WESTWARD HO! THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF THE WESTERN

George Bancroft, John Wayne and Louise Platt in Stagecoach (1939)

George Bancroft, John Wayne and Louise Platt in Stagecoach (1939)

The Western is dead. Long live the Western. Observers have been predicting the genre’s demise for more than a hundred years. Edward Buscombe, in The BFI Companion to the Western, quotes a trade reviewer who as early as 1911 dismissed it as “a gold mine that had been worked to the limit”. But by 1953 Westerns were making up more than a quarter of Hollywood’s output, and much of television’s too; my generation of post-war Baby Boomers was weaned on The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and Rawhide.

In the 1960s, that figure went into a slump. The cinematic landscape was changing; the studio system was in decline, and traditional Hollywood film-makers were struggling to adapt to younger audiences and changing attitudes. The emphasis changed from righteous armed struggles against lawlessness, might is right and the triumph of civilisation over savagery, to psychological portraits of outlaws or gunslingers, revisionist studies of the hero’s role in the modern world, acknowledgements that Native Americans were people too, and allegories of Vietnam. The romantic camaraderie of John Ford, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks was superseded by the more brutal, nihilistic visions of Samuel Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Sergio Leone.

But if the number of Westerns fell, the genre never really disappeared – it just went underground for a while. The history of cinema is so inextricably bound up with stories of the wild west that western DNA inevitably seeped into other genres. Just as Westerns were a peculiarly New World variation on old world tales of mythological heroes or wandering knights, so, from the 1970s onwards, the cowboys, gunslingers and bounty hunters of yore passed their batons on to cops and detectives, hitmen and cosmonauts. Henceforth the Western disguised itself as road movies, action films or science fiction. Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel bridged the gap with Coogan’s Bluff, while John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 was a modern urban reworking of Rio Bravo. Many of Carpenter’s other films, like those of Walter Hill, are Westerns in all but name.

Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff (1968)

Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

Science fiction movies such as Westworld, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, Back to the Future Part III,  or Serenity barely bother to disguise their Western roots. But, essentially, any film in which the characters have to pass through hostile territory held by “savages”, or rid the universe of its bad guys, usually by resorting to violence rather than, say, diplomacy or the legal system, is cleaving to the Western tradition, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in South East Asia, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Central America, Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy in Los Angeles, or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover skipping the sort of paperwork that real-life cops would need to tackle in favour of the latterday equivalent of galloping around on horseback, yelling “Yeehaw!” and brandishing Smith & Wessons.

This sort of genre slippage allowed Western conventions to move with the times. In science fiction, for example, Native Americans could be replaced by unstoppable killer robots or invading extraterrestrials, with no need to worry about charges of racism (unless we’re talking Jar-Jar Binks, or unless the story is a deliberate race-related allegory such as District 9). Critics are less likely to feel uncomfortable about the ethics of vivisection or worry about the necessity to respect alien culture when the enemy is an evil monster from outer space in Independence Day, the credits of which ended with the assurance that, “No animals or aliens were harmed in the making of this film.”

These days, you can spot the influence of the Western in everything from The Expendables to There Will Be Blood to Predators. Avatar is pure Cowboys and Indians – and is clearly on the side of the Indians, who also seem to have hitched their star to that of the Green Party.. Even Lotso, the apparently avuncular strawberry-scented bear who turns out to be the chief villain in Toy Story 3, is a successor to Burl Ives in The Big Country or one of the monstrous patriarchs from an Anthony Mann western. But if there’s one genre that hews to old-fashioned pre-spaghetti Western conventions more than any other, it’s movies about superheroes.

Yul Brynner in Westworld (1973)

Yul Brynner in Westworld (1973)

The superhero, like the cowboys or the gunslinger, has a distinctive costume and behavioural code. His weaponry and mode of transport are fetishised. He often has a sidekick (Kato = Tonto). His story always climaxes in an OK Corral-type showdown against the villain, often with superpowered fisticuffs or souped-up six-shooters, and he always comes out on top, proving that might is right. And the female characters are as marginal as in any Western; while they’re not being decorative, the function of Mary-Jane Watson or Rachel Dawes or Gwen Stacey is essentially to be kidnapped and rescued and/or placed in the fridge as motivation.

