Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #849: Riding Back From The Sunset...

It looks like the Western is making a comeback on television. Buoyed by the success of Western styled modern-day shows like Justified, and the popularity of the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit on the big screen people are now willing to take a risk on a genre long thought dead.

Personally, I think it's about time.
Westerns were once the foundation of film-making and television. A lot of the advancements in movie technology, storytelling, and subject matter in the first half of cinema history happened because of Westerns.

The simple fact that we refer to the movie/TV business as "Hollywood" comes from the fact that filmmakers started migrating there in the 1910s-1920s.  Why did they migrate to Hollywood and make it the center of the movie universe? Because it was easier and more realistic to shoot Westerns outdoors in southern California than in the movie biz's original base of New York City.

Early Westerns from the 19-teens through the 1940s were mostly confident tales of Manifest Destiny. Brave heroes went into the wilderness, fought outlaws, and Indians angry over losing their land, and always won in the name of civilization. The size of the films went from Poverty Row cheaply made shoot-em-ups to grand big budget epics made by the major studios, and audiences couldn't get enough of them.

In the 1950s television literally exploded in the middle of pop culture, and Westerns played an important part.

Most of the early TV Westerns were reflections of the sanitized view of the Old West presented in the pre-WW2 movies. 

Most were straightforward action - adventure shows, however Gunsmoke, was played as more of an attempt at serious drama, that tried to scrape at least some of the polish off the genre to show some of the grime beneath. The formula must have worked, because the show went on to run for 20 years.

This was happening as well on the big screen.  Filmmakers who experienced the horrors of WW2 cast a more cynical eye on the normally myth-heavy genre, with films like The Ox-Bow Incident and The Searchers.  Westerns even changed how Hollywood does business when Jimmy Stewart broke the old star system, and made himself a full partner in the profits from the movie Winchester '73 instead of being just a paid contract player.

The 60s marked another shift in the Western genre on the big and small screens.  Italian filmmakers, both in love with the image of the lone western hero, and fired by fashionable Marxist rhetoric, took German money to Fascist Spain and gave birth to the Spaghetti Western.

These films took post-war cynicism to the limit, showing a world riddled with capitalist corruption, and coated in a layer of grime and sweat.

Not wanting to be outdone by the Italians, American filmmakers, specifically Sam Peckinpah, broke their own new ground.  Usually this was in the field of how to shoot action, as seen in the beautiful/horrifying ballet of death and destruction seen in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

However, the Western on television stayed more of less the same. Most Western shows were viewed as strictly "family entertainment," and were unable to take advantage of the advances coming from Europe and their big screen colleagues.

The Spaghetti Western's rebellious exuberance started to fade in the early 1970s. Europe's Marxist student rebellions of the late 1960s fizzled into the self-centered hedonism of the 1970s.  Leone, the John Ford of Italian cinema, reflected this disillusionment in his last Western movie Duck, You Sucker! (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite). It portrayed revolution, as the youth of the 1960s envisioned it, as needlessly destructive and ultimately futile.

TV Westerns however, continued to be, for the most part fossilized, and one by one, they fell, until none stood.  Every once in a while a new Western would pop up, sometimes in modern dress, but like their predecessors they were treated as family entertainment and not worth much creative effort beyond thinking of ways to couch them with some sort of moral lesson.

That changed with HBO's Deadwood, which was a warts and all portrayal of the Old West more akin to the films of Peckinpah and Leone than predecessors like Bonanza. The didn't catch on as big as its gangster counterpart The Sopranos, but it left its mark. Now many channels are saddling up to bring the Western back, possibly because they realize that there really is some life left in the genre and interest on the part of the audience.

Now this is where you, my readers can chime in: What do you think about Westerns making a comeback?


  1. With these new westerns, I would like to see a more accurate portrayal of the era. For one old time racism left out one fact of the old west. A good portion of Cowboys were black about 1/3. You have to remember the days of the old west happened after the civil war. We have newly freed slaves who had nothing to begin with and their former masters who lost everything going west to start anew.

