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  • The Western Is Dead; Long Live the Western

    by Joseph Susanka

    Since film’s earliest days, no genre has stood out as more quintessentially American than the Western. Drawing heavily upon that era of America’s violently romantic, whirlwind adolescence, Hollywood’s savviest studios churned out an extraordinary number of them during the industry’s silent and early sound years. These films — along with the dime novels and tall tales of earlier times — formed a pseudo-mythological back story for a country whose growth had been too rapid and too self-aware for a more traditional mythology. They manifested many of the characteristics typically associated with mythology, particularly the archetypal heroes, villains, and idealized characters and stories. Populated by golden-hearted hookers, sniveling villains, and narrow-waisted heroes, the Western of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s gave America exactly what it wanted: clearly defined yet vaguely metaphorical battles between good and evil, where the struggles were epic, Right won out, and riding off into sunsets was a way of life.

    After World War II, many film genres underwent a number of stylistic and thematic shifts, and the Western was no exception. A generation of Americans that had found real heroes on the battlefield was less drawn to the representation of idealized, “unrealistic” heroism and optimism found in pre-war films. Neo-realism, method acting, and moral ambiguity began to appear more frequently in the cinematic vocabulary of the time.For many genres, these were differences of degree rather than kind. But for the Western, the poor man’s myth, this shift was far more dramatic: a well-intentioned (and, one could argue, appropriate) move that had a devastating effect on the genre’s very existence. Every time a hero succumbed to temptation or admitted to the complexity of his moral musings — every time a hooker proved to be nothing more than a hooker, or a villain displayed confusingly sympathetic leanings — the “universal, archetypal” nature of the genre faded a bit further into the background.

    Ironically, it was John Ford — whose critical and financial success with Stagecoach signaled the return of the Western as a serious genre (rather than the money-making B-reel filler it had become in the late 1930s) — who shepherded the Western through the early years of its demise. It was films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that first began to explore the Western hero as misfit — a man whose clarity of vision and action-oriented solutions to life’s problems were seen as increasingly simplistic and unrealistic rather than virtues to be emulated.

    With the arrival of such directors as Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, and Sam Peckinpah, the Western moved even farther from the realm of archetypes. No longer primarily populated by larger-than-life mythological characters, the focus shifted to the “real life” story, with its attendant moral confusion and hardships. While these movies still attracted audiences, the films had fundamentally changed from the genre’s early years. When Sergio Leone, the revisionist Western’s true master, released A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) in 1964, the transformation of the Western from populist powerhouse to critical darling was complete.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the many elegiac musings on the genre revolved around its steady decline as a box-office player, and on the understandable dearth of studio offerings that followed as a result. So, when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven took the 1993 Academy Awards by storm while amassing over $100 million in ticket sales, many eagerly hailed it as a welcome effort to save the genre. But a closer examination of the film reveals it to be a direct successor to those created and championed by Eastwood’s mentor, Leone.

    Bill Munny is the perfect anti-hero: his motivations murky, his actions questionable, his revenge-fueled rampages revealing him to be an “unforgivable” protagonist, driven by everything his deceased wife had struggled so hard to redeem him from during their time together. He is the final word on the Revisionist Western Hero: a man whose chief appeal is his steely eyed tenacity, implacable indifference, and incarnation of the principle that “might, at long last, makes right” — as unconnected to the mythological West of black and white hats, sunset rides, and untarnishable ideals as he is to the notion of right and wrong that drove so many of Hollywood’s traditional Westerns.

    Unforgiven
    is the zenith of those films hell-bent on reminding America that the men who oversaw so much of its Western expansion were as imperfect and imperfectly motivated as we ordinary humans. But that’s never why Americans watched Westerns in the first place. Rather than reviving the genre, Unforgiven made manifest the Western’s progression from audience pleaser to message piece that put the final nail in the genre’s coffin: after years of unparalleled (albeit gradually declining) success, the traditional Western was finally dead, and Hollywood had no one to blame but itself.

