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Who killed the Western?

Alex Richards

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I do wonder whether the 80s were just the point where the Western passed far enough out of living memory to just not have the mass appeal anymore. The people who'd been hearing about stuff like the death of Butch Cassidy in 1908 or the touring circuses which still had some of those outlaws on them until the late teens, early 20s would have been getting into their late 70s or 80s at that point.

The recent revival is, in essence, the people who's childhood memories are growing up with the films made by the people who had memories of the actual events.
 

Coiler

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One thing I've heard (and agree with) is that the classic Mad Max/Fist Of The North Star style post-apocalyptic story is in many ways like a Western. That could be another factor-you can, with those, use a broadly similar story in a broadly similar rough environment without having to fall back on something that was, at least at the time, overly familiar and (I suspect) regarded as increasingly stuffy.
 

SenatorChickpea

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I think there's also the extent to which the Western became associated with your boring right-wing dads. That's not fair, of course, but still.

The revival in the late 2000s and 2010s has in part come about due to an increased focus on diverse leads- look at the more female-driven True Grit reboot, the Indigenous Australian stories of Sweet Country, The Tracker and to an extent The Proposition, the ethnically diverse remake of The Magnificent Seven and so on.
 
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Burton K Wheeler

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Ryan is wrong.

The fundamental problem with the Western is that no one since the 1970's has understood the genre, which is why most successful post 70's westerns are deconstructionist. The genre was healthy when a ton of stuff was being put out, 99% of it crap. Now there's very little coming out, so it doesn't say much for the state of the genre even if that very little is good.

I could type a novel-length post on this topic.
 

Hendryk

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When Stagecoach hit movie theatres in 1939 it was a complete reinvention of the genre because ,at the time, big budget Westerns were out of vogue. Ford struggled to get the film produced and all the studios objected to Wayne as a leading man, but Ford stuck to his guns and one of the most famous pairings of director and actor was born.
Does this mean that, absent John Ford, the Western wouldn't have been given a second chance after the advent of talkies?
 

RyanF

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One thing I've heard (and agree with) is that the classic Mad Max/Fist Of The North Star style post-apocalyptic story is in many ways like a Western. That could be another factor-you can, with those, use a broadly similar story in a broadly similar rough environment without having to fall back on something that was, at least at the time, overly familiar and (I suspect) regarded as increasingly stuffy.
True of a lot of science fiction from the 1960s onward, there is something wonderfully ironic about youthful audiences rejecting Westerns as old hat but flocking to post-apocalyptic or science fiction action films that lifted Western themes wholesale (Escape from New York being another example).

Ryan is wrong.
Bollocks!

I'm running around today, but I'll type a longer response later that is actually constructive instead of dismissive and rude (sorry Ryan)
Fair enough!

The fundamental problem with the Western is that no one since the 1970's has understood the genre, which is why most successful post 70's westerns are deconstructionist. The genre was healthy when a ton of stuff was being put out, 99% of it crap. Now there's very little coming out, so it doesn't say much for the state of the genre even if that very little is good.

I could type a novel-length post on this topic.
Hasn't every successful post-70s Western been deconstructionist or revisionist one way or another? Did Eastwood understand the genre with Pale Rider and The Outlaw Josey Wales but forget it by the time he did Pale Rider and Unforgiven? The fact it was such a sheer drop in numbers from the 70s to the 80s would say that there was something more at work than filmmakers suddenly not understanding the genre.

I'm not sure I understand entirely the distinction drawn between a healthy state with almost all of the output being crap, being made by people who understood the genre vs. very little output tending towards good but no one understanding the genre. I'm interested in this because it is a complex take, but while there is a distinct difference between the mentality of the people making the films 70s and before compared with since, I don't see how this points to a lack of understanding since the 1970s being the major issue in the decline of the genre. Unless what you're actually taking exception to is the assertion at the end that Western films are looking in a healthier state than they have done in decades?

