Essays · Movies

Westerns Are Back, and Also Never Left

By  · Published on September 9th, 2016

A resurgence in classical westerns reminds us that post-apocalyptic cinema kept carrying the flame.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the western is back. Has been for a while, actually. In a piece published at Fox News Entertainment last November, writer Blanche Johnson highlighted an upcoming December and January slate that included Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk, and Jane Got a Gun; she also spoke to several people within the industry about the resurgence of the quintessential American genre. Perhaps the key quote regarding the state of the modern western came from Steve Gaydos, the features editor at Variety, who described the current state of the genre as somewhat stagnated.

I don’t think there is a rule that says no one can make a great western again, but for some reason it’s not part of our vernacular anymore. We went through a huge phase of what were called revisionist westerns. They set the heroism of the western on its head. That was the last great modification or enhancement or evolutionary step in the western.

Despite Gaydos’s comments about the western, since this article was published, the genre has only improved its standing at the box office. This month’s release of The Magnificent Seven has an estimated budget of $95 million dollars; this is solidly between the forty-something million the Weinstein Company spent on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and the $135 million 20th Century Fox dished out for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Together, these two films grossed northwards of $590 million worldwide and even managed to pull in a combined fifteen Academy Award nominations for their trouble, continuing a decades-long trend of movies like Unforgiven and True Grit acting as both mainstream pulp fiction and critical darlings.

Even excluding the two biggest titles of 2015, the past calendar year has been a rather robust one for the western genre. The aforementioned Bone Tomahawk is one of the most recognizable standouts— a somewhat divisive title around these parts, despite the fact that it is unequivocally excellent and our own Rob Hunter is a crazy person – but a list of impressive films would also include both conventional westerns such as Slow West and modern entries into the genre such as Hell or High Water. And while the evidence does support the notion that westerns are in a healthier place than they’ve ever been before, it also ignores the fact that the genre has never really gone away. Every year has its own handful of western releases; it just so happens that many of the high-profile ones take place decades in the future.

One key reason why the western has gone underground is the prevalence of post-apocalyptic film. If the classical western celebrated the spread of modernity into the frontier, and the revisionist western offered a considerably more antagonistic view of technology and corporate interests, then the post-apocalyptic film can easily be seen as a further extension of these concept in a modern western setting. Many of the visual and thematic elements of the western are present but exaggerated: we still have small communities run by local despots and lone gunmen who are hell-bent on outrunning their past, but whereas westerns previously showed society on the precipice of a technological revolution, now we see the last pieces of modernity about to be swallowed whole by the new frontier. Post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max are how our culture and its legion of environmental and economic anxieties can still connect to the story of a lone gunman who comes to town.

It’s not surprising, then, that Indiewire published a piece declaring Mad Max: Fury Road the spiritual successor to John Ford’s Stagecoach. Or that the David Michôd-directed The Rover is most often compared to revenge westerns. Or even that John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, in many ways the modern template for the post-apocalyptic film, is shot through with the director’s love of westerns (and western actors in particular). Gaydos is probably partially right when he talks about the evolution of the westerns grinding to a halt; a lot of the social and cultural criticisms inherent in the ’60s and ’70s stepped out of the spurs and into a pair of neon combat boots. The ideas that made the westerns of this period some of the most important modern films grew to fit this new form.

The Rise of the Transnational Western

Of course, the western hasn’t survived this long by ignoring its imitators. If you delve a little bit into the history of the western, you see a genre constantly in dialogue with the other important films of their era. First there were the silent films, then the spiritual successors directed by Kurosawa, followed by the next wave of revisionist westerns that existed at the intersection of an international marketplace and a Hollywood still reeling from the violence of Bonnie and Clyde. Throughout it all, westerns have absorbed elements of various genres and incorporated them into their narratives. What interests me about the western isn’t so much the current state of the archetypal western as the possibility of seeing the genre continue to absorb the aesthetic and thematic elements of the post-apocalyptic film that interest the next generation of directors. Directors like John Hillcoat demonstrate just how easy it is for filmmakers to move quickly and confidently between western and post-apocalyptic cinema; you could reveal a wealth of information about these movies simply by comparing his work on The Proposition and The Road.

The western will never truly go away; this country is too in love with its own mythology to ever punt on the idea of a noble (or ignoble) gunslinger carving a path through the American west. But as we see a resurgence in the genre’s classic form, it’s important to note the various ways that the western has changed, grown, and been adopted by other types of film. Post-apocalyptic cinema has kept the flame of the Hollywood western alive in our hearts for decades now; it will be very interesting to see if this town really is big enough for the both of them.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)