There is perhaps no other genre in film so geared towards American sensibilities as the western. While the elements within the western–the good vs. bad, the revenge scenario, or even the tortured loneliness of a hero—can all be translated through different categories of film and to different cultures, it is the setting that makes the western so unique.
Beginning in the silent era, the western captured movie-goers’ imaginations. Quick drawing, white hat good guys battled the mustachioed black hats, all for the love of the swooning heroine and a chance to ride into the black and white sunset. Men like Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and William S. Hart became icons, churning out quick pictures which all had the same basic plot.
When sound came into play, men like Mix became obsolete. Westerns of the 1930s continued on in much the same vein as the decade before; amiable stars like singing cowboy Roy Rogers starred in mostly forgettable films with titles like “Come on, Rangers.”
As the world emerged from the physical and emotional carnage of World War II, the new middle class turned to actors like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper as their western icons. Nobody fit the bill like Wayne, a towering presence both on and off his horse.
Wayne, when teamed up with the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks, delivered movie after movie, playing an idealized version of himself. Starting with the classic “Red River,” and continuing through 1956’s “The Searchers,” the expansive shots of sky and plains fit in lockstep with his performances in these mostly serious epics. While the Duke would play a variety of roles in different types of movies, it was the western for which he became an icon. In Hawks’ films like “Rio Bravo,” and “El Dorado,” Wayne feasted on the genre for decades, and as time wore on, the roles took on an air of humor as the movies became less serious.
Cooper starred in the seminal western of this period, 1952’s “High Noon.” Directed by Fred Zinnemann, “High Noon” played out as both an allegorical tale of the Red Scare at the time and as the ultimate story of a lone man standing up to a gang of criminals. Shot in real time, the movie dispensed with many conventions of the westerns of the time. Very few sweeping expanses and a minimalist score lent more gravity to Cooper’s performance as Will Kane.
It was during the 1950s that the genre found its rhythm, as hard charging, hard living cowboys like Wayne, Cooper, Henry Fonda, and un-macho Jimmy Stewart rode their horses, fought Indians (usually played by white men in makeup) and had a very good time doing it.
By the 1960s, though, it seemed that as a genre, the western had boxed itself into a corner. Television had proven that audiences no longer needed Technicolor and CinemaScope to enjoy cowboys and Indians. TV cowboys were of a slightly different breed; they had to be, as they were now coming into American living rooms on a weekly basis. Family drama was a big winner on “Bonanza.” Gadgets and tricks were on display in “The Wild Wild West,” following the cloak and dagger trend of James Bond. James Garner, no stranger to playing a cowboy on the big screen, disarmed viewers with his cocky grin and charm in “Maverick.” Both “The Wild Wild West” and “Maverick” would see big-screen treatments during the great remake boom 30 years later by a generation that had virtually no idea where these titles came from.
The studio system was dying a rapid death; the Hayes Code was gone, and old school filmmaking was being assaulted on all sides by changing technology, generational shifts in attitudes, and willingness from young filmmakers to push the envelope with different types of storytelling. If not for a few directors, such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, the western may have ceased to exist altogether.
The westerns that Leone and Peckinpah made bore little resemblance to the feel-good, rousing epics of decades past. Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood (who had cut his teeth in the genre as Rowdy Yates in TV’s “Rawhide”) brought the term “Spaghetti Western” into our collective consciousness.
Made on fairly small budgets and using foreign locales, these movies made Eastwood, playing an unlikable anti-hero, an international star. Everything about these movies changed the way audiences viewed westerns. Good and evil were now ambiguous states. Abandoning soundstages, Leone also changed the way the films looked and felt. Gritty, sand swept vistas left people dirty and sweaty. His shooting techniques always maximized tension. In 1968, Leone would craft what is considered his western masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” starring Fonda in his first bad guy role.
If the genre needed somebody like Leone to push it into new territory, then it also needed somebody like Peckinpah to set off a bomb to make sure that it could never go back. Peckinpah delivered with 1969’s “The Wild Bunch,” using the time honored “one last score” scenario as an allegorical tale for the genre itself, and upping the ante several degrees in the process.
