Elegy for the western: A plea for its comeback

westerns true gritSomeone needs to resurrect the western.

It’s either dead or dying now, and little is being done to give it life – True Grit (2010) notwithstanding.

There was a time back in the 1980s when the paucity of films in the category, save the intermittent flick such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985), spoke to the genre’s walk to the tombstone. Yet movies such as Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) brought it back for a time, proving once again – à la mid-century works like Broken Arrow (1950) and The Searchers (1956) – that oaters didn’t have to be juvenile, poverty-row entertainments … that they could deal with adult themes and treat their subjects with respect and realism. They even proved that they could continue to score at the Oscars, as well as at the box office.

What in the name of Randolph Scott happened?

The truth is, we’re not seeing great, iconic films of their ilk anymore. In fact, it’s rare that we even see any period, as studio executives seem to be spending more time examining the lives of present-day outlaws, sheriffs and Annie Oakleys than the ones who roamed the American frontier 150 years ago.

Oh, and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) doesn’t count, in my humble opinion.

Granted, we’ve seen television pick up some of the slack, with shows such as Deadwood (2004-2006) providing their own take on the genre. But the theatres haven’t followed suit, and that’s a disturbing problem. Even the Hollywood musical – once thought to be dead in the water – has returned with great flash, if not great tunes. (Sorry, Les Misérables (2012), I’m just not a big fan.)

So where’s that other product of studios past, the western? Hm?

westerns wild bunchI’m not one to believe that the category has run out of steam. A genre that has given us the likes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Stagecoach (1939), Little Big Man (1970), The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Shootist (1976) has got to have some time left.

It’s not the end of the West yet, my friends.

What I’d like to see is an influx of novel, personal projects that don’t re-tread old ground. The latest incarnation of True Grit was a virtuous attempt, but its 1969 cinematic predecessor prevents the new version from being entirely original. Something like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) would be welcome. Parody would not. Can Hollywood deliver? Or maybe the question is, does it want to?

I think it must. It has to. We’ll have nothing to print if the fact becomes legend. And I reckon that would be a crying shame.



Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

28 thoughts on “Elegy for the western: A plea for its comeback

  1. I liked The Liberty Valiance movie with Stewart, Wayne and Marvin in it. I think of it as a classic. Liberty is the bad guy. Stewart gets the girl and Wayne is buried with a cactus plant. It also has the phrase, if the legend is better than the real life, believe the legend.

  2. One film not mentioned here were Seraphim Falls (2006). It was a bit surprising to see Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neesan, headline in a western. It had one of my favorite elements from classic westerns; vendetta.

    I would say that it’s one of the better modern westerns I’ve seen. But not strong enough to relaunch an entire genre. Especially when compared to films like The Proposition, Unforgiven and True Grit.

    Great bit of writing as usual Simon.

  3. I think the main trouble with modern westerns (and most modern movies for that matter) is that they have to always have blood and guts.
    In most of the old westerns you wouldn’t see more than a spot of blood on a shirt, i think that it allowed the movie to focus on the story instead of the blood.

    • Interesting point. I think one of the intriguing things about some of the great, classic Westerns was how the directors got around code requirements to show conflict and the problems of the day. In general, I think Hitchcock was a master of doing that! With the Westerns, though, even though much of the focus today is on blood and guts, I still think quality films can be produced while containing strong violence–Pan’s Labyrinth is one example, as is Dead Man. But I agree with you that today there is an emphasis on blood squibs/CGI blood oftentimes; story should be more greatly emphasized in many films these days.

  4. OPEN RANGE & THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD are excellent westerns, MEEKS CUTOFF is also a worthy addition

    DEADWOOD should have lasted well past it’s superb three series, incidentally, would love to see a decent TV series about the American civil war

    • There are definitely some good ones out there, I agree. And I concur that we need a good new TV series on the Civil War–that’s a period, in fact, that we could use more movies about too.

  5. Thanks for the recent visit to my Western genre site….much appreciated. As perhaps you read, I teach a Western genre course at the college level and so appreciate the discussion you raise in this post.

    I would agree that big screen Westerns have been infrequent in the last 10 years but other forms of the genre have actually seen significant popular growth. The hit video game Red Dead Redemption (2010) has brought the Western genre to a whole new demographic and the popularity of current TV shows like AMC’s Hell on Wheels and A&E’s Longmire demonstrate there is still an audience for both Old West and contemporary Westerns.

    In terms of films, I would highly recommend The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, as an example of just how good – and elastic – the genre can still be.

