This summer the Cineplex is crowded with a plethora of roughhewn comedies, several-too-many horror-thrillers, and a cascade of caped crusaders. But yet again, the cinematic landscape is bereft of the Western. Oh, I know there’s a new Lone Ranger in the works, but that’s set for a July of 2013 release. So, why has the Western been ignored by today’s moviemakers?
I have a theory.
If you look at the evolution of movie genres such as the horror film or the comedy or even the fairy tale, they have each morphed into products meant to either reflect our changing times or influence them. Horror films such as The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, or Cat People were once morality tales, where good was eventually triumphant over evil. But the scary movie has undergone more transformations than Lady Gaga's wardrobe. And with few exceptions such as the psychological sci-fi thriller Signs (2002), most of today’s entries into that film forum have been little more than salutes to studio special effects departments. Fright flicks aren’t really morality tales these days, just CGI gore fests.
And comedies? Past generations have laughed at everything from the slapstick shenanigans of the Three Stooges to the soulful hilarity of Charlie Chaplin (City Lights) to the sophisticated wit of William Powell (The Thin Man) to the prancing energy of Danny Kaye (The Court Jester) to the charming screwball antics of Cary Grant (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby) to the staid buffoonery of Peter Sellers (The Mouse That Roared) to the satirical humor of Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove). Most of today’s funny film folk go no further than comedy club raucousness with its “I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that” syndrome. Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogan, Ben Stiller, and Jason Segal, along with their comic clones, are unbridled by codes of decorum. This era’s screen comic peppers his life observations with sophomoric stench known in polite circles as bathroom humor.
But the Western doesn’t lend itself easily to revamping. Given, many have tried, some with seeming success, but in the overview, their bastardizing of the Code of the West has led to the near demise of the genre. (8-to-5 the new Lone Ranger will do battle with vampires.)
Where John Ford’s westerns were poetic in presentation, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns became campish, like cartoons for grownups. Sam Peckinpah, who gave us a masterpiece sendoff of the old West as Hollywood once knew it with his Ride the High Country (1960), then redefined the horse opera with his excessive yet intriguing The Wild Bunch (1969). In his defense, with that film Peckinpah was actually attempting to point a finger at the increasingly violent nature of our culture. He filmed the savage action in close up and slow motion, thinking it would speak volumes concerning the direction our present-day society was heading. He was alluding to the corruption of the soul and the changing of man’s character. Sadly, he merely opened the door to violent exploitation much the way Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) did for profane language.
From then on, our western history was depicted with flawed heroes by filmmakers determined to dispel the glamour of the Old West. Even Clint Eastwood’s admittedly brilliant and poignant Unforgiven (1992) wallowed in grime, with the genre’s black and white themes now tinged with shades of gray.
In keeping with our more pessimistic times, where filmmakers emphasize “reality” over symbolic allusion, no longer would the good guys wear the white Stetsons, the bad guys the black ones. Some, as in the case of Brokeback Mountain (2005), now wear pink hats – metaphorically speaking.
True, a great many B-westerns used the Native American as little more than props, but the best of the Wild West Oaters emphasized how the world thought of America: vast, and full of mystery and promise. The western hero was never portrayed as petty or vindictive, but as a person of both rugged individualism and quiet dignity, someone whose word meant more to him than his own best interests. He faced formidable odds, defended the rights of others, showed regard for authority and paid tribute to the pioneers, those who made the ultimate sacrifice while building a new nation.
I could have made this piece all about John Wayne as his screen persona symbolized the world’s assessment of America. Indeed, the Duke is still seen as a Mount Rushmore identity, solid, protective and patriotic. And it's John Wayne who starred in one of the best American films ever constructed, The Searchers (1956).
Western lore-makers John Ford (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Howard Hawks (Red River), and Henry Hathaway (True Grit) helped create Wayne’s screen image, but director John Farrow also gave us a primal portrait of the cowboy with Hondo (1953). In it, Wayne played a loner who had once lived with the Indians, Hollywood finally paying tribute to the courage and lifestyle of the Native American. From Louis L'Amour's novel, it is the tale of a cavalry scout who rescues, and is then rescued by, a lone pioneer woman. The personification of the Western, Hondo, and the genre in general, dramatizes the one-time ideal of the American male.
Though it is understandable why filmmakers would want to debunk the fable of the Old West. However, in their zeal to correct the fictional elaboration of the pioneer period, they have lost sight of the Western’s true nature. The Western poignantly dramatizes not just what we are, but what we can become.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, director John Ford injected his dark-natured elegy with the pronouncement, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Was Ford debunking his own career with this ironic fallacy? Well, he may have been going along with the herd as it were, stressing that the old ways must give way to the new, progress is, after all, essential for a nation’s well-being. But even in that picture, the Westerner’s character still had something to teach future generations. The story was built around Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard, who is wrongly credited with killing badman Liberty Valance. In reality, John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon did the shooting. Though Doniphon kills Valance from a darkened alleyway, it is this act that allows Stoddard to help civilize the West. Like Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca, it is a self-sacrificing deed.
Perhaps the decline in western movies also has to do with politics. Even with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the genre’s structure stresses that sometimes force is necessary to back up progressive ideals. This element defends the necessity of war, a concept not embraced by many in today’s land of make-believe. The reality is, civilization has not resulted by words alone. This, the Western suggests and justifies.
No other genre of film has done more to establish the need for character than the Western. It clearly states that man finds his true self when he defends what’s right, and when he puts others first. This declaration reverberates with the same social awareness as President Kennedy’s immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Maybe that’s why they don’t make Westerns anymore.
Phil Boatwright provides a monthly column for Baptist Press and is a regular contributor to "The World and Everything In it," a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group.