The Western Is Not Dead–It’s Just Asleep

firefly-nathan-fillionOver on one of my favorite web sites, io9, there was a recent article by Charlie Jane Anders about the failure of many sci-fi-fantasy/Western genre mash-ups to gain large audiences. She argued that the reason is the Western is a “moribund” genre—i.e., basically dead.

Well, them’s fightin’ words where I come from, pardner—er, I mean, I disagree with that.

First of all, there is no such thing as a dead genre—things go in cycles. Westerns were so popular for such a long time that it was inevitable that they would, well, kind of go to sleep for a while. The same has happened with the musical.

But genres do return to popularity, and sometimes in a big way. Pirate movies, for instance—no one would have imagined the insane popularity of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies a little over a decade ago. It wasn’t that long ago when writers were told the vampire genre was never going to sell again, ever, ever.

While Ms. Anders makes an accurate observation that most blatant Western genre mash-ups don’t attract a mass audience, we are now in a time where not everything needs to attract a large audience in order to become part of the cultural zeitgeist. She points to the failure of Firefly, but it’s very easy to imagine the series attaining success today on SyFy or AMC or one of the premium cable channels, that it couldn’t on a major network. (Also, she skips over the broadcast history of Firefly, which almost guaranteed it would fail, regardless of its genre(s).)

Because of the money needed to mount a sci-fi or fantasy movie, one that melds with the Western genre is undoubtedly a huge risk—as far as we know at this moment. There’s some very understandable doubt that the new version of The Lone Ranger will attract a large enough audience to turn a profit. It certainly could fail. Or it could be the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

There was another point Ms. Anders made that I disagree with—that the reason Westerns fail to attract audiences is because it highlights things in our history we don’t like to be reminded of. Well, you could make the same argument about period dramas of ANY era. Mad Men, for instance, reminds us of a time where prejudice and misogyny in the work place were accepted as normal. I could write an article about how mid-20th century dramas almost always fail to attract a large audience, because every attempt by the major networks to cash in on the Mad Men success has failed so far.

She also ignores that Westerns going as far back as the 1950s have actually addressed Western stereotypes and less-than-stellar moments from our history. For instance, John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn tackled the issue of how Native Americans were treated head-on. I watched Little Big Man just last week for the first time in a very long time and was struck by how it managed to tweak the genre with humor while also very seriously depicting the worst parts of its history. More recently, the mini-series Into The West dealt with them in an even more unflinching manner.

It’s also interesting to note that Ms. Anders never mentions Avatar, which director James Cameron himself described as “Dances With Wolves In Space”—clearly inspired by the history of Native Americans after the arrival of the Eupopeans—a movie that was not only financially successful, it was only recently knocked down from its perch as the highest-grossing film of all time.

That most famous icon of the genre, John Wayne, played several characters that went against the stereotypical lone gunman, in movies as diverse as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, True Grit, and The Shootist.

Westerns fascinate me for a reason never brought up by Ms. Anders, and it’s the same thing that attracts me to dystopians and other sci-fi and fantasy subgenres: tabula rasa–the clean slate. The Western is about both individuals AND society reinventing itself from the ground up. To me, that is always a fascinating subject for a story.

Several years ago, I made up a list of my favorite Westerns for a mail list I belonged to, breaking them down by category. (I hate 10 best or 100 best lists. Some things just can’t be compared to other things, and I don’t like arbitrary numerical limits.) I’ve updated it to add some great stuff that either came out in the past few years or that I’ve just recently discovered. Because I’m always watching Westerns and Western-inspired movies and TV shows.

There are a few things that may seem to be missing. (I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet, but have a feeling it could easily belong in either the Spaghetti Western or Revionist Western categories. I also have the first episode of Defiance waiting on my DVR.) If you have suggestions for additions, please let us know in the comments.

THE ESSENTIALS:

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY

STAGECOACH
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN
FORT APACHE
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
THE VIRGINIAN
THE OX-BOW INCIDENT
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
THE SEARCHERS
HIGH NOON
WINCHESTER ’73
SHANE

3:10 TO YUMA (the original)

3:10 TO YUMA (the remake)
RED RIVER
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID
UNFORGIVEN

THE EPICS:

CIMARRON (the original)
HOW THE WEST WAS WON
THE BIG COUNTRY
LITTLE BIG MAN

THE NATIVE AMERICANS:

CHEYENNE AUTUMN
APACHE
GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND
I WILL FIGHT NO MORE FOREVER (TV movie)

THE WOMEN:

WESTWARD, THE WOMEN
THE FURIES
THE GREAT MAN’S LADY
THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO

THE REVISIONIST WESTERNS:

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY
THE PROFESSIONALS
THE WILD BUNCH
WILL PENNY
NEVADA SMITH
JEREMIAH JOHNSON
MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
THE COWBOYS
TRUE GRIT (the original)
TRUE GRIT (the remake)
THE SHOOTIST
THE GREY FOX
SILVERADO
TOMBSTONE

THE SPAGHETTI WESTERNS:

THE MAN WITH NO NAME TRILOGY: A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

THE COMEDIES:

BLAZING SADDLES
THE PALEFACE
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER
CAT BALLOU
THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB

THE WEIRD STUFF:

JOHNNY GUITAR
DUEL IN THE SUN
FORTY GUNS
RANCHO NOTORIOUS
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
THE HIRED HAND

RANDOM STUFF I JUST HAPPEN TO LIKE:

THE LAST WAGON
THE OUTRIDERS
THE NAKED SPUR
THE COMANCHEROS
THE UNDEFEATED
THE RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (TV movie)

THE TV MINI-SERIES:

LONESOME DOVE

INTO THE WEST
CENTENNIAL
THE AWAKENING LAND

HEAVEN AND HELL
TRUE WOMEN

 

THE CLASSIC TV SERIES:

 

GUNSMOKE

THE RIFLEMAN

HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL

THE BIG VALLEY

THE VIRGINIAN

BONANZA

 

THE REVISIONIST TV SERIES:

 

DEADWOOD

LONESOME DOVE: THE OUTLAW YEARS

ALIAS SMITH & JONES

THE YOUNG RIDERS

HELL ON WHEELS

THE TV GENRE MASHUPS:

 

FIREFLY

WILD, WILD WEST

THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.

KUNG FU

JUSTIFIED

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “The Western Is Not Dead–It’s Just Asleep

  1. Any post that features Captain Malcolm Reynolds deserves a comment. Of your TV genre recommendations, I have only seen Firefly and Justified, but I will Netflix the rest! Thanks!

  2. Epic post! Traditional Westerns might be at a lull, but the Western aesthetic is alive and well in post apocalyptic tales and fantasy tales. Revolution, Walking Dead, even Game of Thrones, have many themes and archtypes that we’d find in Westerns. Westerns will never really die because at their root they’re about universal themes.

    1. Thanks! Anders kind of makes that point in the original post (she mentioned Star Wars and Star Trek as examples). It’s true pretty much every genre has absorbed elements of the Western–I was thinking about the super-hero genre. Batman is a riff on the loner/vigilante. The Superman trailer made me think a lot about Westerns, as he’s also a loner who society doesn’t trust/is afraid of but needs to bring back order. I agree that the Western’s universal themes will never go away. It’s kind of like jazz–a very American invention that may wane in popularity, but will come back in some form or another eventually.

  3. If you’re into space westerns, Syfy has a new show called Defiance. It definitely has that society starting over feel since it’s basically post-apocalyptic earth plus aliens. It just premiered last week and I’m not 100% sold on it, but I think it has potential. We’ll see, I could be eating these words soon…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s