Fans of the Western have been a recently suffering lot. There was a time when the cheaply made, simply told stories that dominated Westerns were pumped out at an alarming rate and life was good. Tastes changed and the Western turned violent, and Italian. Shortly after Sergio Leone made his mark, the Western hibernated again, to be roused by the 80’s “young groups” fad, which faded quickly. Then, with only a whisper from time to time and an Oscar here and there, the Western frontier, once so richly populated, seemingly disappeared for years. Times were tough. Thankfully, recent years have seen the Western return to prominence and theaters and with what could be a third fantastic Western in only two years in Appaloosa, gunslingers and lawmen may finally re-solidify themselves in the modern culture.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be ignoring much of the Golden Age of Westerns and their Italian resurfacing and focus on more modern incarnations. However, I would be remiss in not mentioning some of the classic Westerns of an era long past. Cimarron won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1931. Winchester ’73 was one of the tops in 1950. The year 1956 saw more than two dozen Westerns including John Wayne’s The Searchers. The West was won (How the West Was Won) in 1962. I could go on and on through the late 50s and 60s and 70s, what with Sergio Leone’s amazing A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 epitomizing the Spaghetti (Italian made) trend that also gave us The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, all of which helped lead to harder edged Westerns, like The Shootist or The Great Silence. For much of the 1950s (and pre-dating that) you’ll find simpler stories with relatively clear lines over good and evil. The 1960s saw the hazy characters take the lead, though outlaws and badmen like Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday had long been established as “good guys” despite some questionable character traits, like murdering. The Western was still prominent through the 1970s and it would take far too much time to list off all of the great films from this decade, like previous ones, but Clint Eastwood was still king (High Plains Drifter, Joe Kidd) and the stories had matured and evolved and were more apt to explore alternate leads, like Chato’s Land (starring Charles Bronson) which followed a mix-breed Indian who turns the tables on his violent pursuers. The movie also starred Jack Palance, who I have to mention in any article about the Western.
A Decade of Decline
In the name of completionism, the 1980s are covered briefly, as the Western entered its decline. The decade started positively with The Long Riders but by 1986s comedic The Three Amigos! the genre had been whittled down from more than a dozen movies a year to about four or so big releases. Young Guns ushered out a slow 1989 and the Western was poised to cease its relevancy if not for an energetic response to the youthful take on the Lincoln County War and renewed interest in Billy the Kid.
The Last Stand
The period spanning 1990 through 1994 proved to be a mini-resurgence, for a time, that eventually ended with the serious Western film disappearing for several years. The success of Young Guns lead to a quick follow up with Young Guns II (Bon Jovi received an Oscar nomination for his contribution to the soundtrack) and the comedic Western trend continued with the light-hearted, but somewhat serious Quigley Down Under and the out right hilarious Back to the Future III. Kevin Costner proved to be the catalyst for the soon to happen “Last Stand” in 1990 with the massive financial and critical success of Dances with Wolves, which went on to receive 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. A sweeping and epic tale, the serious Western looked momentarily strengthened. Costner would be back again this decade and later play a pivotal role in the resurgence of the Western more than ten years later.
Clint Eastwood triumphantly returned to the genre in 1992 by piloting Unforgiven, a gritty and grim look at the realities of murder and revenge, winning four Oscars in the process, including Best Picture. Tombstone followed in 1993, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, and while lacking any Academy recognition, was a financial success and is still well reviewed to this day. The following year, Costner’s long and factual biopic of Wyatt Earp failed at the box office while Mel Gibson’s Maverick, a comedy Western, did well. These two movies signified the last major releases of most of the 90s and such began the decade long drought.
The Lost Years
Much of the late 90s and most of this past decade have been relatively devoid of theatrically released Westerns. The genre lived on in direct to DVD releases thanks to the hard work of Western aficionados like Tom Selleck; these small films were often better than the few releases that made it into theaters. The period from 1995 until the end of 2002 saw no traditional Westerns receive a wide theatrical release. The DVD market was also sparse, with only Last Stand at Sabre River and Crossfire Trail really jumping to mind as a good Western from this period. Wild Wild West was released in 1999, much to the embarrassment of all involved and Western fans everywhere, while Shanghai Noon managed to be kind of funny. The Quick and the Dead also failed to impress in 1995 as did the revisionist biopic Wild Bill which vomited all over historical accuracy.
The Times, They are a Changin…Slowly
Kevin Costner, at times a respected film maker, at others a media whipping boy, returned to the big screen with Open Range, a beautifully shot classic Western that took the slow burn approach before exploding like a powder keg in one of the greatest gunfights ever filmed. The 2003 film made double its budget domestically and, when including international receipts, it more than tripled it, proving the Western could be profitable again.
The next step forward was the wildly acclaimed but canceled much too soon HBO series Deadwood, from David Milch. The show ran for 3 seasons before being dropped early because of budgetary reasons, but not before it made a good showing at the Emmys and won a Golden Globe for actor Ian McShane. The show was drastically different from most Westerns before it, showing violence in a gritty and realistic fashion and packing in more swear words per minute than any other c*******ing show ever. That same year saw the good, but financially disastrous release The Alamo which, while impressing some history buffs, failed to be remembered by the average movie goer.
