Over the last few years, many film genres have flourished. Science fiction continues to tell us evolving stories like “her” while thrillers like “Gone Girl” keep us clinging to our theater seats. Some genres have gotten even better, such as animation, as not only the quality improves but also the characters.
But there is one genre we have not heard from in a while – Westerns.
The last new Western I saw was 2010’s “True Grit,” which was a remake of the same name that won John Wayne his only Oscar. While that film was good in its own right, there have not been any other films like it since. One of the last great Western directors, Clint Eastwood, has not made one in over a decade and instead tells equally harsh and gritty depictions, like “Million Dollar Baby” and the upcoming “American Sniper.”
The most probable of reasons for the lack of Westerns is due to people not being interested in a watching one. And really, who can blame them? The story of the old west has been done to death that there is nothing more to tell. It was a bloody time in American history where outlaws ruled the land and justice came from the end of a gun.
Yet, for that very same reason, Westerns are so incredibly appealing. Cowboys and bandits wore their emotions and interests on their sleeves. If they wanted something, they’d take it. Westerns are removed enough from reality that we can be fascinated by a hired gun, but the characters had our basic interests that we wanted to root for the lone ranger to ride off into the sunset.
The repetitive nature of the Western is also its greatest strength.
When it came to cinema, Westerns got their success with John Ford’s 1939 film “Stagecoach,” which was also the first major role for John Wayne. Before that, Westerns were always B-Movies that no one ever took seriously. “Stagecoach” showed that a Western could have a multifaceted story with groundbreaking cinematography. It was the many films of John Wayne and John Ford that would launch Westerns into the spotlight, leading to many different types of film, including the Spaghetti Western and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, which were essentially Westerns except replacing cowboys with samurais.
However, around the mid-1950s, once we began space exploration and attempting to reach the stars, the need for stories about conquering an already civilized landscape died down. In fact, many stories that were once Westerns were adapted into science fiction and worked very successfully, such as “Star Trek” being adapted from the Western “Wagon Train.”
Since then, Westerns have been in a slow decline to where we are now – There have been no note-worthy Westerns in nearly five years.
But one good thing that has come out of this dying genre has been my favorite type of Western – The Death of the Old West. Very few movies fall into this category, but the ones that do are some of the most interesting and tragic Westerns.
These are the films that take the classic tropes and characters of a Western and make them realize the kind of world they live. A world that has no sense of justice, and everyone has some shades of bad in them. It is a barbaric and chaotic world, where the best guns survive.
But what if the modern world of the east slowly began creep in? Technology becomes more noticeable, especially trains and better weapons, citizens from the east move out there and introduce Eastern ideas and philosophies, and the justice system starts to take effect.
Suddenly, the freedom and wild nature of the West becomes tame and civilized. The cowboys are nothing but a constant reminder of what the West once was, and are treated as outcasts who can no longer fit into the world. Order and justice reign supreme and West dies.
Of the films I’ve seen that fall into this category, the best ones are Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In The West” and John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Each of these films as a different way to represent the evolution of their world, whether that is Leone’s use of the train’s journey to the Pacific Ocean, Eastwood being an old man trying to make it in a world that has long since passed him, or Ford pitting John Wayne’s trademark cowboy character against the cowardly but passionate lawyer from the east, played by the equally talented James Stewart.”
All three of these films feel as if they’ve come out of the old west while still understanding this is not how the world works. The west was conquered by people from the east, and the way of the cowboy is nothing more than a relic now. And the tragic thing about it all is that you cannot consider John Wayne’s classic cowboy a “hero.” When looking back on films like “The Searchers,” you see a man who hates anything that isn’t wearing a Yankee outfit and will stop at nothing to clear his families name, even if that means killing the surviving family members.
We consider him a hero because of the sacrifices he made and what he stands for. But civilization sees him as the problem. He is self-entitled and kills because of passion. Besides of the color of his hat, what is the difference between him and the bad guy?
These are the questions that films like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” raise and what makes the film all the more interesting. The Death Of The Old West continues to make the Western genre fascinating to watch, even today. If we could get more films like “Unforgiven,” then Westerns will truly never die.