Does this mean that, absent John Ford, the Western wouldn't have been given a second chance after the advent of talkies?
It certainly wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility, but I see you've created a thread for this so will give deeper thoughts there.
 

Tabac Iberez

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Part of the problem was saturation, part of the problem was changing expectations. Considering the Western was built on the duel tableau of a simple system of characters and an open-ended story that didn't have an airtight third act, there was a finite number of stories you could build around before the square-dance of production started eating toes. Once that happened and the genre became stagnant, you couldn't really argue things could keep it alive- especially with the influx of new blood that poured in after the deaths of the end of the Golden Age. That, I think, was the final nail in the coffin- people with the resources to tell different stories and present different styles pushing out the grandfather of their standing.

Now that every johnny-come-lately has finished their howl at the wall, though, there's a place for the questions of a frontier. When the empty spaces and related problems come up, though, the modern creater and his audience don't understand the void of humanity that created the frontier environment. They understand that the first item is taking out the human element, though, and the good creators can reverse-engineer the rest. Thus, the post-apocalypse: or rather, the enforced creation of a frontier.
 

Avian Overlord

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I think the Western peaking in 1969 is important for another reason. Namely, it's the first year the Hays code isn't in effect. While I'm not an expert on the topic, I've heard you could get away with a lot more content-wise in historical films. I think it's entirely plausible the decline of the Western was the market returning to equilibrium after an artificial factor propping the genre up was removed. Don't look at Star Wars. Look at the Godfather. A story of outlaws, revenge and honor but done in a contemporary setting that the code never would have allowed.
 

Charles EP M.

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True of a lot of science fiction from the 1960s onward, there is something wonderfully ironic about youthful audiences rejecting Westerns as old hat but flocking to post-apocalyptic or science fiction action films that lifted Western themes wholesale (Escape from New York being another example).
It probably doesn't help the Western that science fiction can so easily lift the themes, the tropes, the iconography etc and marry it to more contemporary settings or more fantastical ones. The Western remains 'old'. Similar,y Film Stories #1 had an article on the brief spurt of truckers films in the mid-to-late 70s, arguing these were taking the masculine symbol of the cowboy & the empty frontier imagery and preserving them in a way that seemed more relevant to the time.
 

RyanF

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I Think Vietnam and Watergate made people less patriotic maybe that is why.
I don't know about patriotism, but I do think those two things contributed to a change in US culture that was well underway after the former had begun but before the latter. Things became grimmer with the malaise that was setting in, one early victim of the rural purge, Gomer Pyle, USMC, was on the air from 1964 to 1969 on a modern marine base yet the ongoing War was never mentioned - perhaps says something about how out of touch it was felt by the chattering classes and the powers that be that wanted their dollars.

I think those two major events were so paradigm shifting that the cultural effects played a part, but I don't think it was a question of Westerns being seen as some patriotic thing. Look at the spaghetti Westerns or The Wild Bunch from around that time, but there might be something to saying that the modern day was seen as being just as wild as the Wild West.

I think the Western peaking in 1969 is important for another reason. Namely, it's the first year the Hays code isn't in effect. While I'm not an expert on the topic, I've heard you could get away with a lot more content-wise in historical films. I think it's entirely plausible the decline of the Western was the market returning to equilibrium after an artificial factor propping the genre up was removed. Don't look at Star Wars. Look at the Godfather. A story of outlaws, revenge and honor but done in a contemporary setting that the code never would have allowed.
An intriguing line of thought! It goes even further than The Godfather look at the likes of The French Connection or Dirty Harry. Perhaps there was a knowing reason they sought John Wayne and then eventually settled on Clint Eastwood for the lead role in Dirty Harry. Running this into an AH idea I've had where a successful Reagan assassination leads to a new Production Code this might herald a return of the genre. Most intriguing.