     

    But then, something unexpected happened. A generation of filmmakers steeped in the stylistic vocabulary of the revisionist Western found themselves drawn to the mythological themes of the past, to the struggle between good and evil that had been such a hallmark of the days of the genre’s greatest success. Rather than consigning the Western to the ash heap of cinematic history, they began to produce a new kind of Western: a blend of styles and themes from both the new and old eras that has been steadily evolving over the last decade and a half.

    Open Range
    , released in 2003, is one of the better examples of this new hybrid Western. Almost eerily reminiscent of Shane, the Kevin Costner-helmed film deals with many of the same themes as Alan Ladd’s 1953 landmark, while sparing the audience from the original’s interminably irritating Joey Starrett and offering a happier conclusion to the romantic subplot. After a somewhat deliberate first half that finds Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner scanning endless Montana horizons while speaking in clipped, cryptic monotones, the film morphs into a traditionally minded redemption story. Costner makes use of many of the revisionist Western’s stylistic trappings — the film’s gunfights are among the most brutal and concussive ever filmed — while staying true to the themes of his traditional predecessors.

    Costner’s Charlie Waite, the most recent entry into the pantheon of “former gunfighter turned aspiring family man,” is troubled by his violent past yet convinced that his current actions are legitimate. Sue Barlow, wonderfully played by Annette Benning (taking full advantage of her distressingly short screen time), recognizes that his discomfort is a sign of his true worth. As she tells Waite after his final gunfight, “Maybe you’ve done some bad things. Maybe worse than bad. But what happened here today wasn’t one of ‘em.” In the manner of the finest traditional Westerns, it is Waite’s shady skills turned to good that allow him a shot at true redemption.

    Another striking example of this new hybrid Western is 2008′s Appaloosa, led by Ed Harris. Again, the grittiness and darker themes of Leone and Co. are very much on display: The gunfights are savage and chaotic, altogether lacking in the elegance and restraint of the traditional Western. Harris’s Virgil Cole and Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch are deeply flawed men whose imperfections are so significant that they come dangerously close to compromising their audience’s ability to see them as heroes — and Renee Zellweger’s “hooker with a heart of gold” leans much too heavily on the harlot, with barely a hint of gold.

    The specter of steely eyed lawmen facing off against villains who are only slightly worse than their heroic counterparts is nothing new for the revisionist West, and the story is mostly predictable (particularly if the Open Range-like “gunman makes good” meme is fresh in anyone’s mind). But the explicitly sacrificial choice Hitch makes as he attempts to prevent his friend from taking a life without sufficient cause is ennobling, harkening back to the inspirational themes and ideals of Westerns past. While hardly a cheerful or lighthearted film, it certainly boasts a significant silver lining beneath the clouds — a clear example of the new idealism/realism hybrid at work.

    The recent remake of the classic 3:10 to Yuma is another particularly fascinating case of old meets new, and not simply because it miraculously manages to avoid the curse of the inferior and unimaginative remake that has haunted Hollywood for generations. Critical reception of the film was generally positive, and many spoke glowingly of the increased cynicism and brutality it brought to the story. The trappings of the revisionist West are definitely present in director James Mangold’s reworking, but the story itself is strikingly uncynical.

    One-legged Dan Evans (played by Christian Bale) has lost the respect of his wife and sons, finding himself an object of ridicule in his own home. He seizes upon the opportunity to escort the charismatic outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the train station at Contention, seeing it as his only chance to win back his family’s respect and make himself a “whole man” once again. The film sets up a heart-wrenching dichotomy between the actions that would save Dan and his broken body on the one hand, and those that would restore him to his former virtue — at no small cost — on the other. The story’s resolution, while steeped in the darkness of the revisionist Western, reveals a clear grasp of the ideals that the old heroes (and their creators) held dear. Even Wade is changed for the better by the encounter, and while his actions stop short (well short) of heroism, the notion of redemption offered and accepted is palpable.

