With recent remakes of several great Western films, it's fair to say that this genre still has relevance in contemporary society. What is the lasting appeal of the #Western? Why has it made a return decades after the genre's golden age? Does it deserve a place in modern popular culture? Yes. Oh, yes.
The Western may be set in an era vastly different to our own, but the ideas it highlights are timeless. There's more to these films than exhilarating gunfights and sweeping landscapes — although that alone is reason enough to watch them. No, they offer a deeper level of contemplation. There's a rawness to the Western that generates a nostalgia for a simpler, more honest time. Back then, a spade really was a spade.
Freedom, heroism, national pride and morality are all important topics that the Western interrogates. Other issues like revenge, family and the parallel between the wildness of the land and civilization are also explored. Clearly, these ideas are all pertinent to our experience today. In an ever-changing world with growing technological advances, international conflict and ongoing battles for social equality, freedom and morality might be the two most central issues we face. So why not tackle such issues through the lens of an entertaining, nostalgia-inducing Western? Let's take a look at just a few of the great Westerns out there to show why these films are still great.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Remade just this year, the original #MagnificentSeven contains all the components of the classic Western: a good old American tale of guns and glory, freedom and vengeance. Directed by John Sturges, the film follows seven gunmen hired to protect a poor Mexican village from ruthless bandits. There are some seriously badass characters in this film. Yul Brynner is selfless and bold as the lead, Chris, while Steve McQueen is his witty and moralistic second. Charles Bronson is my personal favourite, playing Bernardo, a tough gunman with a humorous soft streak. The script is great, and so are the stunts. But the best part about The Magnificent Seven? The score. Elmer Bernstein's composition is truly magnificent (pun intended). But seriously, the film wouldn't be the same without it. An unforgettable score and an unforgettable film.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
There is no other Western (or film for that matter) quite like George Roy Hills's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's a tight production with an excellent script, soundtrack and story. What makes it really stand out, however, is the chemistry between the two lead actors, Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance). Their brotherly banter could win over even the coldest of men. Adding to the effect is the fact that Newman and Redford maintained a very close friendship after the film, right up until Newman's death in 2008. The film tells the story of Butch and Sundance, two outlaws hunted by a posse for conducting a run of train robberies. While we always like the antihero leads of the Western, Butch and Sundance really are likable — they're funny, earnest and just plain old nice. If you haven't seen this one, you need to. Stat.
True Grit (1969)
Henry Hathaway's #TrueGrit is one truly good Western. Firstly, you can't talk about the Western without mentioning John Wayne. Often hailed as the genre’s #Godfather, 83 of the 142 films Wayne starred in throughout his career were Westerns. With True Grit, Wayne won his only Academy Award for the portrayal of grumpy, aging Marshal Rooster Cogburn. When 14-year-old Mattie Ross's father is murdered, she hires Cogburn to find and capture Chaney, the man responsible. Cogburn teams up with Texas Ranger La Beouf (played by country singer Glen Campbell) and sets off to find Chaney. The pair are unable to shake Mattie, who joins the journey. The classic tale of revenge works well here, and it doesn't take long for viewers to become invested in the relationship between the three travelers. True Grit was remade in 2010 by the Coen Brothers (see below), and its a remake that does the original justice. I'd recommend watching both.
#ClintEastwood has directed and starred in many great Westerns throughout his career. #Unforgiven was the last. The film follows retired outlaw-come-gun-for-hire William (Eastwood) as he takes on one final job. In the Wyoming town of Big Whiskey, two cowboys brutally disfigure a local prostitute and escape with only a small compensation fee. Infuriated, the prostitutes offer a reward to kill the cowboys. Convinced to claim the reward by a young shooter, the Schofield Kid, William recruits his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and rides to Big Whiskey.
Unforgiven is grimmer than the usual Western, exploring the violence and lawlessness of the time, but it’s no less entertaining. Still not convinced? The film won four Oscars at the 1992 Academy Awards, and was added to the United States National Film Registry in 2004 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”*
So, is the Western still worthy of watching? Is it important enough to be considered more than simple entertainment? Does it have relevance in today's busy world? You know my thoughts. Watch the above films and get back to me with yours.
* Reference: "Library of Congress announces 2013 National Film Registry selections" (Press release). Washington Post. December 18, 2013. Retrieved December 18, 2013.