Here’s an astounding fact: From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, 30 percent of all feature films made in the United States were Westerns. On second thought, perhaps that’s not so astounding. After all, what’s more American than John Wayne’s slow swagger and charming drawl? Or John Ford’s awesome landscapes of the great Southwest? When I sat down last week with Maura Spiegel, professor of English and American studies at Columbia, to talk about the Western’s present state, she started off by reminiscing, “When I was a child, everybody knew how to wear their guns and everybody knew what it was like to walk like a cowboy.” We can safely say that the Western has always been a quintessentially American genre, perhaps more so than any other. So what’s happened since Spiegel’s childhood? The Western is certainly not as prolific a genre as it once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. If we consider recent major releases such as No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Django Unchained, and The Lone Ranger, we might even suppose that the genre is currently enjoying a 21st-century revival. Right?
“Not exactly,” retorts Robert King, professor of film studies at Columbia. “It’s something closer to a death twitch,” he adds with a chuckle. In response to the glitzy Hollywood examples that I bring up, he reminds me that “only a tiny number of movies” released in recent years claim membership in the Western category. This is because the genre has become much riskier territory for movie producers since its golden age. Financially speaking, “the conditions for a Western revival are not favorable” thanks to “a growing polarization within the film industry between huge-budget films and low-budget films, which are often misleadingly called ‘independent films,’” King says. With production costs rising and overall revenues plummeting, he explained, the mid-budget ground that “would normally be prime for ordinary genre films such as Westerns” is vanishing.
One of the major reasons for this polarization is the fact that Hollywood studios are allowing a growing international audience to shape its investment decisions. In the case of huge blockbusters, movie theaters abroad can account for as much as, if not more than, 80 percent of a film’s gross income. “So studios need films that will travel,” King says. “Superheroes, explosions, spectacle—that’s the lingua franca of blockbusters today.”
In her recent book Sleepless in Hollywood, longtime producer Lynda Obst declares with authority that “dust doesn’t travel.” In our conversation, King riffed on this idea as it applies to Disney’s major summer release, The Lone Ranger. To him, the film is a Western only in name; in reality, it’s “an action movie—with an emphasis on ‘action’—that draws on Western iconography.” Also, the film was a pretty catastrophic flop. “The Lone Ranger was a fool’s errand, a lesson in why the Western doesn’t travel,” King explains. By his analysis, the film suffered from too much “cultural specificity” to resonate with a wide global audience. So here we are, faced once more with the Western’s inexorably American character.
Today, the Western survives as a provocative and distinctly American set of iconographic and thematic elements readily available for modern cinematic appropriation. “I mean, what was the last Western?” John Gamber, professor at Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, asked when I sat down to speak with him about the genre’s treatment of Native Americans. “Dances with Wolves, maybe? But then Avatar was the same movie, only in space.”
What’s clear is that Westerns no longer exist in a vacuum. Rather, like all the artistic categories that our culture has delineated over its past, the Western has joined the unpredictable aesthetic fray of an increasingly collage-like American mainstream. As a result, we haven’t seen a true Western come out for at least two decades. To use King’s term, our generation has given birth to the “sort-of-Western.”
Western films have never concerned themselves too much with being historically accurate; they illustrate desires much better than realities. As Spiegel is quick to point out, real cowboys on the frontier did not lead glamorous lives at all. Rather than practicing vigilante justice and riding off into majestic sunsets, they were mainly responsible for the dirty business of taking animals to slaughter every day. This makes today’s sort-of-Western a particularly interesting barometer of the ever-diversifying American public and its aspirations.
That being said, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any one example can speak for an entire genre. Each individual sort-of-Western deploys classic images and tropes differently and casts its own cultural ripples, some of which are potentially far-reaching and unpredictably oriented. Examples include Seth MacFarlane’s upcoming comedy-Western A Million Ways to Die in the West, the recently debuted Portuguese-language Brazilian Western, a space-Western such as Serenity, and everyone’s favorite organized-crime-Western: Breaking Bad. This last one is particularly notable because, as an immensely successful cable television series, it points to a comfortable niche that today’s sort-of-Western might carve out on the small screen.
One thing we can expect sort-of-Westerns to do in the future is complicate the narrow notions of American identity that have historically pervaded the traditional Western. In his 2009 documentary Reel Injun, Neil Diamond (a Cree filmmaker, not the singer) traces the wildly inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans in film all the way back to the very first moving pictures. “To keep it simple, all Indians became plains Indians,” he explains over the narration, “and the Western forces all Indians to live in the deserts of the Southwest.” Particularly pertinent is his discussion of John Ford’s classic film Stagecoach, which the film critic Jesse Wente refers to as “the one that all Westerns are modeled on, and one of the most damaging films for Native people ever.” The film is clearly a product of the 1930s, a time when “Americans needed a new kind of hero for the Depression,” Wente explains. Sadly, that hero, who saves all the white characters—the carriers of “civilization”—from the savage and nameless Apaches, is John Wayne.
Luckily, this is not the 1930s; the American audience looks much different from the audience of 80 years ago, and its stories are changing. Even though it does not include a single Native American character (a fact which merits full discussion elsewhere), Django Unchained actually comes to mind as the most obvious and recent example of this evolution. Among other things, the film is revolutionary for the simple fact that its hero is a badass black cowboy. In the very last scene, after Django blows up Candyland plantation and rides off with Broomhilda on the moonlit open road and right before the credits begin to roll, we see a memory of Django pulling out his six-shooter and blowing a snowman to bits in one swift and decisive motion. And then we see his German partner tell him in earnest, “They’re going to call you ‘The Fastest Gun in the West.’” Quentin Tarantino’s remix of the old frontier ethos—open, accessible meritocracy and rugged, manly individualism—deserves props for its contemporary relevance. It suggests a number of trails yet to be blazed by the 21st-century sort-of-Western.