Why are Westerns dead? Also an aside re: TQATD

Deadwood aside, and I’m not quite sure it really fits anyway, why has the Western genre dried up? A friend of mine submits its because the genre lacks an iconic figure nowadays like Wayne or Eastwood. I figure spacemen killed the cowboys, and sci-fi has taken the place of Westerns in the minds of young children everywhere.

Also, I saw The Quick and the Dead recently for the first time. Hilariously gonzo. Not good by any stretch, but worth it just for Hackman’s scenery chewing and Stone’s reasonably successful attempt to play the female version of Clint Eastwood.

Westerns are about heroism and simple truths.

This is a cynical age. People don’t believe in simple truths. Everything is nuanced now. Heroes are flawed. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for the poor oppressed wise aboriginal, rather than hate the murdering and scalping Injun. Westerns are about killing savages (white and red skinned) and protecting the women. Westerns are the antithesis of the liberal worldview. Since we all know that white people having power and killing nonwhites and taking land and making it part of white civilization is bad, well, Westerns are bad too.

Can we move this to P&R now?

(mind you, the Eastwood westerns are some of my favorite movies, but they’re a radical departure in multiple ways from the earlier genre)

Err…have you seen any Westerns? Very few of them are anything like what you describe.

Ok. That’s what I got out of them. How would you characterize them? And what’s your answer to the OP?

I do love a good western, but I tend to think that there’s really only so much you can do with the genre. Once you’ve had your cattle drive, your Indian ambush, your showdown and gunfight, you’ve pretty much hit the high points. It is why I love Deadwood so much, just because it avoids the easy cliches.

But it’s the same reason you don’t see a lot of medievil knights and armor flicks - sure, they still pop up from time to time but it’s fairly well played out.

Generally, I would characterize most westerns as tales about morality. Some of them might be as simple as white hats vs. black hats, or cavalry vs. indians, but the good ones tend to be a little more nuanced than that. There’s also the themes of freedom vs. safety, the grandeur of the frontier, and suchlike.

And as I said, I think the genre has been supplanted by newer things.

Here’s a new Western for you: The Proposition. It’s nothing like Rollory describes, either, but to me it screams Western. There are definitely too few however: my grandfather-in-law, a WWII vet with plenty of opinions, rented a movie that to him was pretty good until the ranchers started making out. He never finished it, though he was desperate for a Western.

Skipping over whether or not Westerns were morally ambiguous pre-Eastwood (answer: yes), I think the Western as a genre was killed off by the rise of the gangster movie genre in the 70s. The Godfather provided the metaphor of the Mafia family as a surrogate or microcosm of American society as a whole, something that post-Watergate made a lot more sense than the Western metaphors.

Also, starting in the seventies, I think Americans began to relate more to urban cultures as opposed to rural cultures, which also helped to kill off the Western.

It’s too bad, because I love me a good Western. Deadwood is easing the pain, but what I wouldn’t give for another Sergio Leone right about now.

Most Westerns have white antagonists and protagonists, so it’s not all an obvious racial tale. Not that this necessarily invalidates what you are saying, Rollory; in fact the Westward expansion is always assumed to be good whether Indians are in the movie are not. Some classic Westerns do muddy it a bit (The Searchers is the most prominent example) but those are the exceptions.

The American West was used as a setting even when the movie did not really require it. High Noon, for example, is a story about a man who does his duty in a town where no one sees the point in doing so. That theme would work even without the Western town.

But the traditional Western does depend on a willingness of the audience to embrace the frontier - a place where laws are uncertain, people need to test themselves against other men (or savages or nature) and the sky’s the limit. The original Star Trek tried some of this, and many early scifi series simply lift the tropes of established Western television programs.

Recent Westerns are much more introspective, more about the men than the place and with murkier ethics. Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, etc.

And of course, Young Guns.


And indeed, was remade at least once as a sci-fi film.


The last good western i watched was Unforgiven and that was made in 1992. That makes me feel old.

Also, as faw as flaws go, William Munny was chock full of them.

I don’t know if you’re right, but this is a pretty solid theory.

While we’re on this Western thing, can anyone help me remember the name of one?

Plot: A murder happens and the town, naturally, gets a posse together led by a former army officer. They catch up to three guys, seize them and begin to debate how they should handle it. We get a nice morality tale about the justice system, presumed innocence and the like. Not a great movie, but I really enjoyed some of the speechifying.



The Lonesome Dove prequels and sequels are faaaairly recent. I loved Randy Quaid’s John Wesley Hardin in “Streets of Laredo” (which was excellently cast btw). Of course you could make an excellent Western today. As long as you know what the hell you’re doing, absolutely. Yeah, I enjoyed “Tombstone”.

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    Thought “Wyatt Earp” was decent. “Earp” I think lost some people a lot of money IIRC. Maybe that’s why. Always follow the money.
    Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil” is good. I mean really surprisingly good. “Hidalgo” is almost a Western.
    You could make something slow and cool like “Jeremiah Johnson” today and get away with it.

You could also get “Valdez is coming” with Burt Lancaster which is the best Elmore Leonard movie ever made (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) instead of looking for new stuff.

The noir movies of the 40s and 50s, the spy films of the 60s, the gangster flicks - things tend to come and go in pop culture. People like em for a while, get bored ofem, something new comes along. The Western is no different.

Eventually, though, everything old is made new again: Sin City apes noir, the Incredibles parodies Bond (among other things), the gangster gets reinvented in modern times, and the Western is given a kick in the pants by Deadwood.

Now, if your question is, “Why don’t they make Westerns like <insert title here> any more?” that’s a different matter.

Outer space is the new American West. Look at the analogues such as Firefly/Serenity. You’ve got the untamed, environmentally hostile frontier; the expanding “home” civilization; and the self-made, dusky hued, Chaotic Good heroes between them. Hell, many of them even have the ship captain (or tough guy) wearing a cowboy hat.

El Mariachi?

It would be nice for someone to make movie about Wyatt Earp’s latter days. How he went to Hollywood and helped create the “Western Myth” by advising on early silent films.

I think that kind of movie would help dispell the myths from westerns of old once and for all, and allow new film makers to make westerns that re-invent the genre.

About a month ago, I picked up the 8-DVD collection of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., based on hazy-but-positive memories I had of a couple of episodes. Plus, I liked the theme music. Three weeks ago, I finished watching Disc 1 thinking, “I’ve made a HUGE mistake.” I can’t work up the enthusiasm to put Disc 2 in the player. Can anyone tell me if it gets better later on?