The rise and fall of America's favorite genre.
Last summer, Disney released The Lone Ranger (2013). Despite a colossal budget, it seemed a surefire hit: the creative team behind Pirates of the Caribbean (star Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) reuniting to revive another dusty old genre. Yet it became a mammoth flop, reviled by critics and ignored by audiences. Its failure revived a long-standing question: is the Western dead?
When The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, the frontier wasn't entirely settled. The Western had an immediate hook, promoted by news stories of renegade Indians, outlaw holdouts and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. This codified into America's foundation myth: hardy pioneers battling natives, the elements and outlaws to forge a new nation. That the myth promoted questionable assumptions about race and gender were for later, more self-critical generations to dissect.
The Western found its most eloquent expression in John Ford's films. Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946) are his purest works, with disparate heroes forming a new society. Stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda codified the Western hero: tough but rigidly moral, crafting a new life out of wilderness. Ford mixed outsized heroics gorgeous photography, most often in Monument Valley. Later generations criticized Ford for simplistic morals and crude humor, yet their mixture of simple storytelling and visual poetry informed generations of filmmakers.
The genre reached its apex in the 1950s. Fans of traditional Westerns had their fill: The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Rio Bravo (1959) are among the decade's classics. These films injected some self-criticism to the genre, yet retained its basic morality. What's more archetypical than High Noon, with Gary Cooper's courageous Marshal standing alone against evil?
Yet the era saw numerous, less conventional Westerns. Movies like Broken Arrow (1950) reconsidered Native Americans; women got central roles in The Furies (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). Anthony Mann (Winchester '73) and Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now) mixed ambitious storytelling with neurotic, driven heroes. Even John Ford and John Wayne critiqued themselves with their dark epic The Searchers (1956).
Yet the genre's popularity proved its downfall; there were so many Westerns that audiences tired of them. Not only the above classics but innumerable lower-quality B Westerns flooded theaters, inducing viewer fatigue. Television struck a blow, too: Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and Bonanza were among the innumerable shows airing. Why go out to see a Western when every TV channel had one?
The '60s saw the genre in flux. John Ford bade farewell with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1963), two bleak films questioning his earlier work. Films like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Professionals (1966) emphasized action over mythology. Gary Cooper died and Randolph Scott retired; John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart devolved to lazy vehicles and self-parodies. Wayne won his only Oscar for True Grit (1969), essentially a send-up of his usual roles.
With old masters retiring, a new generation took their place. Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns - his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) - infused the genre with operatic style and self-referential irony (like casting Henry Fonda as a child-killing villain). Sam Peckinpah's movies - Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) - brutally deconstructed outlaw mythology. Both directors mixed classic Western tropes with postmodern cynicism, creating some of the best Westerns ever.
Leone and Peckinpah inspired slews of imitators, who drew the wrong lessons. They aped Leone's amoral heroes and Peckinpah's bloodletting without a hint of either's style or intelligence. Hence stinkers like Doc (1970), Hannie Caulder (1971) and The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972). Grungy costumes, graphic violence and hateful heroes replaced storytelling as an end to themselves.
Westerns always reflect their time period, and the '60s sociopolitical turmoil heavily informed these movies. After decades of demonizing Native Americans, it's understandable that filmmakers would show their side. But movies like Soldier Blue (1970) and Little Big Man (1971) are less accurate depictions of frontier warfare than comments on Civil Rights and Vietnam. While it's nice to see black protagonists in The Scalphunters (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969), the films are unmemorable.
The era's irreverence led to innumerable parodies. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) plays as a joke, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford snarking their way across Montana and Bolivia. Other parodies proliferated, from Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) to Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974). Saddles mercilessly skewers every conceivable cliche, from its goofy Frankie Laine ballad to Jewish Native Americans. Who could take Stagecoach seriously again?
This era produced its share of classics. Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972) are unremittingly bleak yet artistically accomplished. Clint Eastwood moved into directing with High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and John Wayne bade farewell with The Shootist (1976). Yet these films were buried amidst an avalanche of comedies and ultraviolent mediocrities.
With the Western foundering, trendier genres edged in. Movies like Bullitt (1967) and Dirty Harry (1971) imported Western tropes to the city, spawning the modern action movie. Younger Western stars - Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen - traded their stetsons for street clothes. The late '70s blockbusters did even more damage: Star Wars (1977) repurposes the shoot-'em-up into science fiction, complete with fantastic effects. And Richard Donner's Superman (1979) finally made superheroes a viable film genre. Who needed Tombstone for shootouts when San Francisco or outer space were available?
It's all downhill from there. Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate (1980) wiped out Westerns for a decade. The '90s showed promise: Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) won Best Picture, while Young Guns and Tombstone (1993) became hits. Yet this trend was ruined by flops like Bad Girls (1994) and Wild Wild West (1999). Last decade saw 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Jonah Hex (2010) fail, while The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) never left the art house circuit.
Outside of The Lone Ranger, recent returns seem promising. The Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) became hits; Seth Macfarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) turned a modest profit. Then again, these movies come with built-in audiences. Django succeeded because it's a Tarantino film, not a Western.
With superheroes and transformers dominating the box office, Westerns will likely never reclaim their past dominance. Stars who'd thrive in Westerns make action movies instead; the familiar stories digested by other genres. Western fans can take solace, at least, in the genre's long and impressive history.