Westerns find their new normal

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Westerns are one of those rare, uniquely American film genres. They dominated film screens for years, were amongst some of the finest stories told in film, and they are films that have created some of the most compelling characters in film history.

But somewhere around the brilliant, sprawling mini-series Lonesome Dove in 1989, the western lost its appeal to the mass audience. They suddenly seemed out of touch and with the exception of movies like Young Guns (and its sequel). In recent years, however, westerns have been making an unmistakable resurgence in both film and television.

They didn’t completely disappear, though. In fact a few would pop up every few years in the 90s, some of the most notable include Unforgiven in 1992, Dances with Wolves in 1990, 1994’s Maverick and 1993’s Tombstone. They’d make a splash and everyone would talk about how it was going to revive the genre but alas it never really happened.


However a shift began to occur about ten years ago. Firefly, Joss Whedon’s brilliant 2002 series began its one season run on Fox. Though it might not look like a western to the casual viewer, the rabid fans (and trust me there are a lot of us), would be the first to tell you that there were immense westerns themes and influences in what has often been described as a “western in space”.

Centered on Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) a former Browncoat soldier in the year 2517, who lost a civil war to the Alliance and began working as a mercenary with a group of renegades that make up the crew and residents of the ship, Serenity which Mal bought after loosing the war. He and his crew attempt to resist the Alliance and its control in the new star system.

Firefly in addition to its brilliance was able to introduce a whole new audience to western themes and was also one of the first of the modern western revivals to show us a truly flawed hero.

Mal (and most of Serenity’s inhabitants for that matter), were anything but perfect. Scared, both emotionally and physically, Mal is a veteran of the “unification war” (a fictional substitute for the civil war). He’s often cold and unable or unwilling to give in to his crews requests. But even if he appears reluctant he always ends up fighting, a true gunslinger. Stripped of its space setting the basic western premise remains.


Compared to Firefly, HBO’S 2004 show Deadwood had a more conventional western feel. Of course the gritty, raw and painfully realistic feel shouts authenticity. Deadwood was the first time that we got the feeling we were watching something that could have and probably did happen.

Around this time small films started to go out on a limb again, taking chances on westerns that had a little bit of a twist. Flipping the old western convention on its head, Ron Howard’s 2003 film, The Missing, casts a powerful Cate Blanchett as the lead, a mother of two daughters, one of whom is kidnapped. She is forced to reconnect with her father (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned his family years ago to explore Native American spirituality. Notable for its authentic use of the Apache language The Missing has an eerie quality that isn’t often found in westerns.

The Missing is able to create a sensation of potent fear, an intense thriller, and a beautiful family drama. That’s not exactly a combination you get from most westerns but somehow it works.


One of America’s most gifted playwright’s Sam Shepard has never shied away from revising modern western mythology in his work. In the 2005 film Don’t Come Knocking, which Shepard co-wrote with director Wim Wenders, Shepard plays a rundown, hard living, hard drinking western movie star who runs off from the set of his latest film, shifting through his past, looking for answers and hoping to find the women he left behind twenty some years ago.

It’s far from the perfect film but Wenders creates some haunting images, and the story benefits from Shepard’s beautiful, complicated and enthralling script. In what’s become quiet the popular practice Don’t Come Knocking, places our western hero in a modern world and lets him twist in the wind while the audience watches him try to adapt. Don’t come knocking is a truly unique film.

3:10 to Yuma pits Dan (Christian Bale) a righteous injured rancher who is struggling to provide for his family against Ben (Russell Crowe). Dan volunteers to escort Ben, the leader of a brutal gang, to the train that will take him to prison. 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name which was based on an early Elmore Leonard book.

The film exemplifies the modern western. More of a biting and enthralling character study with hints of dark humor than anything else it had the unusual task of updating itself and still staying true to the stories that came before it. Rather underappreciated at its release 3:10 to Yuma fits in perfectly with the modern revival of the western.


Andrew Domink’s underrated, completely stunning 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is achingly beautiful, intimate but somehow grand and filled with images that Domink and cinematographer Roger Deakens construct with ease. Brad Pitt’s Jesse is admired and ultimately struck down by Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford.

It’s an odd film, a heady mix between art house experimentation and classic western imagery. It’s easy to see why the movie so often divides people but it’s probably one of the most beautifully made films in recent memory that also manages to transcend the entire western genre.

Anchored by a beautifully morose performance by Viggo Mortenson, 2008’s Ed Harris directed Appaloosa is perhaps the most old school of all the modern westerns. The most influenced by classic Westerns, Harris gives us a simple story wrapped up in dusty sweeping landscapes. A western as much as it’s a love triangle story, Appaloosa is mostly an homage to the westerns that most of us grew up on. Quiet, stoic and wonderfully rewarding.