The aging gunfighters in the film, led by a mesmerizing William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, can’t quite adapt as the Old West disappears around them. Peckinpah revels in the violence; there are plenty of scenes where people are gunned down in slow motion, throats are slashed, and explosions are set off—including one of the most famous in cinematic history involving a group of horsemen who are pursuing the bandits getting dumped into a river as the bridge gives way underneath.
But “The Wild Bunch” isn’t merely about the violence. Peckinpah was a hyper-kinetic soul, a product of the dying frontier himself; he identified with his protagonists, and he gave the scarred, worn out outlaws a human voice. Holden, as Bunch leader Pike Bishop and Robert Ryan, as Deke Thornton, Bishop’s former friend and gang member who now leads the group tracking Bishop down, give their characters believability and gravitas.
As the 1970s dawned, it was clear that most filmmakers had little use for the western genre. The epicenter of filmmaking had shifted; directors were now being trained in theory, and using their suburban and urban upbringings in their storytelling. Fringe directors like Robert Altman were now satirizing Americana instead of taking it at face value with films like “MASH” and “Nashville.” Filmmakers such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were beginning to set the tone that would last for another two decades.
Wayne, forever indelible as a cowboy with his cockeyed gait and halting manner of speech, soldiered on, and even the Duke was willing to push himself with his later westerns. “True Grit,” “The Cowboys,” and his last film, “The Shootist,” show Wayne as no longer invincible, as themes of aging, skewed morality, and racism, (albeit mostly under the surface), crept into his later films. It was Eastwood, however, who was most responsible for keeping the western alive during the decade.
These films were decidedly different star making turns than the westerns of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. While Eastwood’s protagonists mostly came out on top, there was emptiness in many of his victories. His epochal western of the decade was 1976’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which he directed himself. As Wales, a farmer turned reluctant vigilante in post-Civil War America, Eastwood stars in a film that is at times a violent, singular revenge story as well as one of the first mainstream westerns to openly deal with the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians during westward expansion.
As the decade wore on, the western all but vanished. Steve McQueen’s last western was “Tom Horn,” released in 1980, the year he died. Eastwood wouldn’t make another until 1985’s “Pale Rider.” 1985 also saw “Silverado,” which was Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to the Old West. Kasdan crafted a good movie, but as with most movies of its type, it is played that way, with a knowing wink from its cast, led by Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Scott Glen, and Danny Glover.
It was with Eastwood’s last western, 1992’s “Unforgiven,” in which the genre had both its evolutionary coming-out party and its swan song. Winning an Oscar for Eastwood as best director, “Unforgiven” is an unflinching movie, as aging gunslinger William Munny, played by Eastwood, takes one last job as a hired killer. With Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris in the cast, Eastwood made a movie as relentless as the rain falling in the final scene as Munny, who has completely devolved into the killer he once was, rides out into the night—a friendless widower who knows far more about death than life.
It has been more than 20 years since “Unforgiven,” and the western has all but disappeared, and only on occasion is the genre dusted off. The early 1990s saw two dueling variations of Wyatt Earp, the somber (and painfully slow) “Wyatt Earp” with Costner in the titular role and the much more rousing and entertaining (if not always historically accurate) “Tombstone,” starring Kurt Russell as the Kansas lawman.
Costner’s devotion to the genre was on display again as he directed and starred in 2003’s “Open Range,” which paired him with Robert Duvall (who has been in his share of westerns) and Annette Bening. The gorgeous western vistas, courtesy of cinematographer James Muro, provide the backdrop to a familiar tale, but one that has excellent pace and is told well. Movies often repeat themselves, but there will always be an audience as long as the films themselves are well made.
It is ironic then, that the medium that is sometimes credited with destroying the big screen western—TV—was responsible for breathing new life into the genre. But HBO’s “Deadwood” bears no resemblance to any 1960s cowboy shoot ‘em up show. Profane, violent and sexualized, “Deadwood” was a fascinating character study of a small mining settlement in a territory that was heading for statehood. Taking the familiar theme of a population on the verge of being forced to accept change, this David Milch show did for the western what “The Sopranos” did for the mafia genre. It was updated, and uncut and without commercials, it allowed for fascinating story arcs and true character development.
But “Deadwood” was cancelled eight years ago, and once again, the western has receded into the farthest corners of the filmmaking world. Eastwood once said that with “Unforgiven,” he wanted to bury the western. It seems those words have indeed come true.