As one of the oldest genres in cinema history the western has always maintained a presence in film. From the birth of Hollywood to the 1960’s, the western steadily cemented itself as one of the most popular genres and introduced stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and Clint Eastwood to the world. Yet as the 60’s came and went, cinemagoers and critics began to express interest in other genres. “New Hollywood” directors like Steven Spielberg expanded the scope of film, allowing a much greater choice. Films like The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey catered to the patient film theorists and Jaws terrified a generation, while Star Wars blew everyone away with cutting edge special effects.
By the late 1970’s cinema-goers were far more interested in the future than the past. Now that Neil Armstong had walked on the moon the public were no longer interested in cowboys. Blockbusters like Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Alien proved that science fiction had firmly replaced the historic as the nation’s favourite genre. The western was on its way out.
Michael Cimino’s colossally over budget western “Heaven’s Gate” crashed the genre in 1980. Green-lit on the back of his success with The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate almost quadrupled it’s budget and was shown 11 months late to a dreadful reception. In the years following, westerns were at their least popular. 80’s culture was sufficiently distracting and the popularity of sci-fi had progressed further. The rise of the Brat Pack and explosion of American pop culture meant that America had found new icons like Patrick Swayze and Molly Ringwald. As a tired genre in need of revitalising, the western fell victim to a new generation with a greater choice.
A return of sorts was found through the release of Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992). Yet if these were indeed the turning point in the popularity of the genre as many claim, they certainly had a delayed effect. Back to The Future Part III (1994), An American Tail 2 (1991), City Slickers I & II (1991/94) and Wild Wild West (1999) proved that studios were willing to invest in westerns again throughout the 90’s, but the films weren’t to be taken seriously. The big budget films like [Dances] and Unforgiven were personally produced by Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood respectively, meanwhile independent directors like Robert Rodriguez financed grindhouse westerns on his own minuscule budget. Any support for serious western pictures was still hard to come by.
The return of critically and commercially successful westerns would have to wait until the 2000s as the 21st century brought a new era of social understanding. Cinema began to mirror the changes that were being seen in society and aligning with a more open minded audience. Brokeback Mountain (2004) was one of the first westerns to feature homosexuality between central characters as the heart of the film. The masculine sheepherders’ battle with their inner urges was uncharted (and dangerous) cinematic territory, but critically loved. The film was a huge step forward, introducing a new demographic to the world of the western while showing filmmakers that they could be artistic, provocative and most importantly, still critically acclaimed.
A flurry of high profile westerns emerged in the years following. The impact of Brokeback Mountain’s denial of convention inspired filmmakers to return to the genre with fewer rules and a renewed interest. Furthering the renaissance, the Coen brothers released “No Country For Old Men” in 2007 and a True Grit remake in 2010 starring 13 year old Hailie Steinfeld. The original film (1969) cast a 21 year old for the same role but the Coen brothers’ faith in Steinfeld showed a willingness to innovate that continued to progress the genre. Within 3 years, previously undesirable traits such as homosexuality and femininity had paid off. 40 years after it’s dominion, the western was back at the forefront of cinema.
Continued box office appeal brought more commercial directors like Quentin Tarantino into the fold. Plantation revenge flick Django Unchained (2012) featured an African-American cast dealing with slavery through very dark humour. Yet that didn’t stop it being one of the biggest box office hits of the year, grossing over $400m worldwide. 3 years later he released another, “The Hateful Eight” to similar acclaim. Both westerns featured racial friction as main themes. Fans argued the provocative language and extreme violence was a way of highlighting the differences in society between then and now, while others claimed Tarantino was stirring the pot in the name of controversy. Either way, the film was a success.
Success has also been found by dipping into the art world. Northern frontier thriller The Revenant (2015) was traditional in premise, but very modern in execution. Director Alejandro Inarritu pushed the genre to it’s artistic limit, focusing heavily on landscape cinematography and minimalistic scoring. Despite featuring some of the least dialogue a mainstream film has ever seen, it was still one of the highest grossing films of the year and won countless awards. Similarly, when fashion designer Tom Ford was announced as director of Nocturnal Animals (2016) cinephiles collectively raised an eyebrow, but he crafted a fantastic if unconventional film. The fashion influenced film was exciting because of its gambles, not despite them. The juxtaposition of the Texas plains and the ivy-league art world struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Even on a very technical level, “The Assassination of Jesse James” featured several sequences shot with lenses from the 1880’s; a rejection of modern technology in favour of authenticity to a wanting audience.
The proof is in the pudding. From their inception in 1928 to 1989, the western had only produced one Best Picture winner. Then despite Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven winning in 1990 and 1992, not one western was nominated between 1993 and 2004. Compare that to 2005 onwards where Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men (Winner, 2007), There Will Be Blood, True Grit, Django Unchained, The Revenant, and Hell or High Water were all contenders. Even Crash’s 2005 win over Brokeback Mountain is largely considered to be one of the great misjudgements of the academy and director/producer Paul Haggis later said his film did not deserve to win.
WESTERN “BEST PICTURE” CONTENDERS
13 Nominations 7 Nominations
3 Wins (1931, 1990, 1992) 1 Win (2007)
Of course the return of the western has been significantly aided by the increasingly casual nature of cinema, so it’s no surprise that the current top grossing films are mostly modern franchises or summer blockbusters. Hollywood’s recent formulaic success of producing billion dollar films is a huge factor. There is now a lot more money in studios to allow (relatively) smaller budget pictures like westerns. We also live in an age where the cinema is reaching more people and more frequently. Inevitably, any film released nowadays would make significantly more money than one made 50 years ago.
There are now countless films that are a cowboy hat short of being a western and the influence has never been stronger. Mad Max: Fury Road, the John Wick series, Drive, even box office behemoth Marvel has cashed in on the success recently with Logan. Modern television has not escaped either, Breaking Bad, Westworld and Deadwood among the most popular shows today. A further sign of the times, Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” novels are currently being adapted for film, the first of which is set for release this week despite having been around since 1998. Bizarrely, critics have even begun to see Heaven’s Gate in a new light, as recent interpretations of the 1980 disaster are far more favourable. Is Hollywood’s rekindling with the genre now rewriting history? Or much like the films themselves, are we just romanticising the past?
How much further the western will develop before the cycle repeats, only time will tell. But for now, this is a genre that the public and critics both want to see, because they’re exciting, romantic, picturesque, historic. You name it, they can do it. The western is a versatile storytelling vessel that pits the good against the bad in the most basic form and continues to be loved for that reason, evidently never more than now.