    That alone would make a good concept for a western.

    Old West is basically our homegrown mythology that and comic books.

  2. I grew up on Westerns. One of the first movies my wife and I went to see was "The Road Warrior" (Post-Apocalypse Western)and "Outlands". We loved "Deadwood" and "Justified". We are taping "Hell on Wheels" and will watch that when we have finished this seasons, "Walking Dead".

    My daughter's favorite movie was and is "Eldorado" she's loved that movie since she was eight or nine. She used to watch that to go to sleep to every night.

    Tom Selleck made a great Western, "Quigley Down Under", which should have a second part. Maybe "Quigley Up North" with Selleck in Canada or Alaska.

    A "Kung Fu" style western could be made with a Samurai or Yamabushi from Japan maybe a "47 Ronins" type deal.

    "Family" stuff could be made with a "Little House on the Prairie" and "Bonanza" type of show.

    The problem with most Westerns is that Native Americans, Mexicans, and other minorities have to be upstanding, noble, and above reproach (at least on network TV). That means that they get no 'villain' parts, no deep story lines involving minorities, and a mostly white cast with only occasional token minority cast members.

    Another problem you'll never see as nuanced is the Civil War divide. Southerners will almost always be played as neo-Nazis, rednecks, racists, inbred hillbilly types, or worse repentant versions of the above or some combination of the above. No men from the South will be honest characters they will all be cardboard cutouts.

    There's room for lots of storytelling in the West. We just need to find good writers and good directors. Get Walter Hill a good editor and maybe he can produce something.

  3. Gary,

    One thing we need to remember about the West is that the average age was very young. It was a young man's area and time.

    "Open Range" could have been cast in a retirement center.

  4. To add to the discussion, not only were 1/3 of the cowboys black, but they also made up about 1/3 of Federal Marshals. If there's not a good story to come out of that, I'll eat my stetson.

    Another thing I don't really see acknowledged in many Westerns is that the USA was in the midst of an economic Depression as bad, if not worse, than the 1930s. That's why so many went west, because there was literally nothing back east for them.

    And yes Rainforest Giant, they were really young when they went West. Billy the Kid was dead by 22, and people considered old timers were in their 30s.

    Also Billy the Kid was from 5 Points in New York City, but he's never portrayed with a New York accent. Why is that? O_o

  5. You guys haven't heard of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained?

  6. You guys are looney. You want more realistic economies in your Westerns? Westerns are literally packed with economic factors and have been since the start. Evil ranchers driving out dirt farmers. Evil railroads buying up land. Evil robbers attacking trains. Penniless people moving West to seek their fortune because of the bad conditions in the East. Desperate people hoping to find gold, or silver, or turning to crime. If ever there was a genre in need of "more economy" it's not the Western, which has been practically economy-driven in its plotlines forever. As for blacks - they appear in plenty of westerns, again since the 1920s. No one knows how many blacks served as cowboys but it's only latter day New Historians that think it was a third. We have plenty of group pictures of cowboys and ranch hands from the old west and it is nothing like 1/3. It probably differed from state to state as well - probably way more blacks in Texas than Montana, for instance.

    The Western is fine as it is and was. It is a genre which can be subverted and yet remain strong, as happened in Unforgiven and Destry Rides Again. It can have the exact same characters be good guys and bad guys (cf. Judge Roy Bean and The Westerner) and remain strong.

    It can support Marxist, conservative, liberal, and even fascist interpretations. What a genre! It can range from psychodrama (High Noon) to completely mindless (The Wild Bunch).

    I doubt it will ever make a giant comeback or rule the roost the way it did back in the 1950s-60s, anymore than cop movies will ever be as dominant as in the 70s, but I predict we will keep seeing occasional Westerns for the rest of our lives and those of our childrens.