    Thanks for raising this discussion!
    All the best,

    • Thanks for the comment. I think it’s interesting that TV and video games have picked up the slack a bit, and I agree that there’s still an audience for Westerns … including the old-fashioned kind. I wonder, though, that without the genre being ingrained in our lexicon via the frequent creation of high-concept Western movies, we might forget how good they can be. Hopefully, that will change.

      • Thanks for your reply. I would agree that feature films remain likely the most high-profile & mainstream forum for the Western but do want to share some stats for the reach of Western video games and TV shows:

        Red Dead Redemption: 13 million copies sold by Feb. 2012 (Gamasutra article)
        A&E’s Longmire – 4.1 million watched its initial debut episode (zap2it article)
        AMC’S Hell on Wheels – 4.4 million watched its initial debut episode (NY Mag article)

        So….those are some pretty strong numbers that speak to the support for well-crafted Westerns across mediums. Hopefully, there will again be a feature Western with wide-reaching appeal. I do think if they did a film adaptation of Red Dead Redemption (with the right casting) that it would do well! 🙂

        Thanks again for the great discussion,

  6. Allowing for David’s well-researched list, my own take on this is that films in certain genres seem to go in cycles, both of popularity, and production. Like London buses, it seems that if you wait long enough, some more will arrive in convoy. We had the batch of ‘sword and sandal’ epics, with ‘Troy’, Alexander’, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and others. Then there were the ‘desert war’ films, ‘Jarhead’ ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘The Kingdom’, etc.
    I personally did not see the point of remaking ‘True Grit’, and I feel that it failed to capture the imagination of a public riding high on the thrill of ‘Comic Culture’ blockbusters. There will be a time when the big guns decide that there haven’t been any decent westerns for a while, and that there are new markets to trawl. Then we will see a healthy batch of offerings once more.
    Don’t worry Simon, if you live long enough, they’ll be back!
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

  7. The Western hasn’t died. A number of them are released annually. Some are traditional; others are revisionist. Some are bloody serious; others are spoofs. Some are big budget fare; others are low cost indies. Some are great; others are cringe worthy. And at least one is animated. Eliminating “Cowboys & Aleins,” here is at least one film for each year of the past decade, starting with one of my all-time favorites and ending with westerns to be released later this year: “Open Range” (2003), “Renegade” (2004), “The Proposition” (2005), “Bandidas” (2006), “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), “Appaloosa” (2008), “The Gambler, the Girl and the Gunslinger” (2009), “True Grit” (2010), “Rango” and “Meek’s Cutoff” (2011), “Django Unchained” and “Dead Man’s Burden” (2012), “The Lone Ranger’ (2013), “Jane Got a Gun” and “Palominas” and “A Magnificent Death from a Shattered Hand” (2014). But it does seem that, with rare exception, Hollywood doesn’t “make ’em like they used to.”

    • Not sure I’d put 3:10 to Yuma in that list as, like True Grit, it’s been filmed before. Rango is a cartoon, and Django Unchained is more of a violent period piece, I think, than a Western. And the Lone Ranger is nothing different from what we’ve seen before … and quite worse, unfortunately. So you take those out, and there are few of quality left — hence my point. Perhaps the Western hasn’t died, but few original (revisionist or not), quality films in the genre make it to the screen. (Unfortunately, Renegade doesn’t count there, either.) What we need is great, unique screenwriting; the category envelops that admirably. But we don’t get that every year. I hope that changes.

  8. I really ought to double check those titles when I’m writing something late at night. Though, truth be told, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal is about scary as Danny Huston in The Proposition. James, is your dissertation confined to Eastwood-directed movies, or all movies he was involved with?

    • 🙂 Primarily the film’s he directed, with an acknowledgment that many of the Malpaso productions he didn’t direct still show evidence of his indirect authorial influence.

  9. I share your hope, Simon. I’ve always thought there was a good paper to write on American culture traced through the Western, from Stagecoach to The Searchers, The Wild Bunch to Unforgiven, maybe ending with the True Grit remake. (although the best Western I’ve seen in the past decade was The Proposal, from Australie.). BTW, Glenn Frankel’s new book on The Searchers is excellent

  10. In 1991, after he had finished shooting Unforgiven, I interviewed Clint Eastwood and asked him if there was any hope for the Western regaining the popularity it once had. He replied that superior movies, regardless of genre, would continue to find an audience, but that we were unlikely to see another era in which the Western enjoyed an across-the-board popularity as a genre.

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