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 The romantic camaraderie of John Ford, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks was superseded by the more brutal, nihilistic visions of Samuel Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Sergio Leone.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.