How the Western was won

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

The Western is back – except it never really went anywhere. The film genre first rose to prominence after World War II in the ’40s, with brooding cowboy John Wayne striding across Monument Valley vistas; it returned post-Vietnam in the ’60s with the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, branded by Clint Eastwood’s sardonic snarl; and crept back with a vengeance in the ’90s and 2000s, alongside the George W. Bush administration and resulting Iraq war. Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” (partially filmed in our neighboring Telluride) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” surged into Durango theaters last weekend: These dueling Westerns revive all the brawls and brutality, plus the lavish, lonely landscapes that the genre has long-since evoked.

The best part of this ongoing resurgence? Westerns are drawing crowds to the theaters again. Instead of watching on tiny Apple screens, audiences are scrambling to see the latest from Tarantino and Iñárritu on the silver screen – and these aren’t even superhero flicks, or fresh installments in some beloved franchise. Certain qualities of the Western beg for big-screen viewing: dazzling on-location footage, widescreen cinematography and an emphasis on real-world filming over phony CGI. The idolized superhero picture is actually akin to the Western; comic book characters with superhuman strength mirror cowboys who are glamorous, loftier versions of ourselves. Westerns speak to the very core of American culture: especially in times of war and international skirmish, our country craves the simplicity of good guys versus bad guys, or us versus them (“them” usually being terrorists, these days). We nurture a self-reliant, tough ideal. We fancy ourselves rugged individualists. And Americans like their guns.

Mark Brenden, a professor in the Writing Program at Fort Lewis College, wrote his master’s thesis at South Dakota University on Western films released in the 2000s. On the Western’s enduring nature, Brenden said, “It spans the history of American narrative film – you could say the first narrative was ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903). Look at almost any movie, save for some romantic comedies, and there’s elements of the Western in there. The genre has a unique power to analyze, exalt and subvert American ethos.”

Western heroesBrenden considers George W. Bush “the cowboy president”; a less-than-articulate, down-home Texan who enjoyed spending time on the ranch. Voters felt they could share a beer with him. Ultimately, this mythology was illusory (Bush is Ivy League-educated and very wealthy), but “people related to his lack of eloquence as a public speaker,” Brenden said. “It was endearing.” In Westerns, masculinity tends to coincide with sparsity of language; John Wayne was taciturn to the extreme. “The people who are most vulnerable in the Western are loquacious,” said Brenden. “Heroes speak with actions instead of words.”

Any classic genre begs to be defied. “You can look at the cowboy as the image of imperialist America,” said Brenden. Therefore in ’50s Westerns, Wayne portrayed a character blissfully non-complex – he mostly just played himself. Once the Vietnam War struck, odder Westerns like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) – more poetic and contemplative – began to emerge. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969, filmed partly in Durango) turned the stoic cowboy stereotype on its head, with Paul Newman’s Butch as an amiable, chatty bandit. Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) subverted the genre even further, presenting a pair of hardworking, gorgeous and virile men, then showing them fall in love with each other. “It’s not like that was the first movie to deal with homosexuality, but these weren’t two hairdressers in San Francisco,” said Brenden. These were American cowboys, supposedly impermeable. The wilderness may be savage, but Brenden points out how “Brokeback” reveals a “savage civilization.” The sole refuge for Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack is in the wild; only tucked between trees in a tent can these men be together safely.

The modern WesternProducing a purely modernized Western would be a challenge. In 2016, any frontiersman gone astray can pull out his cellphone and access the GPS. The film industry has established a recent preoccupation with survival stories (“The Revenant,” “Gravity,” “All is Lost”); and according to Brenden, it’s probably because we live in an increasingly artificial world, filled with technological gizmos. Maybe we yearn for “simpler” times. “The Revenant” wouldn’t be exciting if Leonardo DiCaprio was mauled by a bear, then asked Siri to call him an ambulance. “In order to be interesting, more and more of these movies are set in the past,” said Brenden. “New Westerns seem to be concerned with this elegiac, nostalgic feel of the loss of a more romantic time.”

Then again, Westerns don’t have to be set on the frontier in the 19th century to be classified “Westerns” – “Brokeback Mountain” took place in ’60s America. “Star Wars,” by most accounts, is simply a Western set in space.

