Hollywood has borne witness to a plethora of stirring comebacks over the years, from Robert Downey Jr. to John Travolta, but one recent example has eclipsed them all. At various points across the last four decades, the quintessential American genre of the western has been declared moribund, decaying, or deceased. The exceptions to the rule - Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, even the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone - were mere blemishes, false hope in the face of the genre's inevitable demise. But is it a bit too soon to count on seeing it ride off into the sunset?
There's no denying that the western has endured some trials and tribulations; its various archetypes have either slipped into obscurity (morally incorruptible heroes hell-bent on upholding the innocence of the town folk) or have been amalgamated into other genres (the 'good bad man", the dark maverick willing to compromise in order to protect those he loves, is now the template for almost all Hollywood heroes). Its iconic settings, the dusty streets and windswept plains, have become increasingly irrelevant, as suburbia and the chain store have adopted a stranglehold to what was once a mysterious and enigmatic new frontier.
When Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven were awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, it was widely seen as the western's last hurrah, an obligatory send off from the Academy for one of the most beloved genres of bygone eras. Unforgiven in particular, with its Lethal Weapon-esque 'I'm too old for this shit' mantra, seemed to be knowingly waving farewell to a storied chapter of Hollywood history. If the western was still alive at this point, it had been on death row for years. Many film scholars pinpoint the late '50s as the moment when the genre, at least in its classic form, was read its last rights, with The Searchers. Starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, two of the most significant names in the history of the western, The Searchers is on the surface a typical example the style, but can be conversely seen as deconstructing the genre by very deliberately lionising a racist who hates the idea of miscegenation so much that he'd rather kill his own flesh and blood than see her white purity compromised by a Native American.
All of this contrives to make the recent comeback of the western one that any of Wayne's most resilient characters would be proud of. Whilst films have been borrowing western tropes since the inception of cinema, such as the aforementioned 'good bad man', the last ten years have seen a resurgence of directors and writers paying the genre its dues after years of all take and no give.
The 'pseudo-western' - films that fuse the genre with another - has proved one of the most successful box office and award-winning formulas since the turn of the millenium, with the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Cowboys and Aliens, and Rango all proving hits. Remakes have also come into vogue, with 3:10 to Yuma and Best Picture winner True Grit demonstrating that even the straight western still has a place in modern multiplexes. New westerns Meek's Cutoff, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, and most recently Django Unchained have all shown that it isn't merely rubbernecking at a long-dead entity that's drawing the punters in.
The potential reasons for the resurgence are plentiful. Perhaps, in an age where the internet and smartphones are as ubiquitous as corrals and shootouts were in the Old West, and where even film itself is being replaced with digital technology, there's something comforting in watching a type of movie so intrinsically linked with the past. Perhaps the Orwellian fear of surveillance and Big Brother has created a longing for an age when one could act with impunity from the law so long as they were morally correct. Maybe it's the recent economic downturn that has made filmgoers pine for the time of bounty hunters and train robberies and oil wells providing an instant fortune.
Whatever the reason, the trend shows no signs of letting up. With the huge success of Django and the renewed interest in spaghetti westerns it's brought about, and with the upcoming adaptation of The Lone Ranger, it seems that the western locomotive is, if anything, picking up steam.
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