The Western is an Underrated Genre
Funnily enough, the Western as a genre seems to have existed during the time period it aims to depict. Dime novels told the tales of famous gunslingers, heroes, and outlaws during the mid to late 19th century, enrapturing people that were living during the very era of that wild west. These stories would go on to become a staple of the “Golden Age” in cinema.
The tropes of the Western are well known, the duel at high noon, the mysterious stranger in a crowded saloon, a train robbery, the wide open sunlit wilderness, and yet not many people have seen a whole lot of Western films or pieces of media. Why there is certainly a more in depth answer as to why it pattered out of the spotlight, I want to talk about why I think it is such an interesting genre for storytelling, especially in relation to itself.
What do I mean by that? Many Western movies seem to make a commentary on other Western movies and tropes. For example, the most well known western film is the above pictured “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” (1966) by Sergio Leone. It’s a fun watch full of neat visuals, a great soundtrack, and some phenomenal performances all around, but the film itself is an exploration of morality in the wild west and the Western film genre. The title is somewhat misleading in this way. It implies some stark black and white morals, but the characters in the film are all pretty awful people. The supposed “Good” of the title isn’t opposed to killing and robbing what would be considered innocent people, he’s motivated by greed, and can only be considered good in relation to the other two members of the title’s trio. The movie takes the popular concept of the battle between good and evil often depicted in westerns before and says, hey maybe the west was, like everywhere else, full of opportunistic and morally questionable people. For being the most popular western film, it seems to contrast many of the core tenets previously established in the genre, which is kind of funny, because now it is a cornerstone of that type of film.
A more recent film, with a comically long title, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” (2007) reveals just what is going to happen through its title. It’s 3 hours long and the viewer knows how it’s going to end, yet the journey is still interesting. It’s a tale of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford idolizing Jesse James, wanting to emulate him or even perhaps replace him. After meeting the man behind the greatly exaggerated stories, he gradually becomes disillusioned. This is a charming gunslinger, but just a guy that murders and robs. Obviously with it being such a long and rich movie, there’s a lot to go into here but I’ll just leave it by saying that it is a fascinating dive into the disconnect with perception of famous people and the actual human beings behind that celebrity status.
The Red Dead game series has also brought some spotlight back onto the Western genre. It’s a fun game in of itself full of those stereotypical Western tropes. Its engrossing story has some interesting commentary related to the setting of the wild west. I think that it is an exploration of the individual’s relation to society and the anxiety surrounding that as America became more industrialized. The Wild West was being tamed, filled with oil baron capitalists, railroads, and cities. The cowboy, despite the romantic stories, had no place in this developing America, and I think the game nails that idea and the struggle against the inevitable death of the wild west.
The last thing I want to talk about in this unorganized and nonsensical ramble is the film “Unforgiven” (1992). The Western jumpstarted Eastwood’s career and he returns to the genre to end it. He practically plays the same character he did in Leone’s triology but asks the question, “what if this stoic and cool cowboy grew old, and regretted everything he did?” His character struggles to mount their horse, and can barely shoot after a decade of being out of the outlaw business. He leaves his kids to chase a bounty and seek absolution for the evil he has done throughout his life, a quest of self fulfillment and penitence that ultimately accomplishes nothing. His friend dies, he kills a host of men that didn’t do much wrong, and he is just as unsatisfied with his life as before.
All of these are well deserving of a longer essay of their own, but encapsulate why I love this genre so much. It has so much potential for storytelling. It was an era where stories of the living memory of slavery and post civil war racism could be explored; the genocide and cultural erasure of native Americans; the aforementioned developing society and the individual’s role within that; morality and its relationship with the law or lack thereof; the personal journey of men that aren’t deserving of respect; and a more meta discussion about the Western as a film genre itself. It is a style past its prime and I doubt a resurgence will ever really occur apart from the odd release here and there. There’s much to be said on its child in the space western with things like Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, the Mandalorian, or even Westworld, but I’ll just say I enjoy them and their nods to their bigger brother. Its not for everyone, but I love the tropes and the vast possibility for stories that lie within the wild west. Yeehaw.