In Praise of a Lost Genre

High mountains towering over a lonely stagecoach; music and laughter drifting from a swinging-door saloon; the wind rustling a tumbleweed across a dusty main street.

These scenes too seldom grace the big screen or the television set. At least they do now. They are the scenes of the Western film. Here I sing the praises of the Western. It is a genre that, though not extinct, unjustly lives on life-support.

There is much to cherish about the Western film. On one level, Westerns can be wildly entertaining. The thrill of bandits chasing a stagecoach; the longing in a sweetheart’s eyes as she watches her love ride off to war; the suspense in those moments before a gunfight. Gunfight at the OK Corral has its thrilling and suspenseful moments. Shane could be on that list, too.

Westerns can even have a slice of humor. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McClintock!, you will belly laugh more than a few times. The West is a place where people often act foolishly, inciting not just anger or pity, but genuine laughter.

The Western does much more than entertain; it is deceptively thoughtful. The deceptive nature stems from their seeming simplicity. They do not suffer from the hubris that shoves deep meaning into the audience’s face. Instead, the themes rest not in speeches, but most specifically in the story. The story of the Western is pleasantly suited to great ideas because most Westerns are a return to nature. Civilization is fragile at best. Men must consider truth and justice in a way that other films cannot approach.

Consider Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. There a great debate occurs on the existence of absolute truth. Some words are spoken for sure. Yet the conversations are about a specific situation of possible theft and possible obedience, not a disjointed political monologue.  Another gem of his is The Wild Bunch, which contains an interesting familiarity with the state of nature of the philosopher Rousseau (it is reported that Peckinpah, though a movie director, knew almost all of Aristotle’s Poetics by heart).

Westerns deal with the issue of duty. No better example exists than High Noon. In it, a man puts duty to the law and the city over family while a woman puts duty to spouse over that of religious belief. This movie speaks to the Church as well, where an outnumbered, outgunned sheriff finds a church turned pacifist (or is it merely a congregation of cowards?), unwilling to aid him against oncoming evil.

Western films can be nuanced in their themes, too. As far as complexity, one will be hard pressed to find a movie of greater moral complexity than America’s last great Western, Unforgiven. This movie explores the depths of human depravity, the role of men and women, and the possibility of the human heart to change, among many others. It is, in fact, one of the best articulations of the shallow nature of moral reform in absence of regeneration by Christ ever filmed. Apart from Christ, man can restrain his evil; he cannot cure it.

When speaking about Westerns, no better director has ever made a Western whose name was not John Ford. He won academy awards for How Green was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. However, when describing himself, he said, “I make Westerns.” Stagecoach is not only a step ahead as far as cinematography. It reconstructs society between two doors of a moving carriage. Virtue, hope, and justice all are cut loose of their custom and returned to the best of governments, a meritocracy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which is my personal favorite, bears close resemblance to Aristotle’s discussion of the city. A beast and a god, both unfit for the city, must eventually give way to Jimmy Stewart’s character, the lawyer and civic educator.

The mention of civic educator points out a role that the Western played so well in times past. The Western shows us the best and worst of America. We see the rugged individualism unite to love of family and city. We see equality become inequality in the best way:  by the free discrimination between the best and the rest. We also see racism, oppression of other peoples, and the underlying depravity of men who live according to only self-love.

Thus, there is much to commend Westerns as a film genre. Such themes, as has already been shown, give Christians a lens that is both entertaining and thoughtful in which to communicate truths of the Gospel. If more Believers would artistically approach this genre, we could get the grace side of Unforgiven’s law, the noble view  Christian community instead of High Noon’ s church body.

Here I sing the praises of the Western. I hope such praise will aid to the love of Westerns past and the making of Westerns future.

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  • I’m not sure the Western needs a renaissance.

    The genre is fraught with excellent examples of filmmaking, but its ability to use its very particular framework for thoughtful, engaging cinema is pretty well-mined. I’m not saying that if a new western shouldn’t be made if it can bring something substantial to the table, but it’d have to be pretty worthwhile.

    And renewed interest in the genre wouldn’t necessarily instigate the films you want, either. It might just create the kind of glut that killed the hey-day of the western in the first place.

