Riding Back Out of the Sunset
The Resurgence of Western Films in the Contemporary Cinema
By Joseph R. Astalfa
When Ed Harris’ brazenly traditional film Appaloosa hit American theaters in 2008, noted film critic Roger Moore began his enthusiastic review of the picture with the following thoughts: “Appaloosa is the sort of solid, simple Western that Hollywood used to crank out 20 times a year…And if it’s not particularly surprising, ask yourself how often John Wayne, Alan Ladd or Jimmy Stewart surprised us. It’s not the novelty that sells this. It’s the familiarity” (Moore). Such an idea, that audiences might attend a deliberately old-fashioned movie because they wanted the familiarity of the classical western, would have been nigh unthinkable a few short years earlier. Indeed, though the western had made up a quarter of all Hollywood films made from 1910 until the end of the 1950s, and still maintained 12% of the American cinema in 1972, the seventies saw them plummet in popularity, with a low point of a mere three western films reaching screens between 1979 and 1984 (Hoberman 91). “As J. Fred MacDonald put it…no form of mass entertainment has been so dominant, and then so insignificant” (Hoberman 91).
Throughout the 1990s, the occasional western managed to escape from a major studio, prompting murmurs of a potential genre renaissance. Unfortunately, for every critical and commercial success like Unforgiven (1992) or Tombstone (1993), there were bilious releases like Young Guns II (1990) and Wild,Wild,West (1999) to keep enthusiasm for the genre in check. The 2000s began in much the same manner, with the first wide-release being the atrocious American Outlaws in 2001, which was critically panned and a box office disaster. This was countered by the release of Kevin Costner’s Open Range in 2003, which was well reviewed and a modest commercial success (Western Films of the 1990s and 2000s).
Something was about to change, however. Seemingly ignited by the release of James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma in 2007, a wave of critically acclaimed western films began to appear steadily in American cinemas at a rate unheard of since the early 1970s. The surprising enthusiasm for movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men (both 2007), and Appaloosa (2008) seemed to suggest that people were once more hungry for westerns, a perception that was spectacularly confirmed when the Cohen Brothers released their True Grit remake in 2010, when it became the second highest-grossing western of all time, behind only the Academy-Award winning Dances With Wolves (Western: 1979-Present).
What had changed? Why had this genre, after spending two-decades in obscurity despite the best efforts of many talented directors, suddenly recaptured a long-lost audience? What was it that drew the public back to the classic western, or were they being drawn to the classics at all? Did these new films actually abide by the themes and characteristics of their traditional predecessors? Or did they subvert and mock them, in the manner of revisionist works like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film J. Hoberman described as a “striking inversion of values” that exemplified the peoples’ distrust of traditional mores back in the 1960s (Hoberman 88)? To decide that, we must first decide on what characteristics and values define the traditional western, and that isn’t quite as simple as one might think.
It seems like a relatively straightforward question: What qualifies a film to wear the label of “western”? Unlike the way in which a musical film is defined by the tropes of musical theater, or science-fiction by the presence of fanciful scientific concepts and technology, the genetic code of the western is more difficult to sequence. Can it be as simple as a geographic or historical setting? Not really. The “wild west” is commonly accepted as a historical environment that existed along the American frontier, roughly between 1850 and 1910 (Durgnat 69). However, stories set in locales as diverse as Australia (Simon Wincer’s Quigley Down Under) and Japan (Seijun Suzuki’s Man with a Shotgun), and from the mid 1700s (John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk) to the far-flung future (Peter Hyams’ Outland), have all been lumped into the genre at one time or another. Obviously, independent of history or aesthetics, the western is primarily defined by the themes and attitudes of its narrative. In the article “A Western is a Western is a Western”, Stuart Kobak neatly explains the problems inherent in defining the genre:
“There are elements that must be found in a film to label it a Western. It is fair to insist that a Western have a reasonable amount of action and at minimum a modicum of shoot-em-up. Conflict resides in the guts of all Westerns. We need good guys and bad guys, although the differences can sometimes be blurred. Capturing a sense of the great outdoors is a fundamental precept of the greater number of Westerns. Often a chase is the driving force behind a Western’s plot. A changing way of life is frequently the focus of genre treatment and pioneers are found as unsung heroes. There is really no firm description that can lasso the genre. No Western will have each and every element in evidence. Not all Westerns are created equal and all are not equally Westerns. When enough of the essential nature of the genre is present in a film, it isn’t too great a stretch to call it a Western.”
