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How To Revive The Hollywood Western: My Humble Plan

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The Western has been coming back since Unforgiven was made. That was two decades ago (plus change.) We get a big-budget Hollywood western every couple of years, with varying results. They seem to do better when done seriously, by which I mean leaving aliens and guys wearing birds on their head out of the equation. The Western could be big again, and here’s how I think it could be done.

Make 90 minute long PG or PG-13 movies aimed at kids. It would have lots of action; horseback chases, prairie fires, fist fights and as much idle, poorly aimed gunfire as the ratings board will allow. Throw in some big, colorful characters and one huge set piece at the end. If done right, with just the right amount of tongue in cheek and adults will watch as raptly as kids.

I think this is a good plan for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the landscape of the West is the landscape of a child’s imagination. The big spaces, surreal rock formations and anthropomorphic plant life are all the stuff of childhood dreams. Making “gritty”, dour movies about violent men cleaning up towns with 10 dollar names like “Redemption” and “Absolution” doesn’t work with a lot of the inherently playful themes of Westerns. It’s a big, colorful, vibrant setting full of characters that have to match it or be completely drowned out by it. We’ve already been to Dark and Grittyburg.

Secondly, Westerns tended to have simple morals- don’t take things that aren’t yours, don’t bully your neighbors, stand up for what’s right. It’s hardwired into the genre. As adults, we’re less inclined to take moral messages from movies, and if we do, they’re complex and shaded in a paint store’s worth of grays. Morally complex anti-heroes are something that every other genre does well enough.

The West was more diverse than we usually think. A quarter of cowboys were Black. Even more than that were Hispanic. It’s a fascinating time that’s been white-washed. Without completely ignoring history, there were enough people from all over the world roaming in the West that almost any kid who sits in an American theater could see someone who looks like them on screen. There’s no need to exploit the exoticism of other cultures when we have our own exotic, interesting past to rummage through. The historical realities of the West and the degree that they get explored on screen are not only a good way to start discussions about our history as a nation, but also as families and humans.

Finally, the Western was exciting. All the jobs normally associated with it are jobs we equate with adventure: cowboy, railroader, sheriff, and pioneer; these are the sort of freewheeling jobs that are inherently exciting, or at least dangerous enough to be interesting. The West has a lot of moving parts and a lot characters who go with them. It’s a giant play set just dying to be used.

Most of the Westerns that have come close to this idea have tried too hard to mix in too many elements. The Warrior’s Way had ninjas, carnivals, steampunk bad guys, and cowboys. The Lone Ranger….was too long and had Johnny Depp wearing a bird on his head. These movies were on to something, though, larger than life characters, more diverse casts (in theory), big set pieces, and simple morals.

As much as I love reading McCarthy and McMurtry or watching Peckinpah, I love the Western for the same reason most people do; it speaks to the child in me. I grew up riding horses around the desert with my Dad and helping our neighbors brand cattle. We used to ride past an old movie fort set into some rosy colored clay cliffs, and I would be lost in daydreams. Not everyone has that same experience, but they tend to have that same reaction to Westerns. Nowadays, no matter what Western I watch, I’m transported to a 6 year old on a horse. As Americans, the Western is our big, original art form. We can do the most of American thing with it: reinvent it, stretch it to fit more of us, adapt it to our age, and pass it down one more time.

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About Seth

Bury my heart in West Texas.

5 responses »

  1. I like what you have to say about exploring the true history of the west to create some diversity in the genre. However, I’m not a fan of “lighter” westerns. For example, look at the True Grits. The Coen brothers crafted a dark masterpiece about desperate souls coming together in a time of great adversity to overcome said adversity. Whereas John Wayne’s True Grit is a joke. There’s not a speck of anything resembling grit in that entire film. He might as well have been wearing sequins on his cowboy hat. Give me grit over hokey any day of the week. Good post.

    Reply
    • Thanks Adam, I’m inclined to agree with you about the Duke’s version of that movie. I think the Coen’s “True Grit” is a step in the right direction, in that it was accessible, humorous at times, serious at others, and generally working in that classical Hollywood mode. I vastly prefer it to the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” which epitomized so much of what I’m tired of in Westerns trying to be gritty- too much talking about feelings, too much contrived moral gray area, too much striving for darkness that just isn’t there. I’m thinking of movies more in the vein of something like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that are exciting enough for kids but smart enough for adults. Or, maybe something with the costumes of Tombstone, the story of an old Elmore Leonard western and a good score. As much as I like adult Westerns like “Appaloosa” I think it’s time for Westerns to be unabashedly fun and accessible for everyone.

      Reply
  2. The thing that appealed to me as a young girl ie the Western was the ‘sharing of lost knowledge’ that one found in the films, a way of life that people just dont see anymore, everything from Little House on the Prairie to some of the more ‘realistic’ westerns. However I am one of those people who is a little weary of the “grittiness” – if by grittiness you mean that the women are whorish and without redeeming value and all too 20th/21st century in their values, that the assumed “hero” cruel and cold, and every shocking detail of a crime committed (Im speaking of rape and murder) is displayed and takes up more than unnecessary time in the script, then PLEASE STOP with the grittiness. There was a reason why the Western of old was so beloved: because the Good Guy had clear Hero qualities and the Western hero was uncompromising in those qualities. I think John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” was a better show of his Western character than True Grit, but then I dont like the latter because of Kim Darby, not because of Wayne.

    I also like the original Yuma film too, but I am partial to Glenn Ford anyway…have you seen “The Fastest Gun Alive”?

    Reply
    • I haven’t seen “The Fastest Gun Alive” but I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the reblog and thanks for reading!

      Reply
  3. Reblogged this on Old West Redemption and commented:
    Posting this because I think its an excellent post discussing the latent interest in the Western that has slowly been bubbling up in our modern culture (Unforgiven, Hell On Wheels) these last couple of decades. Lone Ranger would have been such a glorious return to the old style Western if certain ridiculous elements had not been employed by Johnny Depp and the director had been more conscious of a true West spirit in his film.

    Reply

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