The Western Is Dead; Long Live the Western

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.


Joseph Susanka

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Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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