The Good Old West – Why Modern Revisionist Westerns are Failing

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If there has been a literary and cinematic contribution to modern society that can be classified as distinctively American, it would be the Western.   Just as Shakespeare is to “merry Olde” England and anime art has been to Japan, the Western has become America’s most impactful addition to world culture, without ever loosing it’s national identity.  And like most other international contributions to popular culture, it has evolved over time; though still maintaining it’s genre characteristics.  No matter the setting or the circumstance, a Western will always involve characters exploring an untamed frontier and will usually center around a protagonist who is the very definition of a rugged individualist; more often than not, a gun-totting cowboy.  While the American West was naturally the setting for these stories over the years, the thematic elements of the genre don’t necessarily need to be tied to it.  The amazing thing about American Westerns is how much of an impact they’ve had on other forms of cultural art over the years; sometimes in unexpected places.  Akira Kurosawa for one drew a lot of inspiration from American Westerns when he made his Samurai films like Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), both of which were then reimagined by Hollywood, becoming The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) respectively.   But as society began to change in the later part of the 20th Century, so did the genre, and there became a need to reexamine what the American West was really about.  Thus, we got the era of the Revisionist Western, which has defined much of the genre for the last several decades.  But, with the recent failures of movies like Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013), as well as this year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), is it possible that this era of revision is coming to an end?

The Western has become popular the world over, but what is it exactly about the genre that we like.  I think that it’s the idea of the frontier that we find so appealing.  It puts into perspective how little an impact we have individually in the world, thereby raising the tension when that same world tests you.  Because of this, the Western hero would be defined by very out-sized personalities, and this is probably why so many of them are still admired today.  When Westerns became a staple of the rising market of Hollywood, the actors and filmmakers responsible for making them likewise became larger than life figures in modern culture.  John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart; these men became the faces of the American West to the culture at large and they still embody the ideal of the rugged individualist today.  Likewise, whenever someone wants to recreate the image of the American West in a painting, a photograph, or a film, they will usually follow the visual eye of John Ford, Howard Hawkes, or Sergio Leone.  Orson Welles once said that he found his visual inspirations for his iconic Citizen Kane (1941) by watching John  Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) over and over again.   Because of these men, we have a definitive idea of what a Western is, and what it can be.  But, even the great masters weren’t tied down by the confines of their own genre either.  Of course, the Western is something that can be reinterpreted many times over, and filmmakers like Ford and Hawkes used their movies to tackle a variety of issues in society, including racism (The Searchers), paternal abuse (Red River), and civil rights (Cheyenne Autumn).   But, Westerns would go through a whole new phase once people who grew up on them began to turn their own eyes on the genre.

The 1960’s marked the beginning of the counter-culture movement, which changed the outlook on all American culture in general.  The Western was reexamined during this time, and many new filmmakers saw the glorification of the American West in these films as a bad thing.  To many of them, the rugged individualist embodied by actors like John Wayne represented a view of America that was looking backwards and was impervious to change.  The plight of the American Indian became a popular theme in this time and many modern filmmakers wanted to highlight that untapped perspective in their movies.  One film in particular that explored this idea was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman as a white man raised by an Indian tribe in the old West.  The film is a very interesting reversal of the conventions of the Western, where the native people are the main heroes, and the cowboys are the villains.  While the movie still focuses on a white protagonist, it nevertheless puts emphasis on the Native American people that few films had done up to that point, and it was a revision that was very welcomed in-deed  at the time.  If you haven’t seen it yet, do so.  It’s a very interesting and surprisingly funny movie at times, and it treats the Native American characters humanely, while at the same time making them flawed and complex as individuals.  What Little Big Man also represented was a shift in the genre that would go on to define the Western for many years to come.  Suddenly, revision became the popular form of telling a Western story, though if you look at each film individually, you can still see the inspirations of past masters at work in these films.

The most popular kind of revisionist Westerns at this time were also the bloodiest.  Sam Peckinpah took the Western to a whole other level of brutality when he created his classic The Wild Bunch (1969).  This film resonated with audiences because it seemed to reflect more accurately how the world really was.  In The Wild Bunch, there are no clear winners or losers.  There was no nobility in the rugged individual in this movie; everyone was a dirty, rotten scoundrel.  In this film, moral relativity defined who we were rooting for, since all the characters were flawed in some way.  And with a bloody shootout at the very end that puts all other shootouts to shame, we saw a reflection of the true brutality of violence in the old West.  The fact that this movie came out during the height of the Vietnam War was no accident.  Peckinpah wanted audiences to see how brutal gun-fighting is and show that the gun-ho attitude that the American soldier picked up on after watching the Westerns of the past was probably not the best thing to bring into battle.  Other negative aspects of the old West were also reexamined during these heyday years of the Revisionist Western, and that included the awful history of racism in the old West.  This was the focal point of Mel Brook’s classic Western comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).  Blazing Saddles manages to effectively breakdown the issue of racism in a Western by exploiting the Hell out of it.  No other film mocks the conventions of the Western more effectively than Saddles, and it is still one of the funniest movies ever made.  And while these movies attempt to break apart every traditional Western convention,  the still manage to hold up as an effective Western themselves, which shows just how resilient the genre is.