It probably doesn't help the Western that science fiction can so easily lift the themes, the tropes, the iconography etc and marry it to more contemporary settings or more fantastical ones. The Western remains 'old'. Similar,y Film Stories #1 had an article on the brief spurt of truckers films in the mid-to-late 70s, arguing these were taking the masculine symbol of the cowboy & the empty frontier imagery and preserving them in a way that seemed more relevant to the time.
It's true that science fiction so easily can lift Western themes and also lended itself to using the same Southern California locations so favoured by Westerns - look at Vasquez Rocks for instance. Interesting point about the trucker movies, certainly Smokey and the Bandit has certain elements to it and after all when Sam Peckinpah failed at a couple of Westerns in the 1970s the film he attempted to return to commercial success was the trucker movie Convoy! based on the song of the same name.


Is there parhaps another element that practically every film started to take cues from the Western in the 1970s that they just faded away? Science fiction had lifted its themes, road movies had lifted its vistas, modern action films had lifted their violence?
 

Charles EP M.

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I

Is there parhaps another element that practically every film started to take cues from the Western in the 1970s that they just faded away? Science fiction had lifted its themes, road movies had lifted its vistas, modern action films had lifted their violence?
That surely can't help, as then the Westerns will be perceived as only having the specific period setting
 

Geordie

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Feel free to tear this take to shreds, but I get the impression from this discussion that, while western as a setting may have suffered; western as genre never really left us. It was just transposed into other settings (post-apocalyptic, space, etc.)
 

RyanF

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Feel free to tear this take to shreds, but I get the impression from this discussion that, while western as a setting may have suffered; western as genre never really left us. It was just transposed into other settings (post-apocalyptic, space, etc.)
The take is wrapped in foil and placed in the oven with the gas turned off.

Certainly, a lot of the science fiction and action films of the late 70s through the 1980s managed to fill a similar niche. As time wore on this connection progressively became less and less, and it's perhaps no coincidence that we saw a small upturn in Westerns being made once this connection was frayed.

In the same way genre aspects were applicable to times and cultures far removed from their origin, so too were they applicable to more high concept works - space operas, post-apocalyptic action, *coughs and gestures to signature* alternate history...
 

Burton K Wheeler

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The Rosetta Stone of the Western genre is the Johnson County War.

So in the late 19th Century, the Wyoming territory was essentially governed by the Stockgrower's Association, which is often referred to as the Cheyenne Club, where they met. The Cheyenne Club was made up of massive-scale ranchers who ran cows on open range (public land). Most of these ranchers were wastrel youngest sons of wealthy British and East Coast families.
A lot of small farmers and ranchers were establishing themselves on the forks of the Powder River in Johnson County. Some of these guys were just honest poor folks, some were stock thieves. Either way, they represented a threat to the monopoly and power of the Cheyenne Club, who hired gunslingers like Tom Horn to run them out. Horn wound up being hanged for shooting a kid of a family he was trying to run out.
There's a lot of different ways to interpret what happened. Either the Distant Authority had to use violence to assert itself on a lawless frontier or small time people had to band together against injustice.

The Virginian, by Owen Wister of THE Philadelphia Wisters, came out in 1902, when the Johnson County War was living memory. Its protagonist is a cowboy working for a rich Philadelphian Cheyenne Club member who is forced into violence against cattle thieves. The book is not the first Western, but it's the first proper example of the genre because of two things, 1) the theme is largely romantic nostalgia for what by that time was already a bygone era and 2) the conflict is not about the Virginian versus the cattle thieves but about the Western code of honor which requires vigilante violence at times versus the East Coast standards of propriety.

Shane (1949 novel, 1953 movie) tells the story of a gunslinger who helps a small family farm stand up against gunslingers hired by a wealthy rancher to run homesteaders out of their valley. It addresses the two themes of the Virginian with the twist that the capital J Justice that violence must be used in service of is not order and authority but democratic populism.

It's not a hard and fast division, but Westerns of different periods tend to fall on one side or the other of that divide. You can tell the exact same story with very small twists. For example, are the Rebels in Star Wars rebels against Imperial aggression or are they attempting to restore the legitimate authority of the Republic against a small faction of evildoers who lead the Empire?
 
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