Munny breaks down after killing for the first time. And we see the scars these experiences have left on Munny and that it may seem glorious to be a gunslinger but you always lose something of yourself. He’s not the happy hero who overcomes odds weekly that so many classic western protagonists have been, but a deeply damaged individual. It overturns the romanticism of the western adding something of a tragic nature to the hero. And that may be all it takes to breathe life into the genre. They’re methods that have been working well in other types of film. Certainly this doesn’t mean that all westerns should be exceptionally dark and dismal, but there should be a faithfulness to realism, character, and consequences. There have been westerns since that have gone in another direction and succeeded. Tombstone though a little too romantic in its history, delivered some very interesting characters who felt real in their morals and actions, especially Val Kilmer’s terrific portrayal of Doc Holliday. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained though typical of his revenge style and mostly pure homage to spaghetti westerns, also gave us interesting characters and in its focus on race felt very different than the westerns of old that unsurprisingly didn’t touch on that. But films like True Grit and a few others, mostly remakes have followed in the footsteps of Unforgiven and worked. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of remake as the Coen brothers’ film was much better than the original (I’m also kinda looking forward to The Magnificent Seven remake with Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and especially Chris Pratt), but once they can manage those alongside original stories set in the Old West with those themes, characters and tone, I think the western can really be back in a big way.
To say the western is dead is not a very truthful statement. It may not on the surface seem like a genre that’s very relevant today, but many characteristics of the western have had too much of an influence on and presence in popular storytelling to be completely dismissed as a dead form of art. And occasionally westerns are made today that take a closer look at character, story, and setting coupled with a realistic tone and a good visual style, that shows the genre is still alive, and with any luck can get back firmly on that saddle and ride into cinemas ready for gunfights and glory!

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