Whatever happened to the American Western? « Weekend Watchers
Classic Films

Whatever happened to the American Western?

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.

5 comments to Whatever happened to the American Western?

  • Brad

    I’m perhaps a little less cynical than you about this, B-Marks. The people who went to the theaters to see High Noon and The Searchers – or even The Wild Bunch and The Outlaw Josey Wales – are mostly elderly and dead now. Their thoughts on the direction of Westerns will bear no influence on where the genre goes from here. It would only take a few very well-made, exciting, true-to-form Westerns that are impressive to the 18-24 demographic to see the genre get back into vogue. 2007 was ALMOST a turning point year, with 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men all being released. Unfortunately, the mantle wasn’t really taken up. I think Red Dead Redemption’s success and the Oscar bait that is the impending True Grit remake will decide if the next couple of years will help get the ball rolling again. If they don’t, I think the time is relatively soon.

    And even if it isn’t, I supposed I can just fall back on my DVD collection and watch all the great Westerns of yesteryear. :D

  • Brian Marks

    I found Jack and Brian’s takes on the book to screen comparison of “No Country for Old Men” fascinating. I read the book, and although I know it’s one of McCarthy’s lesser works (it’s very short length kinda suggests he didn’t intend it to be an oeuvre-defining work), I didn’t detect the differences between the book and the film that you guys saw. In fact, I was amazed at how similar the book and film were; I’ve never seen a movie that was so close to its original form. The short length of the book probably makes that easier. I really can only think of one or two monologues of the Tommy Lee Jones character that were excised from the film. It’s interesting we had such different opinions on that.

    As for Westerns and why they aren’t around much anymore, I think intellectuals are to blame, both for reviving the genre and destroying it. The revisionist Westerns that started to show up in the late ’60s are full of angst and self-doubt and are legitimately art films in many cases. Even though the prototypical John Ford/John Wayne films have been acknowledged as classics, they often celebrate a simpler and more straightforward kind of renegade. A lot of viewers who loved “Stagecoach” probably didn’t care for “The Wild Bunch.”

    Combine that with a younger generation that has never really seen Westerns and thinks they’re overly sentimental and un-ironic. They’re not interested in Westerns, even these revisionist Westerns, mainly because of their own prejudices, while older audiences don’t like these newer dark films. Those old viewers will be gone soon, and this younger audience won’t be changing their opinion of Westerns anytime soon. It’s a bleak view, but unfortunately I think the Western doesn’t have a bright future.

  • Jack Burns

    Brian…some films definitely don’t translate as well from book to screen as others. And I do agree that the Coen brothers added some very nice edits and additions in making their translation from the book to the screen. That’s a fair and accurate point.
    I think that’s also true of Lonesome Dove. Some of the scenes and dialog in the film that depart from the book are excellent.

  • I think what has also happened to the Western over the last few decades is the changing of the genre in unfamiliar ways that, while still good, have done similar things in terms of the identity crisis you described. What is the connection between the highly conservative value system and sprawling feeling of exploration found in John Ford’s westerns from as early as the 20s to the late 60s compared to the highly stylized and arguably strictly one-dimensional characterization of the figures in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns? By the 90’s you have a realization that the frontier is closed, and those values and perceptions of masculinity are transferred to different genres.

    According to Metacritic, the 5 best reviewed Westerns of the last decade are, going up, “Jesse James,” “3:10 to Yuma,” Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “Shanghai Noon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” another film that suffers the identity crisis.

    This was a great in-depth piece we need more of.

    @Jack – Interesting you say the film wouldn’t be the same without Cormac. I’ve read the book, and from what I hear from McCarthy fans, it’s one of his lesser novels, especially compared to the superb “The Road,” which did not translate as well to the screen. For me, the Coen’s screenplay does not have a single line of wasted dialogue. Anton Chigurh is so stoically complex in the film, whereas he can be seen monologuing in the book.

  • Jack Burns

    Nice piece. Film is like any other art form, there’s good, bad and there’s ugly. And all forms of art have high periods and low periods.
    I think right now we’re suffering from too few people that really know how to make good films with original or unique material or technique. I rarely go to the movies these days, simply because I believe the overall quality is below average. The Coen brothers work is certainly an exception. But even then, the real credit goes to Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the story. The film was superb, but there’s no film without Cormac.
    As the artist Robert Motherwell once stated, the great challenge in good art or good writing is to come up with something original or unique. If you want to be just another average bloke, do what everyone else is doing. You’ll fade into irrelevance.

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