To Kobak’s list we may add the nature of the hero his conflicts as defining factors in the disposition of the genre. The ideal western hero is sometimes jovial, but when he faces important matters, he always takes them seriously. He does not possess great wealth, nor does he need it, since he has everything he needs in his self-reliance, and ability to ride and shoot as well or better than anyone who comes along to hassle him (Warshow 37). As proficient a gunman as he may be, “the cowboy never goes after a fight, but he’d damn well best be ready when the desperado shouts his name in the street” (Durgnat 81). When the westerner walks down to face that desperado, he will never draw first, but that does not mean he will be reluctant to fire when the time comes. He is a champion on the virtuous side of any fight, and he cannot fulfil his purpose without shooting his enemies down (Warshow 38).
So what, at last, does the western hero fight for? If Kobak is correct, and “Conflict resides in the guts of all westerns”, what type of conflict motivates the westerner? Robert Warshow admits that the true cowboy hero is driven by such “cliched” causes as virtue, justice and courage, but he defends these things only because he values them and, in fact, his conflicts are always based upon the defense of his own sensibilities. “What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image– in fact, his honor” (Warshow 38). Remember now, in the traditional western, the communities which call on the cowboy for help are frontier towns. These are infant settlements, ones whose future character is precariously balanced across law and lawlessness. When the cowboy hero upholds the elements of society which reflect his own values, he is acting as a father figure or mentor to that society, becoming the moral guide trying keep the town on the higher path.
So, having established the basic ideals for which the traditional western stands, we can begin to consider whether or not the “western resurgence” of the 2000s builds upon the same foundation, or merely cloaks itself in pilfered iconography.
Let’s consider James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma. Despite the success of Open Range four years earlier, the western resurgence had yet to take hold when the Mangold began shopping his pet project around to studios. No one wanted to make it, and it was an uphill battle to get an earthy, R-rated western drama into a cinema landscape dominated by CGI blockbusters and cheaply made, yet consistently successful, formula comedies (Murray). However, after years of work, 3:10 to Yuma was released to great critical praise.
The film may look resolutely modern at first, with plenty of flashy bloodletting, CGI-assisted explosions, and a post-Tarantino vibe to the clever, alternately understated and over-the-top dialog. Beneath all of it, however is a story that could have been taken from a Budd Boetticher project: For a reward he desperately needs in order to save his ranch, Dan Evans agrees to help escort notorious criminal Ben Wade to the train headed for Yuma prison. Along the way, the two men find mutual respect, even affection, but without ever compromising their own essential natures. It is revealed that Evans, who is missing a foot, was wounded while running from battle in the Civil War, and imaging the reaction to this if his son knew the truth is part of his motivation for seeing his new job through. He has been given a second chance to live up to his personal ideals, even though he failed once before. Eventually, even as the rest of the posse gives up in the face of overwhelming odds, Evans negotiates more money for his wife and family, and completes his mission alone, even though this leads to his death.
Ignore the fact that the film is a remake. Even as the overall setup is the same as it’s 1957 predecessor, the details of the narrative (especially the resolution, Dan’s war wound, and the sidelining of Evan’s wife in favor of his son) are substantially different. That does not, however, mean that the tale is modernized. For all the slick, modern production values, the ideas underlying Mangold’s film sit firmly within the framework we’ve established for the traditional western. In accordance with Stuart Kobak’s definitions, Yuma is the story of good men and criminals (their moral ambiguity does nothing to compromise their stance as one either dedicated to civilized law, or to frontier anarchy), and it is partially a chase film (with Wade’s men nipping at Evans’ heels). Much of it involves danger in the wilderness between towns, exemplifying how tenuous civilization’s hold on the territory remains. Evan with the danger, though, a changing way of life is clearly on the horizon, symbolized in the threat of Evans losing his ranch to eastern-style capitalists, which motivates his entry into the adventure. Last, there is more than a “modicum of shoot ‘em up”, and the picture is as exciting as many of John Wayne’s cowboy action films.
As for the protagonist, Dan Evans, we can see the white-hat persona of many a Saturday matinee oater stars in his quiet determination. While he becomes a deputy partly due to the promise of a reward, he is not seeking “wealth”, but only the bare necessities to help his family get by. His ultimate motivation is the heroic westerner’s sense of honor. Yes, Evans is a compromised hero, haunted by his retreat from battle in wartime, but the simple fact that he is haunted by this tells us that he must hold bravery and duty in high regard. This is a virtuous man, and now that he is older (we can assume around 15 – 25 years have passed since the end of the Civil War) he is ready to stand up for his values in a way that he was unable to before. Like Robert Vaughn’s nerve-shattered gunfighter in The Magnificent Seven, who is haunted by fear but eventually overcomes it and dies honorably in battle, Dan Evans overcomes former cowardice and reclaims his honor through a similar sacrifice. This is another common theme in the classic western: A man may make a mistake, or even be a career coward, but in a tough and wild land, there are opportunities for redemption around every corner.
