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.