As the Coen Brother’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs debuts on Netflix next month, its emergence has reignited a popular movie debate. With each increasingly rare addition to the genre, the question is raised: is the Western movie dead? Eulogies of the Western is commonplace amongst audiences and film critics alike. Yet in a year which has brought earth-shattering box office hits Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther to the big screen, it could be argued that most genres have been steamrollered by the behemoth superhero machine.
with Clint Eastwood as the leading man, the genre embraced the grey morals and anti-heroes which defined the Western’s Golden Age
The origins of Western movies can be traced back to the advent of film making. The 1903 silent movie The Great Train Robbery is heralded as one of the first blockbusters in cinematic history. Yet the Western genre did not reach its zenith until the 1950s, with movies like High Noon and The Searchers. The emergence of Sergio Leone in the 60s – credited as the inventor of the Spaghetti Western – married commercial and critical acclaim. With Clint Eastwood as the leading man, the genre embraced the grey morals and anti-heroes which defined the Western’s Golden Age.
Fast forward to the present day, and the Western movie is languishing in desolate plains. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western The Unforgiven is viewed as the swan-song of a dying genre. Since then, movies have trodden the line between forgettable and downright unforgivable. The $250 million budget Lone Ranger – produced in 2013 and starring Johnny Depp – was such a flop it was seen as the death knell for both Depp’s career and the entire Western genre. Yet for all the doom and gloom, there are glimmers of hope. In 2007, 3:10 to Yuma garnered critical acclaim with Russel Crowe’s outlaw starring opposite Christian Bale’s rancher. The Coen Brothers enjoyed commercial and critical success with a remake of True Grit in 2010, as did Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchanged in 2012. Akin to the great Western classics, these films were bursting with all-American heroes and cinematic gunfights. A blend of action, romance, intrigue and tragedy. The Wild West was anyone’s game – with treasures to hunt, rights to wrong, and villages to be saved.
it is difficult to think of another movie which owes as much to the western genre as George Lucas’ beloved space opera
As the years rolled by, the West was conquered. The open frontier was replaced by one of a different kind. Star Wars captured the imagination of an entire generation when it premiered in 1977. And it is difficult to think of another movie which owes as much to the western genre as George Lucas’ beloved space opera. The white cap/ black cap motif was substituted for blue/ red lightsabers. Sheriffs were replaced with resistance pilots. Outlaws by tortured Jedi knights. To paraphrase William Shatner of Star Trek, cinema had reached “the final frontier”. The exploration of unchartered territory moved to outer-space. And that vast, unknowable expanse became the new west.
images of evil Native Americans and damsels in distress do not sit well with modern audiences
To understand the waning appeal of the Wild West, it is necessary to look at the current cinematic climate. Cinema reflects the mood of its audience. It is unsurprising that the rise of the superhero movie comes in a time of political divide and a desire for a savior. But the cowboys of the past no longer fit the mould. Times are changing, and the Western is less identifiable than ever. Its themes appear outdated and often offensive. The cowboy versus Indian stereotype makes for uncomfortable viewing. Images of evil Native Americans and damsels in distress do not sit well with modern audiences. Yet you would be forgiven for drawing parallels between the two genres. The good versus bad trope posits superheroes as the lawmen of the past, riding into town to save helpless civilians. Superman and Captain America are the regeneration of clean-cut cowboys of early Western movies. Heroes like Batman and Deadpool encapsulate the lone rangers with a chequered past.
It is difficult to see how the Western movie can return to its previous heights. Its themes were unique to an era. It spoke to a generation about what it meant to be an American amid an age of American Exceptionalism – where America was the major global power in a certain world. That America no longer exists. But as the perennial debate on the death of the western rolls on, I would argue that the genre has never been more influential. The buddy-cop movies from The Heat to Bad Boys are indebted to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Western genre is not dead. It is hidden in plain sight. It may not be as popular as it once was. But with every summer blockbuster and Coen Brothers foray, it is clear the Western movie will not ride off into the sunset just yet.