While 3:10 to Yuma jazzed up its faithful adherence to western tropes with very 21st century action choreography, Ed Harris’ Appaloosa, released almost exactly one year later, pulls the reigns hard in the opposite direction, creating a film whose style lies is its lack of such stylization. It also practically announces that it is a Western with a capital ‘W’, and that there will be no revisionism or parody going on in these parts.
The plot is either stereotype or archetype, depending on one’s outlook. Cruel, wealthy rancher Randall Bragg thinks his money can buy the soul of a town, and thus he thinks nothing of killing a Marshall and his men when they have the audacity to attempt to arrest some of his employees. The town, having enough of this tyranny, hires mercenary-lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hicks to put a stop to it. Of course, nothing goes as planned, Bragg is put on trial, promptly escapes with the help of his own hired guns, and Cole and Hitch must pursue them through the wilderness. There is the obligatory gunfight, with the two heroes gunning down Bragg’s men, though Bragg himself escapes and is pardoned for his crimes by the president, proving that even the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the land is still nothing more than a snake in the grass. Bragg returns to the town of Appaloosa, basically to flaunt his freedom and begin reclaiming his power. One of our heroes, Everett Hitch, knowing that it is just a matter of time before Bragg ruins his friend Cole’s life (he is trying to settle down), and that the system will never deal with Bragg appropriately, abandons his position as deputy, challenges Bragg to a private fight, and kills him. It doesn’t matter if the president, or anyone else, wants to protect Bragg, Hitch is dedicated to a greater power, his own ideas of honor and justice.
Of course, there is a great deal more to the film than this. Some remarkable characterizations and fresh subplots certainly contribute a great deal to overall quality of the narrative. However, from just this basic synopsis, it becomes clear that Appaloosa is playing by a very old set of rules. While sitting in the theater, I couldn’t help but compare Harris’ 2008 oater with Michael Winner’s 1970 revisionist western Lawman, in which a very similar plot plays out. In that tale, Burt Lancaster is a straight-laced, honest Marshall named Maddox, but the film depicts this formerly lauded character-type as a disconnected zealot, while showing its criminal rancher as a levelheaded, tired old man, truly an example of the leftist counterculture returning to the Hollywood scene. Appaloosa, on the other hand, has nothing but respect for the unflappable lawman, and from the very first scene makes Bragg out to be a heartless crime lord. It does not, however, side with the government, essentially casting the United States president as an accomplice after-the-fact to Bragg’s murderous and corrupt ways. If Appaloosa is the antithesis to Lawman, it is the direct descendent of High Noon, where the court lets a killer go free on a technicality, and Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane must ignore the will of the people and seek out justice based only on his inner morality. Similarly, the only justice Appaloosa respects is the common-law, common-sense ideals that exist somewhere between the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. This is justice that the western hero respects as well, the kind that meshes with his personal code of honor.
Both 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa were fine films. “I give thanks for westerns. Every time they seem to be about to gasp their last, dusty breath, one comes along to give them a bit of renewed life…Last year it was the excellent remake 3:10 to Yuma. This year it’s the worthy Appaloosa,” said critic Tony Macklin in his review of the latter. However, while both of these movies were artistic triumphs, and managed to turn reasonable profits between their theatrical box office and home video releases (TheNumbers.com), their success was minor in comparison to a film that would finally set the western genre aflame in the winter of 2010.
The plot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit is well known to most movie buffs, having previously served as the basis for one of John Wayne’s most beloved starring vehicles (and the one which led to his Academy Award victory). In short, a young girl hires violent, drunken Marshall Rooster Cogburn to track down the man who killed her father, and from that point on the story is one long pursuit over the harshest possible terrain, until it culminates in one of the most iconic shootouts in film history (“Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”). There is a rugged simplicity to the narrative, and to the morality, of the picture. A cruel man commits a heinous crime, and virtuous people (and Rooster is eminently virtuous, despite his surly attitude, drunkenness, and willingness to shoot first and ask questions later) band together to hunt him down.
