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Yee-hah! The Western is Back

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Hello from an ol' cowhand. Been readin'/writin'/watchin' westerns since I was a kid like the ones in the picture. So I'm happy as a clam when they tell me that, 2013 is set to be the year of the western with four major westerns on the horizon: Django Unchained with Leonardo Di Caprio, The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp, The Hard Ride, with Val Kilmer, and TV series Hell on Wheels returning to the small screen on Sunday night.

So, can we now say that the Western is undergoing something of a resurgence?

The western may no longer be the all-powerful genre it once was but it would certainly appear reports of its death were (as they always are) premature.

Old-timer aficionados of the western like me hark back to the days when we could go see Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Jones or Ken Maynard in Saturday-morning matinees at our local movie flea-pit, Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers (although not all of us loved the singin' cowboys) and, as we left childhood behind, "grown-up" movies starring Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and John Wayne.

Later, TV gave us Hugh O'Brien as Wyatt Earp, James Arness in Gunsmoke, James Garner As Maverick, Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates keepin' them dogies rollin' in Rawhide ... but it seemed like after those halcyon days, westerns took a turn for the odd: silly spoofs like Billy the Kid Meets Dracula, "spaghetti westerns" like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and the extraordinary Blazing Saddles, still one of the most successful westerns ever.

As for me, I've been seduced by 'authentic' movies which told the "truth" about such real-life heroes (or villains) of the American West as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and-memorably-Errol Flynn dying with his boots on as General George Custer. Stirring, romantic, convincing for sure, but I quickly learned the movies had steered a long way clear of historical truth.

I wanted to know more and more about these legendary characters, but I had a big problem: the facts were on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, so my only option was to do my research in England. It's a long story but this desire to know the truth eventually led to my founding the English Westerners' Society, to becoming an editor at Corgi Books in London, and eventually writing award-winning histories of the Lincoln County War and the life of Billy the Kid, and also (under the pseudonym Frederick H. Christian) a series of good old-fashioned westerns.

Which brings me neatly to the matter of the resurgence of the western.

Yes, it's happening, and on our screens at home as well as in the cinema. From notably gritty, dramatic and authentic TV series like Hell on Wheels, based upon the building of the Union Pacific's trans-continental railway and the men and women who built it, to movies like Tarantino's Django Unchained, and a new, big-budget version of The Lone Ranger; things are looking pretty damn good for the western.

What really clinches it for me, however, is seeing all those "smile when you say that" westerns flying off the shelves. If the i-Pad generation is rediscovering the good, old fashioned "western" the sky's the limit.

Yee-hah!


Hell on Wheels continues on Sunday nights on TCM at 9pm.