Westerns have come a long way and changed a lot since three guys stared each other down.
By Dan Ashby
January 15, 2019
Westerns should seem an easy genre to define. They usually involve a gruff, lone rider arriving at some backwater town, the vast, wide landscapes of America, a classic showdown between good and evil and an epic score underlying it all. But slowly over time, the Western has developed and changed. What we are now left with is a hybrid of styles and approaches.
Although entertaining, many of the earlier incarnations of the Western were basic in their concept and design. Although the protagonists were supposed to be wild outlaws, they had that classic Hollywood look, aided by heavily applied make-up and flamboyant costumes. It was more of a show with lavish gunfights, quippy dialogue and a love interest. Despite being set in the era of cowboys, many of the earlier Westerns were shot in studios. Even worse still was the lack of Native Americans present in many of this films, and it wasn’t uncommon for white actors to apply darker make up in a dismal attempt to pass off as them.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many of the lead cowboys were presented as heroic, dashing and brave. Actors such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne and James Stewart, for instance, played cowboys who were confident, capable and charming. It wasn’t until later on when actors such as Clint Eastwood appeared on the screen that the cowboy began to develop into something else. Spaghetti Westerns often pioneered by Sergio Leone introduced the grumpy, gruff and grumbling protagonists that audiences are more accustomed to.
As Westerns ventured into the 1960s and 1970s, a more stylized approach began to take shape. Although still evident in some earlier films, Spaghetti Westerns utilized colour, camera and sound to reinforce the setting, characters and story of the piece. This isn’t to say that the Western genre changed completely. On the contrary, many of the trademarks and signature styles of the classic Western still remained. Although cowboys were grittier and more disheveled, they still had a decent application of make-up and stylish clothing. There was also still more often than not a love interest, who ends up falling for the protagonist about halfway into the run time.
Westerns are an interesting genre because although they have exploded into a plethora of different categories, they all share similarities. Even films that aren’t technically Westerns utilize its style for cinematic effect. It has come to a point where it is hard to define what exactly a Western is. Take No Country For Old Men for example. Is it a modern Western or does it just incorporate styles from that genre? It involves a shootout at the beginning, a man on the run from a bad guy, who is in turned pursued by a sheriff of the law. On the face of it, that sounds like a Western but it has a contemporary setting, meaning it can also be regarded as a crime thriller. This makes the lines somewhat blurry.
One aspect that has undeniably changed is the realism. This can be seen visually in the authenticity of violence, the advancements in cameras and cinematography and the development of dialogue and writing. This can be easily identified when studying remakes. The remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit show just how much has changed in the Western since their originals. What is great about these films in particular is that both the remakes and the originals are enjoyable for different reasons.
It is not only in films that this change has occurred. Clint Eastwood is a prime example of an actor who has changed in his representation of a cowboy since he first donned his hat and spurs. He wasn’t exactly one dimensional in his earlier films, but his backstory and arc were a little simpler. With later works such as Pale Rider and The Outlaw Josey Wales, his character is given a deeper backstory which plays an integral part in the development of the overall narrative. Then much later in his career, his role evolved even more so as he plays a washed up and rusty retired cowboy, who is forced back into a life he left behind in Unforgiven. Even actors such as John Wayne, who played a very particular type of cowboy, was presented differently in the original True Grit. It is fascinating to see how the medium of the Western has grown and morphed throughout the course of these actors’ careers.
The Western has changed even more significantly in the last ten years with films such as Django Unchained and Cowboys vs. Aliens. It is almost impossible to place Quentin Tarantino’s film into one genre as it is such a hybrid of different styles and genres. Cowboys vs. Aliens just downright defies to be quantified into one specific genre, as the title suggest.
While many later Westerns did include Mexican and Native American actors, it was not often that they were the leading stars. Recent Westerns such as Hostiles and the remake of The Magnificent Seven have sought to rectify this. Django Unchained is another example. Admittedly, the violence can be a little gratuitous, but the fact that it is told from a black man’s perspective is highly important. It is unusual for a black actor to star as a main lead and one of the few other examples I can think of is Blazing Saddles.
It is an exciting time for Western films in particular as we are now in a place where the genre has a lot of expanded potential going forward. Cameras are better than ever, there are some very talented writers and directors on the scene and good budgets can mean top quality actors, varied locations and impressive action sequences. Additionally, you have a rise in contemporary Westerns with films such as Hell or High Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. One is technically a heist film and the other a black comedy drama, but they incorporate a great deal of the Western style.
Westerns are now a decidedly hybrid genre but still so familiar in their presentation that you never fail to recognize them. Looking forward it will be interesting to see where the Western will take us next. The genre will have to change and develop if it has a chance of remaining popular. This could be tricky as popular films are predominantly faster paced and action packed and although more recent Westerns have upped the violence and action, they are still slower paced than other genres.
In terms of films and particularly Hollywood films, the natural evolution will be to hybridize with another genre. With the recent rise in science fiction films, it is more than likely that these genres will be combined. The space cowboy is a character who has taken many forms from Han Solo to Starlord. So it makes sense that this would be the next logical step.
n terms of the traditional Western, it seems better placed on a streaming platform such as Netflix. It is a much more effective tool for pulling in viewers, as it has a huge audience and following. Although Netflix do produce some not so spectacular original films, they also have a strong reputation for some truly great features.
The format is also changing. Western TV shows have developed a bigger presence in recent years. As a genre it seems to be at home in the medium of television. A good Western is like a fine wine: it develops and matures over time. This doesn’t necessarily mean slow, merely that the characters and scenarios need room to breathe. The whole point of an effective Western is to gradually build up the suspense and tension. With a TV show, the setting, characters and plot can unfold at the correct pace.
Westerns have the capacity to carry on being a strong presence in cinema and television but in order to do so, certain changes and shifts in the genre are necessary in moving forward. Although Westerns have stayed true to a lot of the core concepts, styles and approaches, they have also changed quite a lot throughout the history of film. Hopefully the genre will continue to evolve, as it will be interesting and curious to observe where the Western film takes us next.