For yet another year, superheroes have dominated the hearts and minds of audiences around the world. And while some superhero flicks invoke the spirit of the Western (think Chris Pratt’s turn as a rogue space cowboy in Guardians of the Galaxy), the Western in its traditional form has largely been displaced in recent years.
This cycle is nothing new, though. Westerns have come in and out of favor as the premier genre for reflecting the essence of American values. As each generation ushers in new or renewed fears, hopes and perspectives on the world, the world of film has adapted accordingly. As we wait for the Western to come full circle, let’s take a look back at the beginning:
It all started with a train.
In 1903, Edwin S. Porter, a former cameraman for Thomas Edison, unveiled before a small exhibition at Huber’s Museum in New York City what many consider to be the first Western and narrative film, capturing both the attention and the experience of the contemporary American moviegoer all within a lean (the film ran at a taut twelve minutes) moving picture.
When The Great Train Robbery was released, it set a precedent for the Western genre and the American cinematic experience as a whole. At a time when films were limited in both their scope and technological prowess and filmmakers were forced to set their pictures in simple settings, Porter gave audiences something new and different, using unconventional editing techniques and giving audiences an action-filled escape from their everyday lives.
Many of the earliest filmmakers attempted to recycle Porter’s central plot in an effort to recapture what had made The Great Train Robbery such a critical and commercial success.
Call it the OG superhero flick.
But then came sound. With this new innovation, Hollywood’s gaze widened & they wanted to explore other genres that weren’t as easily brought to fruition without audio. Westerns became somewhat of a forgotten genre, shelved in lieu of more static films that allowed the actors to limit their movements in order to effectively capture the audio.
Fast forward 20 years. Prelaw student at the University of South Carolina and football/frat star John Wayne has just broken his collarbone and, subsequently losing his athletic scholarship, is forced to leave USC and as a favor to his former coach, pursues a career as…a prop boy for director John Ford.
At the time, the Western genre had been all but abandoned. That all changed when in 1939 Ford cast then-unknown John Wayne as a supporting character in his film Stagecoach. The film almost didn’t see the light of day, having circulated for over a year to numerous Hollywood studios that deemed it irrelevant and likely unprofitable. But as fate would have it, independent production studio United Artists finally scooped it up and proved everyone else very wrong.
Not only was the film nominated for seven Academy Awards, it catapulted that former prop boy to fame and effectively revived the Western genre as a whole. For nearly twenty years, Hollywood sought to, once again, recapture the success of the film that started it all (again) and for twenty years, they were successful. The advent of Cinemascope made Westerns even grander, transforming the sweeping vistas into characters of their own through an immersive widened visual experience. People were flocking to theatres for the larger than life experience these films provided.
Then came television. As TVs worked their way into the homes and hearts of the American populace, Westerns became a bit more self-referential, with shows like Wild Wild West capitalizing on the popularity of James Bond to provide a refreshed Western experience that coupled the classic genre with more modern sensibilities.
It only made sense that an Italian would come along and save our inherently American genre.
Leone, the Italian born son of filmmaker Roberto Roberti, had a plan to save the exhausted Western: he would abandon the simplicity and glamorization of the genre and replace it with the moral complexity its characters deserved. With films like A Fistful of Dollars, the gorgeous, sand stricken vistas became unforgiving, the battles drew blood and its protagonists were no longer protagonists, they were “anti-heroes” (predominantly portrayed by Leone’s Western muse Clint Eastwood) with scars, products of the violence that birthed them. This new adaptation of the Western, juxtaposing Italian and American sensibilities, came to be known as…
The Spaghetti Western.
Leone, Eastwood, and director Sam Peckinpah perpetuated this new format of the genre from the mid-1960’s until it eventually gave way to the sensibilities of the mid-70’s. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, adopting the models their predecessors had laid bare, brought forth a new wave of filmmaking, though the DNA of the Western remained intact.
And, despite the Western’s current absence, it still does.
Upon dissection of the Western, you discover a thematic through-line: a medium through which filmmakers can explore the American way. Either at face value, or through allegorical means, the Western has always reflected core issues: from economically imbalanced governments to the quest for the “American dream”, these films have always provided a mirror through which to gaze at our troubled characters and even more troubled past, albeit through a strictly white heterosexual lens.
Fast forward to 2017. The superhero genre has become the new Western, as morally complex characters face their demons to the tune of a $200 million price tag. Attempts at explicitly reviving the genre have proven fruitless (the collective gaze dramatically pans to films like Lone Ranger and Cowboys & Aliens) and yet, in disguise, the western has continued to reign supreme. Superhero films such as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and X-Men (or Guardians, as we previously alluded) have successfully repackaged the themes of the Western for a 21st century audience; reflecting an ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, with themes such as racism and illegal immigration now taking center stage.
British filmmaker David Mackenzie’s 2016 Western Hell or High Water (which just picked up four Oscar nominations and one dubya for Jeff Bridges’ supporting turn as a soon-to be-retired Texas Ranger) served as both an allegory for the state of the American economy and for the Western genre as a whole as we cling to a past that simply does not exist.
James Mangold (who, back in 2007, made a valiant attempt to reinvigorate a Western classic in the form of his critically acclaimed remake of 3:10 to Yuma) has more overtly juxtaposed elements of the American Western with his just-released superhero film Logan. The film, which serves as the swan song for Hugh Jackman’s beloved iteration of the clawed X-Men anti-hero, Wolverine, brings together the unforgiving frontier of the American Western with the deteriorating anti-heroes that have become a staple of the genre. Your daddy’s Western, these surely ain’t.
But is that such a bad thing?
As the proverbial phoenix, the Western is destined to rise from the ashes again and again, as history has and will continue to show us. The Western is very much emblazoned in our culture’s cinematic DNA, constantly repackaged and revamped to reflect our progressive climate and desire for “Bigger!” as digital effect-driven blockbusters continue to be our chief source of entertainment. But bigger is not always better, and sometimes, it takes the small to sell the big.
The Western is dying. But it will never be dead.