    I think it may be the increasingly tepid interest, since then, in the Western that has created the genre’s greatest achievements. High Noon, while still solidly within the western era is generally recognized as the beginning of this change from production of expectation (within the glut period). The film is fantastic and turns the common tropes on their heads. The Searchers continues in this direction, though perhaps not as revolutionarily as High Noon. Liberty Valance comes at the very end of the “western era” and studio interest in the genre waned greatly due to over-saturation and the mediocrity that came with.

    The western was dead in America until the Italians reinvented it and showed what High Noon, The Searchers, and Liberty Valance had attempted to show: that the genre was not bound by any conventions other than its time and place. Sergio Leone’s wild success at adapting Kurosawa to the fantasy American West lit a fire in Hollywood and led to renewed interest in American-made westerns. There are a few worthwhile endeavors (the Peckinpah you mentioned, Once upon a Time in the West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, etc.) to come out of this resurgence, but a lot more of the lackluster. So the western faded again.

    After that, it was mostly just the worthwhile projects that were made. You claim Unforgiven the last great western made and though I’d disagree (see below), the best one before unforgiven came out nearly two decades earlier and was also directed by Eastwood. High Plains Drifter plays with all manner of traditional western tropes, as well as those that had come into vogue well after the traditional era—and is one of the greatest westerns ever filmed.

    The sporadically western is my preference. That’s part of how Unforgiven could have been so good. If it was located centrally in part of a greater movement, it wouldn’t have been so effective. Between these two Eastwood films, the pickings are slim. The Shootist has an interesting post-Vietnam evaluation of the gunfighter. The Outlaw Josey Wales, Silverado, The First Great Train Robbery, and Young Guns are all entertaining enough, but not great. The Last Picture Show and Die Hard both make for a fascinating contemporary westerns. What else? Lonesome Dove. Dances with Wolves.

    After Unforgiven, Hollywood smelt blood and gunsmoke again. And there was another resurgence, however brief. Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, El Mariachi, Lone Star, etc. But it didn’t hold. Without a particular vision, these were just more of the same. More of what had been seen over and again.

    As far as the last great western, I’d point to one that came out slightly after Unforgiven. And it’s far less traditional. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, while not better than Unforgiven is certainly great. It’s thoughtful, plays well within the boundaries set for it, and is really one of the best westerns made.

    So yeah, while the western is fertile soil for the right kind of story and the right kind of directorial mind, I do not believe we need a renaissance. We just need filmmakers to make those movies when they come to them, when the stories and visions rise up and assert themselves. Otherwise, we kill off a viable genre again for a time.

    And here is my caveat: I haven’t seen any of the westerns crafted in the last four years. No 3:10 to Yuma. No Coward Robert Ford. Nothing. I hear those are pretty good, though nothing spectacular.

  • So, I should point out that the little sentence under the title was all me.

  • Bad Rich! So I spent all this time arguing a point that wasn’t even made in the article. *sigh* At least I got to remember some awesome movies and indulge in some film history.

    Okay, so here’s something I’ll argue with the actual article about then: I think Kurosawa makes the best westerns, followed by Leone, followed by Eastwood. But that’s more about taste I suppose.

  • Adam Carrington

    Dane, I would say that the resurgence of westerns in the 1990s, like Tombstone, Wyatt, etc. were entertaining but not that thoughtful, kind of loving but not new takes on old ideas.

    Some of the spaghetti westerns, while entertaining, I thought they bordered on making fun of the genre while making films within the genre. That in a way is interesting and very self-aware, but that is a tradeoff to some of the old magic. We just don’t seem to see humanity the same way in films that make the old ones so good. Plenty of good films these days, but worldviews that make westerns hard to do.

    High Plains Drifter, though I didn’t mention it, is an excellent movie. Once Upon a Time in the West is worth every penny to see as well. I think a thoughtful resurgence could occur but it will take a very visionary director. I don’t see hollywood’s best being interested for now. Till then, you are right, any attempts will seem either quaint or tired.

  • Yeah, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp fell flat for me too. Well, not exactly flat, but as you said, merely entertaining.