    It is unlikely that the Western will ever again hold such a place of prominence as it did during earlier times, but its recent trajectory is both fascinating and encouraging. Rather than rejecting the naive optimism of the genre’s Golden era or the stylistic cynicism of more recent years, modern filmmakers have found a way to meld the two, blending a more realistic style with the ideals that helped to make the traditional Westerns so worthwhile — a combination that manages to be relevant despite the failing of both of its parents. In the hybrid West, as in real life, the world is often brutal and ugly, yet we fallen humans are given the grace to recognize the right and the strength to strive after it.

    Perhaps old wine in new wine skins isn’t such a bad idea after all.


    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Deal Hudson

      The final scenes of 3:10 to Yuma still haunt me, not so much because of the sudden and unexpected reversal but because of the insinuation that Ben Wade will break free again. Does that mean a sequel is in the works? Russell’s Crowe’s character certainly deserves one, particularly if he has moved toward a repudiation of his own villainy. Appaloosa was possible the better film, the purer evocation of the “Western,” but it’s the fate of Ben Wade I’m interested in.

    • Ender

      If one parent is the golden age of Westerns, in which group you include The Searchers and Shane, then “failure” is hardly the right word to describe the two best Westerns ever made. That Open Range is seen as good is due mostly to the fact that the Western genre had sunk so low, hitting bottom with the ghastly Once Upon a Time in the West. They still have a ways to go before they return to the level reached in their real golden age.

    • Mike in KC, MO

      What, no Quigly Down Under???!

      Yeah, the story takes place in Australia, but it’s still a ‘Western’ in my book. Did this not fit with the narrative of the article or something?

    • Sandra Miesel

      The original Glenn Ford- Van Heflin 3:10 to Yuma also ends with the suggestion that Wade will escape. Critics overwhelmingly preferred the original to the re-make, but not for that plot point.

    • Joseph Susanka

      The final scenes of 3:10 to Yuma still haunt me, not so much because of the sudden and unexpected reversal but because of the insinuation that Ben Wade will break free again. Does that mean a sequel is in the works? Russell’s Crowe’s character certainly deserves one, particularly if he has moved toward a repudiation of his own villainy. Appaloosa was possible the better film, the purer evocation of the “Western,” but it’s the fate of Ben Wade I’m interested in.

      The original Glenn Ford-Van Heflin 3:10 to Yuma also ends with the suggestion that Wade will escape. Critics overwhelmingly preferred the original to the re-make, but not for that plot point.

      This is a fascinating point for discussion: do the original and the remake both suggest Wade’s escape equally?

      I think the remake does much more than simply suggest. Wade’s “whistle” seems to me to be a flat-out confirmation of his escape. But the original — with Wade’s mention of his previous escapes from Yuma — is quite a bit more ambiguous. I think one could interpret that dialogue as Wade’s effort to extend an olive branch to Evans

    • Joseph Susanka

      If one parent is the golden age of Westerns, in which group you include The Searchers and Shane, then “failure” is hardly the right word to describe the two best Westerns ever made. That Open Range is seen as good is due mostly to the fact that the Western genre had sunk so low, hitting bottom with the ghastly Once Upon a Time in the West. They still have a ways to go before they return to the level reached in their real golden age.

      Two quick thoughts here, Ender:

      First of all, I would not include The Searchers unequivocally in the

    • Michael

      What, no Quigly Down Under???!

      Yeah, the story takes place in Australia, but it’s still a ‘Western’ in my book. Did this not fit with the narrative of the article or something?

      No Quigly Down Under. No Pale Rider. No Tombstone or Wyatt Earp.

      Wyatt Earp was another Costner effort that attempted to depict the namesake with all his warts. It is probably an example of revisionist film-making. Tombstone was really only notable for Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday.

    • Joseph Susanka

      No Quigly Down Under. No Pale Rider. No Tombstone or Wyatt Earp.

      Oh, boy. Pale Rider. I have no idea what to call that film. “Revisionist Western Ghost films” is a smallish genre, and it’s mostly owned by Eastwood. There’s another film that could easily generate its own article. Sadly, this article felt like it might already have been too long without the inclusion of any number of intriguing additions.

