Much like a washed-up gunslinger who can't connect his whiskey bottle to his shot glass, westerns are a dying breed these days. Every now and then, a major blockbuster rolls into town to breathe life into the genre. Disney tried resurrecting The Lone Ranger with #JohnnyDepp starring as Tanto, but it couldn't repeat the success of the #PiratesoftheCarribean franchise. Seth MacFarlane left his comedic imprint on the industry with A Million Ways to Die in the West, but it was mostly panned by critics. More recently, #TheMagnificentSeven was updated for modern audiences with #DenzelWashington and #ChrisPratt bringing the star power. This film shows potential for sparking a Western revival, but will the genre ever return to its former glory?
It makes you wonder: What made the movies helmed by legends like John Ford and Sergio Leone so timeless? How did stars like #JohnWayne and #ClintEastwood continually sell the rugged cowboy to a rapt public? Rediscovering the dusty formula that reproduces the magic of Westerns to a new generation seems elusive.
While films from the hey-day of cowboys fighting in the streets may have some rough edges that wouldn't sit well with a modern audience, they show us some core principles that could help make our future takes on the genre shine like a sheriff's silver star.
Aim For The Heart: Gaining Depth In Storytelling
Westerns are known for their action. Gunfights, chases, and fisticuffs are normal fare for the cowboy, but the timeless Westerns are also known for their heart. Consider High Noon, which stars #GaryCooper as a newly married marshal whose honeymoon is cut short by an outlaw seeking his life. The film has its moments of action, but spends the bulk of its screen time ramping up the tension for a climatic shootout.
Woven into the story, however, is plenty of heart and depth for the characters and their scenario. Cooper's Will Kane struggles to stand for what is right and seemingly stands alone as various townspeople abandon him or urge him to leave before the outlaw returns. Even his own wife leaves at one point because of his decision! This isn't your average Western yarn, but is actually an allegory of how the Red Scare affected Americans in the '50s, giving the movie layers of meaning.
Westerns today can get hung up on the spectacle, either mocking the older films or focusing on large action set pieces. They also revisit the well of Native American mistreatment, which certainly should be explored, but when almost every story hits that beat, it comes off as being too worried about political correctness and less concerned with character development. The result is less heart and more heat.
To salvage the genre, though, a return to focusing on strong characters and moving stories should be in order. Westerns still have the potential to provide these, as proved recently by the short film Borrowed Time.
This little short was a side project by #Pixar animators. It masterfully dives into a grizzled sheriff's past that haunts him continually. In a very short time and with very little dialogue, the animation conveys the man's guilt and internal struggles all set against the beautiful backdrop of the desert.
Westerns with this kind of heart grab the viewer in a way that shallow plots do not. It takes a little more sweat and tears, but the end result could put the genre back on the map.
Roll In The Dirt: Embracing The Adventurous Spirit
This may seem hypocritical given my last point, but I must admit that classic westerns not only had heart, they also had plenty of grit and action. Look at Winchester '73 starring Jimmy Stewart, which follows Stewart's character seeking revenge against his father's killer. There's plenty of action throughout, mostly shootouts surrounding the titular rifle. The heart is still there in the drama between Stewart and his rival, but the action compliments the story instead of superseding it.
That's the difference between the Westerns we remember and the ones we tend to forget. Action and adventure should be a given in any film of the genre. The trick is to balance the action with the story. A more recent example that does this well is 2007's 3:10 to Yuma starring #ChristianBale and #RussellCrowe. This story has characters you believe in, but it also keeps you entertained with a consistent pace of shootouts and chase scenes.
If the audience is losing the plot in a hailstorm of bullets, the writer is not helping to sell Westerns to them. Let the crazy chases and frenetic gun battles continue, but rein them in so the heart of the story is clear.
Ride Off Into The Sunset: Accepting Happy Endings
Our modern world is very cynical. That viewpoint is saturating every nook of entertainment, from superheroes to music to movies and TV. Westerns, given their natural ruggedness and grim settings, have been used to perpetrate that cynicism in recent decades. While this can be done to great effect, after a while it weighs you down. As cynical as we can be, no one wants to be depressed all the time!
The classic Westerns, though, usually had happier endings, allowing their characters to ride off into the sunset of bliss. Take Howard Hawks's classic El Dorado. In it, John Wayne plays a gunslinger-for-hire who wades into a range war in which he must help his sheriff friend (played by Dean Martin) bring peace to the town. This film has it all: plot depth with complex characters, plenty of action, and a light sense of humor to keep things from getting too dark. In the end, we see the characters happily moving on despite the tragic events they experienced.
Great Westerns can do this, showing us the bleak side of life while holding out hope for better things. It may seem corny to our sensibilities, but sometimes an upbeat turn by the story's end leaves a better taste in our mouths than a depressing conclusion.
Though most modern offerings tend to wallow on the darker side, occasionally one comes through that strikes for a happy ending. Consider the aforementioned The Lone Ranger. Yes, this movie has its glaring issues, but it is imbued with a sense of fun and allows its main characters to walk away with a sense of happiness. At the end of the day, justice prevails and, in spite of sacrifices made, looks forward to the coming dawn.
If more modern movies can strike that trail, showing us the full range of human emotion, we could see more quality Westerns in the future. We need to be able to set our cynicism aside and allow our heroes to ride off into the sunset. Not every story has to end on Boot Hill.
While modern Westerns have room for improvement, I am excited to see what Hollywood can produce next. Perhaps they can tap into the magic that the classics had and give us great stories from the old days of the West. Plenty of tales remain to be mined from the genre that are relevant for today. Again, it comes down to a delicate balance of heart, action, and hope to give the genre a desirable appeal. I remain optimistic that the industry will be able to hit that bullseye.
What do you think? Do you feel like modern Westerns need improvement or are they fine the way they are?