However, over time, even a revisionist view of the genre tends to lose steam after a while.  While this type of re-interpretation of the genre continued to define much of it’s output in the last few decades, even through the hands of one of it’s icons (Clint Eastwood and his Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992)), there came a point where the Revisionist Western itself became commonplace.  I believe this started around the time Dances With Wolves (1990) came into theaters.  While Dances With Wolves was an enormously popular movie, and a winner of multiple Oscars, it has unfortunately lost some of it’s luster over time, mainly due to the fact that we’ve grown too accustomed to a movie of it’s type.  Kevin Costner’s film depicts the life of an American soldier sent out West to live among the Native American tribes of the Western plains.  The film, while still having it’s heart in the right place, today seems a little too heavy-handed in it’s messaging, and at times almost pandering to the Native American audience.  The noble white man character has unfortunately become one of the less effective elements of the Revisionist Western, and it’s mainly because it takes away from the voices of the actual native people themselves.  What started with Dances With Wolves has continued on through other films in the genre, and it’s made the Western more predictable and less exciting over the years.  I understand the inclination to show the plight of an oppressed people through the eyes of an outsider, but in the end, I only think the decision is made because Hollywood thinks that Middle American white audiences won’t accept a movie unless they see someone they can identify with in it, especially if they are also a bankable star.  But, more likely, a big problem with these movies is that they put message over story, and in the end, that’s something that will hurt a film, no matter what the genre.

For some time after Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, the Western began to disappear from movie theaters.  This led to many filmmakers trying to revive the genre by trying to do different things.  This included mash-ups like Cowboys vs. Aliens, which put a sci-fi spin on the traditional Western aesthetic, as well as the mega-budget flops like Wild Wild West (1999) and The Lone Ranger (2013), both of which seemed to think that a lot of eye-candy would be enough to bring in audiences.  Instead, it only made more people weary of the genre.  What has surprisingly been the reason for these movies’ colossal failures has actually been audiences desires for authentic Westerns.  The traditional Western, even with all it’s flaws has become desirable again to many viewers.  This is reflected in the fact that the only Westerns that have been a success in recent memory are remakes of classic Westerns in the past.  This includes the Russell Crowe and Christian Bale headlined 3:10 to Yuma (2007), which was a remake of the Glenn Ford classic, as well as a remake of the John Wayne classic, 1969’s True Grit, made by the Coen Brothers in 2010.  Both films are traditionalist Westerns right down to their DNA, albeit with modern flourish.  But, what is surprising about these films is their incredible runs at the box office, both making well over $100 million domestic.  True Grit (2010) in fact is the highest grossing Coen Brother movie ever,  making more than all their previous movies combined.  Could this be the beginning of another reversal in the genre, or is it just a reflection of how well made these two remakes are?

I think that audiences indeed are beginning to re-embrace the traditional Western once again.  This is reflected again in the popularity of older Westerns, as well as the remakes that we see today.  John Ford’s The Searchers saw one of the biggest jumps ever in recognition by the  industry when AFI made an updated list of their Top 100 movies; moving from #96 to #12 in ten short years.  Other people are also claiming Western movies as among their favorites and even the most successful revisionist Westerns today are ones that still honor the traditions of the older classics.  I’m sure Quentin Tarantino’s true intention behind the making of Django Unchained (2012) was to make an exciting Western, and less so to do with it’s statement on slavery.  That’s something that all the great Westerns have done in the past; be entertaining.  When a movie becomes too concerned with rewriting the conventions of the genre (Wild Wild West), or tries to mock it without understanding what the punchline will be (Million Ways to Die in the West) it leaves audiences cold and more inclined to just return back to what they like in the first place.  As Mel Brooks has said before, “We mock the things we love,” which means that to make a good revisionist Western, you have to be a fan of it as well.  In many ways, deconstructing the Western genre is what has kept it alive all these years.  Even Revisionist takes are now considered defining representations of the genre, like Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  Any revision that doesn’t respect the past is doomed to be forgotten, and unfortunately that’s what has defined most recent Westerns.  If anything, my hope is that the classics will endure and still give inspiration to aspiring filmmakers, so that the Westerns of the future will still keep the Spirit of the West alive.