Why the Western Needs to Come Back

Since Get Out, there has been much talk of the political utility of the horror genre, but with movies like ‘Hell or High Water’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ reaffirming that social comment isn’t the sole property of horror films, could the “dying” Western enjoy new life, post-election?
By  · Published on June 8th, 2017

Clue: the answer is Donald Trump-related.

Since Get Out, there has been much talk of the political utility of the horror movie — particularly after the results of the last presidential election — with its value lying in its perceptive ability to identify creeping civil threats and social boogeymen. But with movies like Hell or High Water and Mad Max: Fury Road reaffirming that social comment isn’t the sole property of the horror film, could the “dying” Western enjoy new life, post-election?

I think so. From its inception, the Western has been key to the communication of America’s national ideals and the mythologizing of its past and present. The frontier spirit of the original screen cowboy was closely bound up with quintessentially American notions of individuality, progress, and plenty — and when doubt began to plague these ideals, the Western duly refashioned itself in the country’s image. This is when the history of socio-political sentiment camouflaging itself in a cowboy’s clothes began; when early Westerns, with their confidently cloudless, white hat/black hat morality, emerged from the rubble of the mid-century’s wars with their ideology under heavy fire, the revisionists of the ‘60s and ‘70s took their place.

The tagline of ‘Soldier Blue’ was “A movie whose time is now”

These were psychologically darker, more cynical films that questioned many of the traditional Western’s central tenets, which were, not so coincidentally, the ideals most commonly held amongst the pre-war generations. While some lamented the “death” of the Western at this time, baby boomers sought and saw a revolutionizing of the genre that gave cinematic voice to their convictions. Images of US cavalry slaughtering the Cheyenne in Soldier Blue and Little Big Man came in the wake of the My Lai massacre and drew ideological parallels between the frontier and Vietnam, tapping into growing anti-war sentiment amongst the public. Others, too, questioned the clear line between good and bad that had provided the narrative backbone for most of the old Westerns (see There Was A Crooked Man) reinforcing the new generation’s distrust of authority.

Many of these revisionist themes have continued to develop into the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s, with steps being taken to undo the genre’s “pale, male, stale” representation problems: Brokeback Mountain, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Meek’s Cutoff, the short They Die By Dawn, and its upcoming feature adaptation, to name a few. The Western certainly isn’t dead, but its progress and productivity has come in jerks recently. As we attempt to process the bizarre and alarming new political and environmental developments arriving everyday, I’d like to argue that a resurgence of the genre that does best at forcing America to reckon with itself is sorely needed.

‘They Die By Dawn’

When its audience grew younger, more politically active and socially engaged, the Western remodelled itself in their image. So what’s stopping it now? America could no longer explain itself in such easy terms in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it can’t now, either. Well before 2016 inflicted itself upon us, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pre-empted the election results with Hell or High Water, a neo-Western with anti-capitalist undertones. With banks ripping off policemen and robbers alike, and its politically charged juxtapositional images of oil wells towering over foreclosed homes, the film tapped into an Occupy-inspired sense of moral outrage at corporate tyranny shared by both rural and urban Americans alike.

Taken then, Hell or High Water depicted the alienation of a “forgotten” America and the desperate lengths to which its overlooked inhabitants would go to right the wrongs of economic injustice. But post-election, Sheridan looked back to the film’s characters as a partial explanation for why so many Americans voted for a self-proclaimed “anti-Establishment” candidate. While economic concerns may not have actually been the driving force behind rural votes for Trump, rural voters did play a deciding role in his victory. The places they live are prime Western fodder, and the people themselves no strangers, either (although Westerns have traditionally toed a class and gender divide that the Trump vote didn’t). Focusing its attentions on what motivates rural-dwellers and keeps them up at night is what the Western was born doing, and so more films in the vein of Hell or High Water could bring us closer to understanding the parts of America we don’t hear much about outside of election season — even if we don’t like what they show us.

When the news broke recently that the US is to pull out of the Paris Agreement on rolling back climate change-causing emissions, it sent environmental concerns to the top of the world’s list of things to worry about (if not the President’s). Being so intrinsically linked with the national character, which finds itself ever-more polarized with each new headline, and with a track record of having its finger on the public pulse, Westerns, with their narratives often being set against the backdrop of man’s relationship with land, are the perfect genre to explore this real-life tension rapidly building between humanity and nature.

While classic Westerns documented the struggle for resources — water, livestock, gold — they were highly colored by nostalgia and enjoyed the bliss of ignorance re: Earth not actually coming with a bottomless refill of natural resources. However, in light of the Flint water crisis and the threats posed to water safety by government-backed corporate projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines (DAPL), the “range war” conflict for water rights in films like El Dorado and The Big Country could be extended into something with real contemporary currency for modern Americans.

On this particular issue, Westerns could do some good in another way, too. The particular vulnerability of Native American communities in the face of the environmental threats posed at Standing Rock has been highlighted elsewhere, but I think it deserves cinematic attention from the Western, too. Critics of the pipeline have argued that the disproportionate risk faced by these communities isn’t coincidental – in fact, they posit that it’s part of the country’s longer history of the active dehumanization of and brutality against people of color.

The Western deserves its fair share of blame here for all the degradation and slaughter of its early years, but in 2017, it has a shot at doing something positive. An example: although not the chief theme of the movie, Sheridan’s Wind River touches on the intrusion and violation of the reservation land on which it’s set by encroaching oil giants and their employees. While it’s too early to tell whether this will end up as a genre anomaly — Sheridan’s Cannes acceptance speech certainly suggests these issues are dear to him, at least — I think an uptake in this positive trend of amplifying the voices of people it once marginalized would be cathartic, healing, and is all the more urgently required given the Executive’s troubling U-turn on the DAPL project.

It’s not just about America, either — environmental concerns are universal. Australian Westerns like the dystopian Mad Max films can be viewed as cautionary tales on resource greed: when oil (or “guzzolene”) runs out, the films tell us, nuclear war and a kill-to-survive mentality will plague the earth, decimating populations and sharply cleaving society into the exploited many and the soul-sucking, resource-hoarding few. Water scarcity is the crux of 2015’s Fury Road, giving cinematic life to the World Bank’s warning that climate change-induced water shortages are likely to have “severe” effects around the globe.

Besides the Mad Max films and other Australian Westerns like The Proposition and The Rover, recent genre additions have taken place in Austria and Algeria, reaffirming the fact that anyone wanting to write the next big Western needn’t look too far from home for a setting — and that climate change’s universal impact can imbue the Western with fresh audiences and new potency.

Max can finally get that drink

We’re not lacking for escapist films that will help us suspend the grim reality of the day. We are, however, short of cinema that will help us process the messy aftermath of the headlines, and that’s why it’s high time the Western took up the baton and put to use its insightful knack of getting into the nitty-gritty of America’s moral frictions — and the world’s existential threats — that we’re in such dire need of at the moment.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.