In 1982, Rex Allen, Jr. released a single entitled “Last of the Silver Screen Cowboys,” in which he bemoaned the way Western heroes in the movies had become “a fast dyin’ breed,” and how the days of folks like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and their ilk, when “we knew good would win in the end,” were being rapidly supplanted by the sort of shady fella who you couldn’t necessarily count on to be “standin’ tall for what he believes is right.” Thing is, that breed of cowboy had actually begun its slow death almost 20 years earlier, and it started, ironically enough, not long after the release of one of the most epic Westerns of all time.
1962’s How the West was Won is the sort of film you just don’t see any more, a sprawling saga which tells a 50-year tale of four generations of a family over the course of 162 minutes and five segments: “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” “The Civil War,” “The Railroad,” and “The Outlaws,” directed variously by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. In addition to narration by Spencer Tracy, the film also features a cast that includes John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Robert Preston, George Peppard, Walter Brennan, Debbie Reynolds, and many other instantly recognizable faces. You see what I mean? “Epic” barely begins to cover it.
Yet within a year, the cowboy genre began its first dramatic turn away from the straightforward white hat versus black hat mentality with Paul Newman’s Hud. No, the 1963 film wasn’t a western in the classic sense—I can’t say I recall Lash LaRue ever driving a Cadillac through any of his Saturday matinee adventures—but there’s no denying that Hud is a cowboy, even though he definitely ain’t what you’d call a hero.
Once Sergio Leone entered the fray the following year with For a Few Dollars More, the saloon doors opened wide to a sprawling variety of neo-westerns with a more contemporary flair, in some cases stepping way, way outside the box with their cowboy yarns.
Although the western has been declared dead more times than the average pop culture writer could begin to count, the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained led many to declare that the genre was alive and well, a sentiment which seems to be backed up by the arrival of Disney’s latest big-budget Johnny Depp extravaganza, The Lone Ranger, in which Gore Verbinski takes the classic character and soups up his adventures to such an absurd degree that younger mainstream audiences raised on the Pirates of the Caribbean films can’t help but be convinced that, yes, this is what a Western is supposed to be!
But it isn’t.
Audiences may find The Lone Ranger to be a rip-roaring good time, as is their right, but it’s less a Western than it is just another Gore Verbinski action flick. The same goes for Django Unchained, which—great though it may be—no one who knows the work of the man who wrote and directed it could ever see as anything other than his exploration of one of his favorite genres, a la his loving tribute to Blaxploitation films with Jackie Brown. There’s no question that the end result is a loving tribute to Westerns, but Django Unchained is first and foremost a Quentin Tarantino film, and that’s just not the same thing.
It’s not as though Hollywood suddenly lost the ability to make Westerns with a classic feel after the early ‘60s. There have been several exemplary endeavors in the current millennium, including Kevin Costner’s Open Range in 2003 and Ed Harris’s Appaloosa in 2008. Granted, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, was a remake of a 1957 film that had to be roughed up a bit to be accepted by present-day audiences, but it’s still a hell of a lot subtler than you’d see in wide release today.
It’s also worth noting that all three of the films cited in this paragraph earned back their production costs, none of them can be held responsible for killing the Western by—GASP!—daring to develop their characters beyond pencil sketches and vapid clichés.
The problem is that Hollywood’s vision is such that the only successes it sees as worth duplicating are the huge successes. As a result, we’re much more likely to see more blood-soaked shoot-‘em-ups or wacky action romps than we are to see anything resembling classic cowboy movies making its way to the big screen.
There’s no point in saying that Westerns are dead, because it’s clear that, in some shape or form, they remain alive, well, and in the upper reaches of the box-office countdown, but as far as real Westerns go, if audiences can’t get back to appreciating the importance of substance over style on occasion, they may well ride into the sunset forever.