“The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” are undoubtedly Westerns, respectively set in the 1823 wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase, and post-Civil War. Both films detail survival and revenge; set amid the swirling snow, mountains and forests of American borderlines; starring men who are dirty, murderous fur trappers and bounty hunters; bloody and violent; grappling with issues of justice and morality (or a lack thereof), and how these principles hold up in the lawless west. “The Revenant” is filled with swagger, without subtlety. The production was infamously grueling, marred by severe weather in Canada and Argentina; and for the role, DiCaprio braved the cold, ate real bison liver and slept inside animal carcasses (want an Oscar much?) “The Hateful Eight” is a less traditional Western: it’s fun, frothy and stylized (with a soundtrack featuring Roy Orbison and The White Stripes). Though the story begins with a snowy stagecoach ride, the rest of the film unfolds inside a confined lodge, where the characters hunker down as a blizzard rages outside. First, they drink coffee and chat almost politely, but eventually, the talk turns sour (in true Tarantino form).

Pushing the envelope with violencePresent-day Westerns boast heaps more bloodshed and visceral gore than originals like “The Searchers” or “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly;” but looking at Westerns within the context of America today, our nation teaming with gun deaths and sustained fear, it makes sense. “It’s like with movie theater shootings – there’s no rhyme or reason to that stuff,” said Brenden. “It’s what a film like ‘No Country for Old Men’ was about. If the cowboy figure is a representation of America, he is forced to deal with a more absurdly violent, nihilistic world than ever.” It’s fascinating to consider this genre under the fiercely-debated umbrella of gun control; Westerns are gun-heavy, fetishize viciousness, celebrating the gun almost as a man’s phallic extension. Not one of Tarantino’s films is without violence, though much of his gunplay is aesthetic, dynamic and “cool”: “He thinks that by being cartoonish, it takes away the reality,” suggests Brenden. It’s more difficult to shock audiences in the present day, as they’ve seen all the worst humanity has to offer on the news, or in popular torture-porn flicks like “Saw.” Filmmakers have to push the envelope.

More modern updatesThe contemporary Western has improved on the genre, too. The category was conventionally both sexist and racist. That’s much harder to get away with now, in culturally-sensitive times. “Having no female representation can make for a more ruthless world,” said Brenden, “But that’s one of the great faults of the genre – the female characters are either schoolmarms or prostitutes.” With the blogosphere running rampant, sexism and racism can be trotted out anywhere now, which is “for the best,” thinks Brenden. Each fresh piece of pop culture is dissected beneath a virtual microscope, thus artists are held increasingly accountable for their work, and we see fewer films that simplify an entire race or culture. (By contrast, in “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s character was unapologetically racist, fearing and loathing Indians – and he was the hero). Many modern Westerns subtract Native American characters entirely. Tarantino’s movies don’t feature any, although he certainly paraded the horrors of slavery and racism in “Django Unchained.” “One of the most bogus arguments against having nuanced female or Native American characters is that the films are trying to be ‘true to the times,’” said Brenden. “A film can hardly ever be true to its time. The Western isn’t historically accurate; many of the cowboys were black. And lots of them were actually exploited, uneducated workers.”

“The Revenant” has only one female character: DiCaprio’s unnamed Pawnee wife, who is murdered before the film begins. We glimpse her in hazy, cloying flashbacks. “The Hateful Eight” similarly has just one woman in a major role; Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy is the movie’s punching bag, used and abused and shown a fair helping of misogyny. Sure, the n-word is hurled at Samuel L. Jackson plenty – but he’s still a man in power, dreaded and respected. These two motion pictures aside, several current ventures have attempted to grant women autonomy in the Western boys’ club: “The Homesman” (2014) starred Hilary Swank as a frontier farm woman; “True Grit” (2010) put Hailee Steinfeld alongside Jeff Bridges as his equal; and the upcoming “Jane Got a Gun” (2016) gives Natalie Portman a firearm and a leading role.

So the times, they are a-changing. Still, no matter how willfully the Western evolves, it’ll remain gloriously timeless.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Media

Most Popular

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

No spam, notifications only about new products, updates.


On Key

Related Posts

AR 210529994

Film capsules

Stowaway leaves quite a bit to be desiredMovies set in space are almost as bad as films built around time travel movies. The amount of

AR 210429681

This spring in film

Hypocrisy in the New Space Jam Movie?Nostalgia and outdated pop culture are a heck of a combination, and they’re a combo that generally doesn’t end

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Get notified about new articles

Explore the weed life with DGO Magazine

Contact Information

Find Us Here:

Leave us a message