Recently shows like Justified and Hell on Wheels have brought the western back to television. Justified is the story of emotionally inept, smart ass, shoot first ask questions later US Marshall Raylan Givens (a consistently exceptional Timothy Olyphant) whose forced to return to his Kentucky hometown, Harlan. It’s a coal mining town full of characters that only Elmore Leonard and show runner Graham Yost could come up with.

Raylan knows what he is. He’s tough because he has to be (he probably wouldn’t have survived his childhood if he wasn’t), he’s hurt, and he’s incredibly smart. Which of course only makes it more rewarding for the audience when Raylan comes up against characters like Boyd (the ever brilliant Walton Goggins), an equally scared, equally brilliant man who Raylan very well could have turned into if he had gone down a slightly different road.

More of a southern odyssey than a western there are undeniable elements of the genre that seep through. Raylan also happens to be the perfect embodiment of the modern western hero, with all his stripped down attitude and bravado swagger he wears his tan cowboy hat without a hint of irony.

Societies shift has caused a shift in our westerns heroes. We’re no longer a culture that needs Gary Cooper crusading through town and walking off into the sunset with Grace Kelly. Nor do we need John Wayne’s swagger (although I think you’d be hard pressed to find a female viewer of Justified that doesn’t enjoy Raylan’s swagger).

Instead we’ve become fascinated by the anti-hero or the flawed hero, because were so openly flawed. Mal on Firefly was barely holding things together, Virgil and Everett of Appaloosa have their friendship nearly torn apart by a scheming woman, Dan in 3:10 to Yuma simply wants to make his son proud and do something worthwhile in his life and Raylan is fighting a past he’s not completely sure he can let go of. These are problems most audiences are more than aware of in their own lives.

And in truth we need the change. Gary Cooper and John Wayne characters would seem insincere and condescending in today’s world. Sure they didn’t play the most stable of characters but compared to what we know today those characters seem like they were created by Disney compared to Raylan or Boyd.

We need westerns, at least the kinds of westerns being made now. There dirty, violent and say a lot about who we are. They’re also completely American.


  1. Lance says

    Sure the flawless “John Wayne” all-good character is a myth that never appeared in the actual Old West and generally speaking doesn’t fly with general audiences. With that said, its just as much a myth that John Wayne or Gary Cooper always played those characters in the first place, a myth that’s been perpetuated by people that I don’t imagine have seen a lot of their movies.

    Heck, the best and most famous roles of both men were of very flawed men. Ethan Edwards is a much more nuanced and complex character than the vast majority of “heroes” to appear before or since in any genre. And the new version of True Grit was very successful, and that obviously contains the other most famous John Wayne role. So Wayne’s two most famous roles don’t fit the caricature, nor do a lot of his other roles. Granted many of his other characters are more straightforward, but they aren’t “flawless” any more than the dozens of average heroes in average movies today. Really the pattern hasn’t changed at all- it would be silly to insist that a character *must* be an “anti-hero”, but the better movies/shows have always contained more complex characters… and that’s what people want.

    As far as a possible western resurgence, it depends what you mean by “western”. If you’re going to include movies with the same spirit as movies set in the Old West (like Firefly), then the genre never died and never will. If you mean films actually set in the Old West, well I still think the “death of the genre” has been exaggerated, we seem to have a very decent western (if non-traditional) coming out pretty much every year. We won’t come back to the days where it seemed every other movie was a western, but I don’t think we’re going back to the low point with hardly any westerns at all.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Tressa —
    Lovely piece on a genre close to my heart. I grew up with Westerns, and I deeply miss them. I doubt they’ll come back, although it’s a sign of the fondness that some hold for them that they do occasionally appear, sometimes in disguise (FIREFLY).
    The Western lived as long as the myth of The West lived, and I guess it’s now so long ago — like WW II, The Civil War, Vietnam, the Apollo program — that it holds too little resonance with the young movie-going public to have much drawing power. UNFORGIVEN and DANCES WITH WOLVES (itself kind of a pillaging of The Man Called Horse flicks) were the last Westerns to do smash business.
    It’s true what you say that the days of John Wayne and Gary Cooper are long gone, but we did go through a prolific and energetic cycle of revisionist/reconstructionist Westerns in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Nobody’s ever going to say that Westerns like THE WILD BUNCH and LITTLE BIG MAN were John Wayne-ish Westerns. I don’t think it’s our change in direction which cost us the Western as much as — as I said — our losing touch with the myth that underpinned it.
    A nice read.

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