Of all the pictures that constitute the post-2000 western resurgence, True Grit is the most traditional. Unlike the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, this film sticks close to both its source novel, and Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation. There are modern filmmaking techniques represented, and some obvious CGI blood on hand, but the screenplay fulfils our criteria for being a traditional western as closely as one could ever hope. From Stuart Kobak’s list, it possess exciting shootouts, clear cut good guys and bad guys, a “sense of the great outdoors”, and a chase as the “driving force” behind the plot. From our profile of the quintessential “western hero”, we see in Rooster Cogburn a jovial man who becomes serious when duty demands it, who does not possess or seek wealth, who does not wish to be anything but what he is, who adheres unflinchingly to a personal code of justice while giving little respect to the court, and who can certainly shoot better than anyone he comes up against (at least when he is sober).
If all this makes True Grit seems like a “by-the-numbers” kind of film, that’s because it is one. However, following genre conventions did nothing to turn the audience or the press off. Out of 232 professional reviews available online, a mere 10 did not give True Grit a passing grade, equating to a 96% positive response (Rotten Tomatoes). The box office was even more astounding. Worldwide, True Grit took in $249,250,624 against a $38 million dollar budget. Even 3:10 to Yuma, considered an unusually well-performing western, made $70,016,220 against a $50 million dollar budget, and True Grit stampeded over this figure like a spooked stallion (Box Office Mojo). The good press certainly boosted audience interest, but history tells us that reviews do not have the impact on moviegoers that many critics wish they did. What True Grit’s success tells us is that it was released at a time when the audience was hungry for something that a traditional western could offer.
This is the real reason for the western resurgence: people want to see the westerns that are being released. The question then becomes, what is it about the western that seems to be striking a cord with people now, after the genre has spent so much time lingering in the cinematic background? “When things get complicated, as they are now, people tend to gravitate toward stories in which the moral landscape is clear, there’s a white hat and a black hat,” offered Scott Rudin, producer of True Grit (Della Cava).
We live in a world where the United States is at war with its most nebulous enemy, the very concept of “terrorism”. Not only do people disagree on who the specific enemies are, they cannot agree on what to do with them when they are within our reach. If Rooster Cogburn managed to track down a Taliban leader, there would be no debate about whether he could be kept in Guantanamo Bay without trial, because he would have brought in hanging limp across a pack mule.
Aside from the threats of war, people are also facing constant economic uncertainty. They are unsure whether or not they can trust their banks or stockbrokers, and feel constantly exploited and undervalued by money-mad employers. These finance-bandits are clearly cut from the same cloth as the unscrupulous railroad magnates and corrupt cattle barons whose dishonorable dealings have stirred the wrath of cowboy heroes from Tom Mix to Ed Harris, and people take comfort in the kind of story where ill-gotten money isn’t enough to stop the advance of one good man’s justice. The appeal of the classic western seems perfectly logical, even expected, in times such as these. “Well-made westerns â precisely because they are such a ritualized and conventionalized form â have an ability to isolate moral conflicts in spare, essentially unrealistic, contexts and thus focus our undistracted attention on those issues” (Schickel).
The 1980s through the late 1990s were a period of general cold-war patriotic unity, and a long economic boom that many thought would proceed well into the 21st century (Leyden). People felt secure in the direction of their country, and of their way of life, and didn’t need any old-fashioned, squared-jawed types to preach virtue and perseverance in their movies. However, when the dream started coming apart (the rise of 21st century terrorism and the global recession), the public felt like rug had been pulled from beneath their feet. They didn’t know what they had done wrong, nor what they needed to do to get their misguided nation (and, taken a step farther, misguided world) back on track. Hardship and uncertainty were no longer things of the past. “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their moral compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western”, said film critic Roger Ebert, in his review of 3:10 to Yuma, and I am inclined to agree with him.
The western has experienced a resurgence, because we as a people need to have faith in the ideas the genre stands for once again. We must believe in justice, right and wrong, fair and unfair, and the power of our personal ethics to guide us through a sea of opportunism and extremism without succumbing to their clutches. It is in times of desperation that people need strength of character. They need heroes who do not look for trouble, or accost the innocent, but sure as hell won’t allow desperados and bureaucrats to walk all over them. If there is a single line of dialog that sums up what a western teaches us, it is this one delivered by John Wayne in The Shootist (1976): “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
If ever we needed a return to such a simple philosophy of life, it is now. Thank God the western has just ridden back into town, and it’s ready to give this ornery culture some desperately needed schooling.
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