The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Western Film Genre
With new productions on the horizon, some say the once dead Western film genre seems to be making a slow comeback. Did it ever really go away?
For many of the younger audience members of contemporary cinema, the idea of watching a western is pretty lame… or so I’ve been told. Decade after decade, many of us have heard that the Western was dead. In fact, this theory has been debated quite extensively in articles at Acculturated, Film.com and, to a more modest extent, Cinemablography.
While it is true that the Western film genre isn’t as popular as it once was, it does still live on in a major way, whether we realize it or not. Plenty of films and television shows that you watch have their roots firmly planted in the Western film genre. With this said, let’s explore the evolution of the Western film genre from its classic days to present.
The classic era of the Western film genre spanned over 50 years, from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to the standard clean cut westerns of the mid-1950s. Throughout its early existence, the genre was, as Patrick McGee stated in his book From Shane to Kill Bill, “a conservative film genre.” It was all about individualism, masculinity and American lore.
During this era, director John Ford cemented the style in which westerns should be seen, in wide sprawling shots. John Wayne also became a legend during this era and the face of American masculinity. We were treated to classic films like The Virginian, Stagecoach, Red River and Rio Bravo. But underneath all of that muscle and sweat, something was changing.
Video courtesy of Movieclips
The Revisionist & Anti-Western
In the 1950s, things began to change for the Western film genre. We began seeing the rise of the anti-hero and a move toward narrative philosophies started in Japanese films by Akira Kurosowa, like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. With films like The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, Johnny Guitar, The Unforgiven and Shane, we began seeing the genre tackle subjects like class and racism. Meanwhile, the classic hero went from the clean-cut cowboy to a rough cowboy with a checkered past.
This evolution of the western has lasted ever since. We still see it today on the big screen in films like Unforgiven, The Proposition, Django Unchained and The Revenant. We see it on the small screen with successful series like Deadwood, Hell on Wheels, and Texas Rising.
But no director and actor team has contributed more to the anti-western than Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The “Dollar” trilogy changed the game for good. Now we want our cowboys to be dirty and gritty, like Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, who left his companion at the end of a rope staring at his half of the gold.
Video courtesy of Movieclips
Contemporary & Neo-Western
Because of the advancements of the anti-western and the birth of the anti-hero, a new form of western began to take root in film known as the contemporary or neo-western. This new form of western wasn’t regulated to just the old west, though it did begin there with films like Hud and The Wild Bunch.
By the 1970s, films like the The Getaway and Dirty Harry were just westerns playing out on modern streets. These characters were the same classic type of old west heroes, only now they lived in a time and society that rejected their idea of justice.
Again, this form of the western is still in force today through films such as Desperado, Kill Bill and No Country For Old Men. Or even in your favorite television series like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Justified and True Detective. In fact the final fight in Kill Bill, The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, shows the Bride and Orin ready to draw like two cowboys on a dusty road waiting for high noon.
Video courtesy of Movieclips
Fantasy & Space Western
What many people don’t know is that the western film genre’s reach is so much larger and broader than they realize. The western has firmly rooted itself in fantasy (for better or worse) with films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger or the upcoming adaptation of the best “Weird Western” of all time, The Dark Tower.
Science fiction has probably felt the impact of the western film genre even more than fantasy with its roots going back to the 1930s with Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon. John Scalzi even wrote a great piece for AMC about the fact that science fiction is essentially the western of old. You can see this clearly when looking at films like Cowboys and Aliens and Guardians of the Galaxy or television shows like Firefly and the animated series Cowboy Bebop.
But as many of you know, no sci-fi film has benefited from the western as much as Star Wars. Han Solo and Boba Fett are pulled straight from the pages of the old westerns. The Mos Eisley Cantina scene alone is loaded with nods to old westerns, from a quick draw with a light saber to a hero found in a saloon to even the denial of service to the droids.
Video courtesy of Marcelo Zuniga
The Current State of Things
Currently we are seeing an uptick in terms of production surrounding the western genre. Big name directors and actors are jumping on board productions such as Jane Got a Gun, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Slow West and remake of The Magnificent Seven. Now, will this sustain itself for a long haul? That question isn’t easy to answer.
Television is playing a big part in the swing upward for westerns, with series like Hell on Wheels continuing to track well, alongside such recent mini-series as Hatfields & McCoys and Texas Rising. Networks such as History and American Heroes Channel are developing original programming based in the old west and the Civil War. This is a lesson I’ve learned firsthand while directing my latest documentary, a film based on events of the Civil War.
If someone asks me if the western will ever rule the box office again, I’ll tell them probably not. Of course, the western was never a box office powerhouse to begin with. In fact, the genre was seen as a B-movie genre until John Wayne came along. But if someone asks me if the western is dead, I’ll emphatically say no. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. The western film genre isn’t ready to ride off into the sunset. Not just yet.
- Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood.
British Film Institute; 2nd edition (September 1, 2007)
- McGee, Patrick. From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western.
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (April 28, 2006)
- Rickman, Gregg. The Western Reader. Limelight Editions; 1st Limelight ed edition (August 1, 2004).
How many of these films have you seen? What are your thoughts on Westerns? Love em, hate em? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.