In 2005, The Proposition was critically praised while the Sci-Fi Western Serenity came to theaters with its own brand of Western inspired space gunplay. Bandidas in 2006 brought plenty of sex appeal with its comedy, but the real resurgence of the Western happened in 2007. Strangely, with just two classic Western films released, it was heralded as a “big year” for Westerns. Assuredly it was, as both films garnered critical attention, though no other genre would have a “big year” with just two films in wide release. The first film to hit was the classic, fun, throwback (and remake) 3:10 to Yuma, starring the Oscar caliber talents of Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Peter Fonda. The film celebrated all that was good about the glory years of the Western with a timeless score by Marco Beltrami, while updating itself enough to be taken seriously. Shortly thereafter, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quietly moved through theaters. While unsuccessful financially, the film was received well by most, though its modest pace and long run time probably prevented it from catching on with the average viewer.
On cable, Bury My Heart on Wounded Knee was spectacularly and heartbreakingly adapted by HBO while Seraphim Falls went straight to DVD but proved to be a good film with great efforts from Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. In theaters, though not traditionally Western, but of that ending time period, was the Academy Award winning film There Will Be Blood.
Finally, the success of these past movies convinced New Line Cinema to continue forward with the Ed Harris directed adaptation of the 2005 Western crime novel Appaloosa, which opens wide on October 3rd (be sure to catch our review around September 21st). The film stars Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger and revolves around a pair of friends hired to defend a town from a murderous rancher. Early reviews are fairly sparse and relatively mixed – not a great sign, but at least we have a Western option at our fingertips.
What is it about the Western that enthralled scores of people years back? What is it that to this day, wrangles many of us in and secures our attention? There are many and varied reasons, from the superficial to the deep rooted. On the surface, Westerns can be fun and simple. Good guys can wear white, bad guys can wear black. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than Law (Good) vs Outlaw (Bad). Conversely, the Western also offers up many shades of gray. We support anti-heroes (The Wild Bunch), mysterious strangers (High Plains Drifter), and surly old men (The Shootist). The stories of such real life characters as Jesse and Frank James can be told as morality tales or present very complicated and deep insights into a nation torn asunder and then being forced back together, against the will of many. The American Frontier was a strange and wondrous place, full of complexities and adventure.
Perhaps that is why the American Western is so closely tied to us as an audience. There is no other Western Frontier. No country experienced what America did at that time. Fresh from a Civil War with many turning and heading out into a unique wilderness, fighting each other, American Indians, nature, the elements. Again on a shallow level, the gun is cool, the gun is powerful. Coming at a unique time in history, America found itself fighting across the plains just as Single Action Revolvers and Repeating Rifles came into being. Frontiersmen didn’t fight and die and live by the sword or the bow, they had the firearm, instrumental in paving the way. Perhaps no other genre so elevates the firearm to its rightful place of importance in history than the Western.
Visually, Westerns have a style all their own. A crib sheet of camera angles that move from wide shots establishing the vastness of the world around them, to the extreme close ups, diving into the tense moments before all hell is let loose. At the basest level, a Western film is a piece of America, like jazz music, something that we can expressly take credit for. From start to finish, the experience is an American one. A piece of us all longs to twirl a six shooter out of its leather holster, mount up, and ride into the sunset. With the exception of maybe war heroes, has an image of strength ever been more iconic than a lone cowboy saddling up against insurmountable odds because it was what was right? Romanticized, surely, but attractive to the hero we all want to be. Faced with immeasurable odds that wold cripple weaker men, our hero stands brazenly and confidently in front of his challenger. Moments later, justice served, the hero, without want of reward, calmly moves further on down the line. Westerns manage to simultaneously celebrate camaraderie (Young Guns), friendship (Tombstone), and rugged individualism (For a Few Dollars More). The traditional hero of the genre is everything a man aspires to be – brave, rugged, independent, and respected.
I could expound on the nature and appeal of Westerns for hours, but in the interest of brevity, will move on.
The Modern Cowboy
While the near totality of this article focused on traditional Westerns, when speaking of their resurgence it is important to note the arrival of “modern Westerns.” These are films that, through setting, story, and style resemble the classic Western themes despite taking place in modern times. Recent examples include The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Down in the Valley and the very classically themed No Country for Old Men.
Staking a Claim
So while the Western may continue to struggle with its place in modern cinema, one thing is certain – it has a place. The genre may never return to the great heights it once knew, but even the most ardent of fans would settle for two quality a films a year. With a system that pumps out Japanese horror remakes and spoof movies like they were essential nutrients, there’s no reason not to invest a little in the fans of the American Historical West. We can all appreciate a well told story, a fast gun, and a multifaceted character.
Some have said the Western died because there were no more stories to be told – ridiculous. Any story can be told through the Western tintype lens. War, romance, crime – any story imaginable can take place on the American frontier. Films such as these provide a beautiful backdrop and a blank story slate to be filled in. Whether it’s a trusted showdown of good versus evil, an elaborate crime drama, or a historical epic, few time periods can serve all exquisitely well.
In closing, in no real order, are a few of my favorite Western films and other staples of the genre that I recommend you check out.
- High Noon
- The Long Riders
- Deadwood Seasons 1, 2, 3
- The Adventures of Brisco Country Jr.
- A Fistful of Dollars
- For a Few Dollars More
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
- 3:10 to Yuma
- The Searchers
- Once Upon a Time in the West
- Chato’s Land
- The Shootist
- How the West was Won
- Dances With Wolves
- Open Range
- Back to the Future III
Do you think the Western is back? What’s your favorite Western?
Top Photo Credit: Andrew Snavely
Tombstone, Grave Photo: Robert Fure (Yeah, that’s right, I toured real Western locations)