In 1991, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves snagged seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Two years later, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (pictured above) took home four, including, once again, Best Picture. Both presented fresh, deconstructive looks at the Western genre, and they were rewarded justly. In the nearly twenty years since the release of Unforgiven, only three Westerns – Lone Star, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – have received Oscar nominations, none in the Best Picture category, and none resulting in a gold statuette. The Coen Brothers’ forthcoming remake of 1969’s True Grit looks promising, but it doesn’t seem like a real Oscar contender in any category except perhaps Best Actor for Jeff Bridges, in the role that won John Wayne his lone Academy Award. So what happened? A once-lucrative genre doesn’t just shrivel up and die overnight, and old Western classics still sell boatloads of DVDs and memorabilia. Why aren’t great American Westerns being made anymore? The answer is threefold, and each reason is as depressing for Western lovers as the last.
1. The Western comedy: Back in the heyday of the American Western, the occasional farce was good for the genre. It kept it on its toes, steered it away from clichés, and gave an American public that was extremely familiar with the genre something to laugh at. Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Blazing Saddles was released on the heels of future classics like Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. People who had gone to the theater in the last year to see true, serious Westerns would inevitably get a kick out of a well-made send-up. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in the late 1990s, the only Westerns with any kind of budget and wide theatrical release were half-baked Western comedies. In consecutive years from 1998 to 2000, the Chris Farley-Matthew Perry vehicle Almost Heroes, the Will Smith-led steampunk flick Wild Wild West, and the most egregious offender of all, the Owen Wilson-Jackie Chan anachronistic kung fu Western Shanghai Noon were released. Had there been any true American Westerns released during this period, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But there weren’t, unless you count All the Pretty Horses, and I don’t. Instead, the entire target audience for these films (who were aged, let’s say, 10 to 20 at the time of their release) had no frame of reference, and drew their experiences from the Western genre with three terrible comedy movies. Now those people are 20 to 30 years old, and find themselves smack dab in the middle of the prime movie-going demographic. Why should filmmakers waste their time and money making traditional Westerns for people who didn’t grow up with them? I’ll answer that the way they have: They shouldn’t.
2. Bad casting: And by bad casting, in a sense, I mean overwhelmingly good casting. The most Oscar-ready and highly budgeted Western of the last decade is undoubtedly Andrew Dominik’s 2007 epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Its script was solid enough; it told just the story its verbose title promised, and that story is inherently interesting. Where it went wrong was casting (deep breath) Brad Pitt, Mary-Louise Parker, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garrett Dillahunt, and Zooey Deschanel (exhale) in the same picture. These are all tremendous actors whose talents are evident in a great number of other works. But they spend much of Assassination trying to dominate the screen with their presence, flaunting technically impressive mannerisms and accents that suck the Western essence out of every frame. As Red Dead Redemption writer Dan Houser said in an interview earlier this year, “They’re called Westerns, not ‘outlaw’ or ‘cowboy’ films, and that’s an inherently geographical word.” The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, because of cinematographic decisions and overly affected acting, is a mere “outlaw film.” Clint Eastwood and John Wayne weren’t great Western actors because they were great actors; they were great Western actors because they let the camera do most of the talking. 3:10 to Yuma, while a much better film than Assassination, suffered from some of its casting issues. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale were both impressive, but they were both cast primarily for their superstar status – neither one is even American. And as good as it looks, the True Grit remake might have a similar problem, casting Oscar favorites Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin as the three leads. Something tells me we’ll remember Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef’s onscreen chemistry for a lot longer.
3. Identity crisis: The two best Westerns of the last twenty years are No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood – or, they would be if they were true Westerns. Unfortunately for lovers of steam engines and Remington revolvers, both films added elements to distinguish themselves from the traditional Western, and they successfully evaded being tagged as such. No Country for Old Men took an otherwise quintessentially Western script and prevented it from being identified that way by setting it in 1980 instead of, say, 100 years earlier. There Will Be Blood nailed down the region and the era of traditional Westerns, but it was a strict character study – a subgenre almost wholly incompatible with Westerns. In fact, while No Country has commonly been called a “contemporary Western,” I’ve never even heard the W-word tossed around regarding There Will Be Blood, despite its setting. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that these movies should have changed anything to become “more Western.” I think they’re two of the best movies ever made, and I dare not contemplate how they could have been any better. But what the universal critical success of these two films does show is that directors and studios are happy to take on an ambitious Western, so long as it’s not really a Western. It’s a saddening revelation for those of us who want to see quality Westerns that aren’t afraid to wear their genre on their sleeve.
So is the American Western truly dead? No, not exactly. The genre isn’t limited to film, and Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption is one of the most impressive Westerns ever made. It’s sprawling, epic, verisimilar, interesting, dark and ultimately simple – everything that modern movie Westerns should be. The promise of a film version of the game, along with the forthcoming True Grit remake, has me cautiously optimistic about the future of the Western. Perhaps as technology and globalization continue to shrink the world, people are simply less interested in regionally specific films than they used to be. But I’d like to think it’s mostly lack of exposure to the great entries of the Western canon that keeps people from calling themselves fans of the genre. In the Old West, the American Dream was alive and well, and it was carried out by troubled heroes, noble savages, and, as the great director of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone called them, “violent, uncomplicated men” whose “strength and simplicity” won the day. If studios and directors would give people the chance to see these men, I have no doubts that they would become popular again.
But on the other hand, Jonah Hex exists.