The one big difference is that superhero stories are almost always urban, with gothic cityscapes taking the place of Monument Valley or the Tabernas Desert, but their topography is just as recognisable as that of John Ford’s wide open spaces. Superhero movies are already showing signs of following the Western pattern by moving from popular escapism into the darker, more introspective territory of The Dark Knight or Watchmen, but the superhero genre is still in its infancy. We have yet to see a superhero Stagecoach, let alone superhero equivalents of such later landmark Westerns as A Fistful of Dollars or The Wild Bunch.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in Young Ones (2014)

Kodi Smit-McPhee in Young Ones (2014)

Viggo Mortensen and Viilbjørk Malling Agger in Jauja (2014)

Viggo Mortensen and Viilbjørk Malling Agger in Jauja (2014)

Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation (2014)

Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation (2014)

Meanwhile, the unabashedly Western-style Western picked itself up after the doldrums of the 1980s, notched up a couple of Best Picture Oscars (Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven – both, incidentally, by film-makers who had acted in Westerns before directing them) and started to evolve as a new generation of non-Hollywood film-makers explored the genre’s possibilities and gave it a new look, pushing it into new areas. Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil was an exemplary Civil War Western, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous a cannibal Western black comedy.

More recently, New Zealander Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford puts a new spin on one of the old west’s most iconic characters, while Australian John Hillcoat transposes an outlaw scenario to the outback. Young Ones is slow-burning dystopian science fiction (featuring a robot mule!) filmed Western-style in South Africa. The Salvation is an Anglo-Danish-Spanish Western, also filmed in South Africa, Slow West a British-New Zealand co-production, filmed in New Zealand, Jauja a multinational art movie filmed (mostly) in Patagonia. Bone Tomahawk is an American indie filmed in California, but mixes it up by stirring an unexpectedly strong dose of splatter into the mix.

With Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight due to open at the end of 2015, the genre is looking more versatile and robust than it has for years.

Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This piece was first published in the Guardian in February 2011, to tie in with the U.K. release of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. It has been  edited and updated.

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9 thoughts on “WESTWARD HO! THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF THE WESTERN

  1. Nice update Anne, Although Tarantino seems to have more of a Spaghetti Western tone to his films they are unashamedly still Westerns. A rough and as rugged the films are, so is the genre, versatile and adaptive to the years. Of course it’s struggled. Responding to the genre myself in my work I am lucky to have so much rich material to work with and all these new films coming out. I think less is more now. I think back in the golden-age there was a point of saturation. It’s given me lots to work with so I can’t complain. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think with the lack of big budget westerns about, not in cowboy hats and Wild West settings anyway, it’s interesting the acid westerns of the 60s and 70s (Greaser’s Palace, Zachariah, El Topo etc) have become a big influence on the way the indies have staked out what was the traditional territory of the genre.

    Can we trace this back to Dead Man? It seems to influence a whole bunch (not necessarily a wild bunch) of new indie westerns with its sense of humour and embrace of the offbeat. More and more it looks like a Year Zero for the path actual westerns are taking – even megabudget The Lone Ranger remake had its weird qualities.

    • An interesting theory – and one that makes perfect sense. I’d add Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie to your rollcall of acid westerns. I don’t think it was coincidence that these films coincided with experimentation with drugs, anti-war protests and an increasing awareness that Native Americans were not the bloodthirsty savages they’d been painted as – though I think even John Ford presented his Native Americans in a more enlightened way than he’s often given credit for – and certainly treated them respectfully in real life, if Scott Eyman’s terrific biography is to be believed. (Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow in 1950 was completely pro-Indian, even if it did cast Jeff Chandler as Cochise.)

      Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970, too, and I think had a huge influence. Even bigger budget westerns, like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, could no longer ignore what had essentially been a slow genocide, and a lot of 1970s Westerns seem concerned with analysing or dismantling the heroic myths built up in previous decades. Maybe it was the dismantling of these myths that led to the wholesale transfer of heroic stereotypes to science fiction and fantasy, post-Star Wars.

      It seems that Westerns have now changed from being the most mainstream and traditional of genres into being one of the most wayward and unpredictable, while big budget Science Fiction has been moving in the opposite direction. You may well be right about Dead Man being Film Zero – the film’s ambience reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I think is another Zero in the development of the New Western in its presentation of the Old West as being a surreal, nihilistic and insanely violent free-for-all ruled by crazies. Bone Tomahawk, for example, starts off like a traditional Western and ends up in Blood Meridian territory – taking pains to stress that its antagonists aren’t your average Native Americans but something darker and more primal, more like slasher movie bogeymen than real characters.

      • Right, I’m going to have to see Bone Tomahawk now! Ford may even have pre-empted the cultural enlightenment/guilt about the American Indians in the 70s and onwards with Cheyenne Autumn, which looks to be an apology (ironically, Stagecoach is still a better film), and The Searchers sows the seeds of that too. But I think Gary Farmer in Dead Man may be just as important, everyone who saw him remembered him because he was about as far from a stereotype as it was possible to get, and he was justly treasured for it.

        A Man Called Horse was all very well, but the Indians were still alien in that and the westerns that followed immediately after, and Billy Jack was paternal without being helpful. A film of Blood Meridian has been attempted for years now, without success, but maybe we don’t need it – the influence is already there. Plus I’d love to see an acid science fiction movie in modern times! Would Beyond the Black Rainbow count, maybe?

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