What Happened to Old West Films?

Raymond McKinnon

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What Happened to Old West Films? Horses

Justice, freedom, and gunslinging—these are the tenets of the Old West, as remembered by pop culture. From the earliest cinematic productions in the early 20th century up until Clint Eastwood’s last blockbuster Western, Unforgiven, released in 1992, the Western was one of the industry’s most expanded genres.

The genre became so big that it quickly spread the stereotypes about America’s Wild West throughout the world. What started with Western fiction was taken to new heights on the silver screen, leading to Spaghetti Westerns and Dacoit Westerns.

But today, the genre is almost non-existent.

The most palpable ways Old Westerns survive today are through card games and hero stereotypes. The first includes poker. While cowboys on the frontier actually played the game Faro way more than poker, Texas Holdem took off thanks to pop culture ties to the Wild West. Today, it remains one of the world’s most popular card games. It only takes a few clicks to find a break down of Texas Holdem poker rules or register for a poker tournament—and Old Westerns can be credited partly with keeping the fad alive. 

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Meanwhile, Old Westerns also help popularize a stereotypical American hero: he uses words sparingly, never gives up his quest for justice, and doesn’t need anyone but his bucket hat and his horse. While the Old Western genre is standing on its last leg, this type of hero continues to be the focus of action-adventure films and series.

So, what happened to the Western film—and will it be making a comeback anytime soon?

Over-Hyped & Over-Played

There’s one incredibly important fact to understand about America’s Wild West: it’s more myth than reality. First of all, the true ‘Wild West’ period can’t be precisely dated by scholars—but many agree the frontier was scattered across a huge portion of land and lasted between twenty to fifty years. Rather than being the domain of grizzled by unyielding sheriffs, it was a frontier based on the violent acquisition of land and resources. 

In other words, the real Wild West isn’t nearly as romantic or moral as it’s been depicted in pop culture. This is especially true for most Westerns produced throughout the 1900s. They depicted a period and characters that were off the mark. But that wasn’t what drove audiences away.

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The popularity of Westerns and their global success meant that most storylines became played out and overused over the decades. There were few new directions for creators to take, especially those that sought to espouse the ‘justified’ nature of Westward expansion. Still, that doesn’t mean the US was uninterested in Westerns.

Western Remixes & Classics

The Western is dead… but the classics and crazy new remixes have found a niche. True Grit (2010), for example, respun a classic Western tale with great success. The same went for 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, which was a new take on a 1957 classic. Meanwhile, Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men performed well as a book in 2005 and again as a film in 2007. 

However, the most successful modern Westerns are those that sample other genres. While the ‘pure’ Western may only exist as callbacks to the genre’s former glory, new interpretations have proved popular. Brokeback Mountain (2005), for example, rehashed Westerns from an entirely new perspective, combining romance with drama on the frontier. 

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Meanwhile, Cowboys & Aliens (2011) combined sci-fi space thrills with the Wild West, stunning audiences worldwide.

In 2015, The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino quickly took headlines. The director had repackaged classic Western characters, including bounty hunters and lawmen, into a brand new tale. Many also consider Django Unchained to be a type of Western retelling. There have also been successful modern series that toy with the Western genre.

Last year, The Power of the Dog took home multiple awards, including Venice’s Silver Lion. Like Brokeback Mountain, it used the rugged frontier as a backdrop to explore themes like masculinity, love, and grief.

Viewed in this way, the traditional Western may be a dying breed. However, the tropes and imagery associated with it are powerful and ubiquitous enough that the Western will survive as a classic cinematic topic or genre—even if it never quite becomes the primary focus for filmmakers.

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