      Tombstone was really only notable for Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday.

      Word.

      And how.

      (Russell’s mustache was memorable, but I suppose that’s not the same things as “worthy of notice.” Thankfully.)

    • Cory Fisher

      Although I am definately not a film critic, I know of two relatively recent films that also fit some of your critera. Broken Trail with Robert Duval and Seraphim Falls with Liam Neelson. These two movies have moved to the top of my short list of favorites (along with Open Range). For a throw-back, Tom Selleck in Monte Walsh is hard to beat.

      Cory

    • Aaron B.

      Yes, Quigley Down Under is a great Western despite being in the wrong country. Very clean and family appropriate, too, which can’t be said for many of the modern ‘gritty’ Westerns.

      Since Shane was mentioned, I’ll put in a plug for one of my favorite novels: Monte Walsh, by Jack Shaeffer, the author of Shane. It tells the story of the cattle-drive period of the West, when nomadic men moved cattle back and forth across the country and lived according to a strict code, through the life of one of those men. It’s a truly moving story, and no one I’ve recommended the book to has been disappointed. It’s been made into a film twice, but both times the epic reach of the story was reduced into a fairly conventional Western. The second one with Tom Selleck was pretty good; but seriously, if you like Westerns, read the book.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Broken Trail with Robert Duval and Seraphim Falls with Liam Neelson.

      Broken Trail is a TV mini-series, right, Cory?

      I’ll watch Robert Duval in anything, but Duval in a Western is pure gold. (Seraphim Falls had flown past my radar. I remember seeing trailers, but that was it.)

      Thanks for the suggestions! (So many films; so little time…)

    • Aaron B.

      Speaking of the “gunfighter turned aspiring family man” genre, does anyone else remember the TV show Paradise, starring Lee Horseley? (Later renamed Guns of Paradise.) Unfortunately, it’s not on DVD. It would probably seem incredibly cheesy now — it even had an American Indian who was a pure Noble Savage archtype, doling out wisdom every week — but man, I loved that show when I was 18-20.

    • Cory Fisher

      Yes, Joseph, Broken Trail was a TV mini-series, but a western junkie like me will take them anyway that I can. But I think that it still qualifies, I don’t see movies on the big screen much anymore, too much $$ for me.

      Seriphim Falls starring Liam Neelson and Pierce Brosnan is definately worth watching. Let us know what you think of it.

      By the way, Robert Dubal is the best.

      Cory

    • Cory Fisher

      Robert Duval I meant…[smiley=happy]

    • Cory Fisher
    • Mike in KC, MO

      Joseph,

      On further thought, I think your thesis is a little too narrow. The whole revisionist/gritty thing is not just an issue with westerns. It’s pretty much any movie anymore. For example:

      Example 1:
      - Joan of Arc (with Ingrid Bergman, I think): Joan is an intelligent, brave woman, as shown in the actual historical documentation we have.

      - The Messenger: Intelligent and heroic? Whatever! You see she was actually batpoop insane and was unfortunate enough to live in a time when they couldn’t perscribe her a nice heavy dose of OxyContin.

      Example 2:
      - Epic Poem of Beowulf: SMASH! FIGHT! BOAST! SING! HURRAH! A real hero!

      - Animated Movie Beowulf: A very flawed, morally weak, liar. In the end, they agree he was kind of a punk, but want to keep the story all good so future people will think good of him. Oh, and the Catholic Church is totaly false and exploitive!

      I could go on and on, particularly with that cinematic kidney stone that was “Kingdom of Heaven”, but you get my point.

    • Aaron B.

      Mike, I was thinking of war movies. We went from old films where the Allied soldiers were all pure and noble, to the Oliver Stone types where they’re all killers and rapists. Then we finally got We Were Soldiers, that manages to show complex characters and ‘gritty’ situations without dragging everyone down into a relativistic mud pit.

    • Johnnyjoe

      I suggest looking at the career of Marion Michael Morrison as an interesting parallel to the life of the Western. That’s John Wayne to most folks….

