Thursday, August 07, 2008

Is the Western Movie Genre Really Dead?

I am afraid that the answer is yes, at least in its purest form. I only have theories about this slow death of the genre.

Perhaps the setting is so far away from what the millenial-consciousness public can wrap their minds around. In this age, horses, carriages, cattle, false-fronted wooden buildings, range wars, and such fare is unknown and alien to most urban-dwelling people. There are pockets of people who still live in this reality, but they are probably not the driving force behind the box office and studio movie-making decisions. Most moviegoers may find the old school western corny. And I believe that this is at the crux of the dearth of western movies being made.

I must say that I have mixed feelings about some of the more recent western movies. Here are some of the newer westerns and my thoughts

  • 3:10 to Yuma: It was good but I didn't like the ending. I think the good man suffered and the bad man prospered. That's just backwards to me.

  • American Outlaws: Good but a little too Generation X-oriented.

  • Texas Rangers: pretty disappointing. Way too anachronistic with younger actors who didn't really immerse themselves in the period. The best thing was Robert Patrick's line: "He's riding that horse like a man who's riding his sister and knows he's doing something wrong." That is one of the best lines ever!

  • Unforgiven: Very good movie although really depressing

  • Open Range: excellent western

  • True Women: incredible

  • Posse: Great in that it represented African-Americans in the west.

  • Dust: A more modern western set in Eastern Europe. Pretty violent and depressing although Joseph Fiennes, Adrian Lester, and David Wenham provide great eye candy.

  • Silverado: pretty good. My mom loves it.

  • Wild Wild West: I loved it but it didn't do well at the Box Office. I think it was too strange for most people. I loved watching the show from the 60s. Although I didn't know that the genre was steampunk at the time, I have always been attracted to stories that show a past setting with enhanced technology.

Some of the more recent tv shows that were westerns that I loved

  • The Young Riders: loved that show!

  • The Magnificent Seven: gone too soon

  • Legacy: never got a chance to develop fully (I am convinced it's because of the interracial romance!)

  • The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

  • Firefly (gone too soon. Technically a space western, but it was pretty darn traditional western in many ways)

Thankfully traditional westerns still crop up on the cable nextworks as made-for-tv movies and miniseries. There are also straight-to-video westerns, usually pretty low budget. I am slowly trying to watch most of these. I think that if western movies survive, it will be in these areas.

But do the themes of western movies still have relevance? First of all, let's list these themes:

  • Isolation

  • Renewal/Rebirth

  • Despair

  • Honor

  • Prejudice

  • Self-sufficiency

  • The next frontier

  • Fear of what is to come

  • Moral decay(people who have degenerated to outlaws, etc)

  • Fortitude

  • Antiheroes

  • Running from the past

  • Antivillians (do good things but not necessarily for good reasons)

That is just to name a few. I think that these themes will never lose relevance. These themes could just as easily be used in a movie that does not have the typical "Western" setting. I personally believe this is the future of the western. Look at science fiction movies/tv like "Firefly" and "Serenity," "Outland," "The Ghosts of Mars," "Titan A.E.," ," "The Postman," "Enemy Mine," and even standard sci-fi fare like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," and others set in space or an post-apocalyptic landscape. Although they occur on distant planets or in the dystopian future, those themes are still present. There is a lone hero or group of survivors struggling to build a new life and leave the past behind, while hanging onto their remaining principles. Or perhaps they have abandoned all their principles in the sheer struggle to survive. Their perceptions about those who invoke prejudice are challenged. They may be fighting against a system that is seemingly undefeatable, that threatens to challenge their way of life. Isn't that the core of the western ideal? Also look at the modern western, movies such as "No Country for Old Men," "All the Pretty Horses," "Last Man Standing," "48 Hours," etc. These movies may retain vestiges of the old western, either in themes, or settings. Movies like "Near Dark," "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat," and a small amount of zombie/vampire westerns going straight to video recently fall in the Weird West category. "Ravenous" had the lovely Guy Pearce, but it was just too gruesome for me in its subject of cannibals turned into wendigo creatures. "Purgatory" was a very interesting Weird Western that showed up on TNT a few years ago. Few would argue against "Ghost Rider" having clearly containing many Weird Western elements.

Although I don't have much hope for very many western movies to make it into theaters, I think westerns will always have a future in the print media, whether in the traditional form, or in various incarnations such as the Weird West and the modern western. Readers are more open-minded about what kinds of books, graphic novels, and comic books they will buy than moviegoers are about the movies they will pay to go see. And another thing that insures the survival of the western in printed media is the hybridization of genres that is occuring in popular fiction. One area that I do worry about the survival of westerns in is romance. Less and less westerns are being published. The big rage now is regencies as far as historical romance. Thank God that Harlequin Historicals comes out with new westerns monthly, or I would really be in despair.

To close, I think that we all have a western hero inside of us. We all struggle with moral complexities, surviving against the odds, and fearing the future, yet hoping for a better one at the same time. I hope that this genre that deeply touches on these themes does continue to endure, if not in a pure form, then in other ways.



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