    95% of the spaghetti westerns out there too were not worth seeing. Django was mildly entertaining if only to see the main character pull out a Gatling gun from the coffin he’d been dragging around with him for the film’s length. The only spaghettis of any real value were Leone’s and of them, Once Upon a Time in the West, is the most interesting (of his man with no name trilogy, it’s almost John Ford by extension since Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Kurosawa is up front about his debt to Ford).

    If you haven’t seen Jarmusch’s Dead Man starring Johnny Depp as William “Not-the-Poet” Blake. It’s an acid western and definitely doesn’t take a whole lot of cues from traditional sources, but it does some fascinating and worthwhile stuff with the genre nonetheless. Like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Last Picture Show, it’s somewhat about the end of the West (among a host of other things). It’s opening sequence of Blake taking a train from civilization to the frontier is every bit as worthwhile as Leone’s opening to Once Upon a Time in the West.

    There are other westerns that I don’t well remember. Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. It sticks in my head as being pretty alright. Hoffman’s Little Big Man I have no memory of. Same goes for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (but I’m not a Wayne fan…). Eastwood had a string of terrible stuff (Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagons, Two Mules for Sister Sara). Bronson was lame in Chato’s Land. And I don’t remember Palance in The Professionals (though I don’t remember it being good).

    Oh. holy smokes. I don’t know if we should count it as a western (though I suppose why not!), but Treasure of the Sierra Madre is must viewing.

  • I don’t know if anyone else cares enough about the western to join the conversation, but I’m glad you wrote this article and am always happy to be reminded of great films.

    My Top 10 (for the moment) look like this:

    1 – Once upon a Time in the West (1968)
    2 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
    3 – High Plains Drifter (1973)
    4 – Unforgiven (1992)
    5 – Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
    6 – Dead Man (1995)
    7 – High Noon (1952)
    8 – A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
    9 – For a Few Dollars More (1965)
    10 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

  • Adam Carrington

    Kurosawa’s Yojimbo has been on my to see list and just hasn’t gotten viewed.

    But wait, a Western with Johnny Depp? This I had not heard of and this I must see. I do enjoy films about the death of the West because they say something interesting as well. The Shootist, though flawed, is very good on this point. The death of the old gunslinger seems necessary but problematic. What comes next? The movie’s Marshall says that a “Garden of Eden” awaits the end of gunslingers, mainly due to the advances in technology (he says soon they’ll have streetlight and such). Filmed in 1978, the shadow of what followed the West–Great Depression, two World Wars, Cold War, shows that when we lost the West, we didn’t just lose the bad stuff. The West gave a place for a strange sort of virtue, and a direction for our most inquisitive, restless, and those looking for a new start. Where do such persons go after the West? We still don’t seem to know.

    Horse Soldiers is a good movie, too, though I wouldn’t put it as a classic. Same with Rio Grande. Horse Soldiers does a neat tight-roap of honoring the bravery of the military (a big sticking point for Ford) while showing how honor, heroism, and duty have contexts. They don’t require the same actions every time and every place. The result of not knowing that is a complete slaughter of many brave, heroic men. I would also recomment My Darling Clementine.

    Dane, have you ever seen Pale Rider? Some I know swear by it, but I find it fairly boring.

  • Yeah, Pale Rider. The Shane remake where Shane’s been dead the whole time instead of just at the end. I think Eastwood was just so enamoured with his ghost sheriff from High Plains Drifter that he had to trot it out again – only to much lesser effect. So far as I remember, the only draw is his beating of the villains with axe handles outside the General Store. The movie was preachy, stilted, and didn’t do a lot with a worthwhile subject.

    Really the reason I was a fan in my youth was that I had a crush on Sydney Penny when I saw the film in 1988 as a 15-year-old. I didn’t realize at the time that her role in the film feature soul-crushingly bad acting.

    Huh, I guess that in its way, There Will Be Blood is a western that deals with the end of the West and what comes after. Though it’s rather lean in the what comes after respect. If I had to point to one movie that is the successor to the western in its answer to what comes once civilization tames the West, it’d be Chinatown. Noir in its way, was a reaction to the traditional western (as well as the traditional crime thriller and the traditional war movie), the Polanski/Towne neo-noir takes place in the West and sits just past the crossroads between untamed California and “civilized” California.