      From “The Big Trial” in 1930 (His first starring role), to “The Shootist” in 1976 (His last starring role), we see his career as an actor change almost in perfect harmony with the genre.

      The great scope and sweep of a BIG Western in “The Big Trail” – complete with a star searching to avenge his friend’s death, and shot on location in the Great West great scenery. With Wayne stumbling into true love, and the villains plotting to keep their secret crime – it really is a classic of the genre.

      Moving to the gritter look of “The Shootist”, with Wayne as a man at the end of his gun-slinging career, fearful of death, and seeking to die quietly. Yet his fame catches up, and so does the pain of his illness, so he finds a way to capture his old self, and end with the “glory” his career is supposed to embody.

      It’s a pretty good example of a career that bookend’s your observations.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Joseph,

      On further thought, I think your thesis is a little too narrow. The whole revisionist/gritty thing is not just an issue with westerns. It’s pretty much any movie anymore.

      This is exactly what I was trying to get at (unsuccessfully, perhaps) in my second paragraph, Mike. Hollywood underwent a fundamental shift after WWII, and I think it had a great deal to do with the war itself. There was a drastic move towards “realism” after the mid-1940s, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. (The Italian Neo-Realism genre is the first genre-wide example that I know of, though there could certainly be others.)

      Frank Capra’s dramatic “fall from grace” is often attributed to this shift in sensibilities, as is the fairly dramatic drop-off in the “screw-ball” genre. So yes, I think it’s a transition that is present in much more than just the Western film.

      …but it’s in the Western, which I feel is possibly the most archetypal and myth-like artform in our short history, where it had the most dramatic impact, in my opinion. As I try to point out earlier, it was mostly a difference of degree for most genres. But for the Western, it was far more fundamental.

      Mike, I was thinking of war movies. We went from old films where the Allied soldiers were all pure and noble, to the Oliver Stone types where they’re all killers and rapists. Then we finally got We Were Soldiers, that manages to show complex characters and ‘gritty’ situations without dragging everyone down into a relativistic mud pit.

      Fascinating point, Aaron. I hadn’t really been thinking about war films, mostly because I despise so many of the “Modern War Movies” I’ve seen. But I can see a definite paralell between the two genres, now that you mention it. I must consider further…

    • Mike in KC, MO

      Aaron B.,

      For another good war movie that isn’t nihilistic like the last crop of Platoon wannabes (yes, I agree, there were good exceptions), you might check out “The Red Baron”. It was produced in Germany in 2009 I think and just recently released on DVD. VERY well done!

    • Deal W. Hudson

      One of the best lines from any Western, “I’m your huckleberry!”

    • Michael

      One of the best lines from any Western, “I’m your huckleberry!”

    • Tom casey

      I have four favorite westerns that “speak” to me:

      Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man…” and, “We’ve all got it coming, kid.”

      The Professionals: “You gave your word to ME.”

      The Wild Bunch: “They? Who the hell is THEY?”

      The Magnificent Seven: “If God had not wanted them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”

      With some thought I could probably come up with some other good lines. Maybe someone ought to come up with a book of philosophical quotes from classic westerns. When I was a kid I liked Paladin for his erudite and classical one-liners. Maybe that’s why I like good guns and good books to this day…

    • Augustine

      the Western genre had sunk so low, hitting bottom with the ghastly Once Upon a Time in the West.

      With all due respect, sir, you’re insane. Once Upon a Time in the West is not only one of the greatest Westerns ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made.

    • Alexis

      No mention of Lonesome Dove? But this is one of the very best.

      Speaking of the very best, here are some of the best lines ever:

      “I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin’. You see, my mule don’t like people laughin’. He gets the crazy idea you’re laughin’ at him. Now if you apologize – like I know you’re going to – I might just convince him that you really didn’t mean it.”

      -CE as Joe, A Fistful of Dollars

    • Proeliator Carus

      Last Stand at Sabre River and Crossfire Trail. Both have very traditional themes which modern revisionism only colors. To maintain virtue under the shadow of darkness is a virtue in itself.