Why the Western Won’t Die

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There’s something about the western. For a long time it was one of the most popular genres on the landscape of entertainment in America. From the 1930s through the 1970s millions of Americans flocked to movie theaters each year to see stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood face down the bad guys. Louis L’Amour, the most prolific author of western novels in history (and my personal favorite) has sold 225 million books. The western dominated television in America in the 1950s and 1960s, with approximately 120 television series produced. The record for the longest running prime time television show (1955 – 1975) is still held by Gunsmoke, a western starring James Arness as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. That record may soon fall, however, as several showsincluding, believe it or not, The Simpsons, are poised to equal or surpass that record. I guess nothing more starkly illustrates the changes in our society in the last few decades than the mind boggling fact that Homer Simpson may soon accomplish what scores of evil desperados couldn’t do over two decades – take down Matt Dillon.

The heyday of the western has come and gone but the western has not ridden off into the sunset. It is an indisputable fact that since the 1980s fewer films and television shows produced have been westerns. Yet every so often some brave soul in Hollywood takes a chance and turns one out. Like a monster in an old grade B movie the western refuses to die.

Though few and far between, the television western has not been buried on Boot Hill yet.

  • In 1988 CBS gave us Paradise, a prime time television series starring Lee Horsley as Ethan Cord, a gunfighter who takes on raising his sister’s four young children after her death. It was an excellent show and was more family oriented than a shoot ’em up but managed to work in plenty of action due to the circumstances of Cord’s past. It ran for almost 3 seasons.
  • In 1989 CBS scored big with the made for television miniseries Lonesome Dove, which was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Larry McMurtry that spent 20 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list. It is the story of retired Texas Rangers Gus McRae, portrayed by Robert Duvall and Woodrow Call, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones undertaking the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Widely regarded as one of the finest miniseries ever, Lonesome Dove was not only critically acclaimed; it was a huge ratings success. Over the four nights it ran it scored a ratings average of 26.1 with a 39% share of the audience. It also won 7 Emmy awards, 1 Peabody award, and 2 Golden Globe Awards. Lauded for its gritty realism, Lonesome Dove proved that we still like a good western and if Hollywood turns one out we will watch it in big numbers. Apparently even actors are not immune to the captivating spell of a good western. Robert Duvall commented that of all the roles he has played (and that’s a considerable number considering he’s been acting since the early 1960s) his favorite was that of Gus McRae.
  • In 1998 CBS took a chance again by airing the prime time television show The Magnificent Seven, based on the classic 1960 film with the same title starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. As a huge fan of the original movie I must admit I watched the pilot episode of the show prepared to condemn it as a cheap rip off and an insult to the fine film it was based on. I could not have been more wrong. It was not only a great show but the clever tweaking of the characters paid homage to the original. The show starred Michael Biehn as Chris in the Yul Brynner role and Eric Close as Vin in the Steve McQueen role. Unfortunately, the network kept bouncing it around on the schedule as so often happens and it never managed to find an audience. It was gone in 2000 with only 22 episodes produced. It is 2008 so I guess CBS should be putting out a western television series this year if the pattern holds. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Theatrical films have not been completely devoid of westerns either since the 1970s.

  • The 1980s – The Long Riders (1980), Pale Rider (1985) and Silverado (1985)
  • The 1990s – Dances With Wolves (1990), Tombstone(1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994)
  • The 2000s – Crossfire Trail (2001), Open Range (2003) and 3:10 To Yuma (2007)

This is by no means a complete list. I just picked a few examples for illustrative purposes.

Now we get to the meat of the issue. Why has the western not become extinct? I have a theory about why the American people are always receptive to the western.

The western resonates with us. It is perhaps the most uniquely American form of storytelling.

We Americans are a straightforward people. We like our entertainment straightforward. Good guy versus bad guy works for us. The Europeans call us blunt and simplistic. Maybe we are. Maybe they just don’t understand a good old fashioned face to face to settle an issue. Nuance is for sissies. We did not build this nation with nuance.

The western is the ultimate morality play. There is no room for moral relativism. It’s about good against evil and nobody sits on the fence. We like the idea of good standing up to evil and defeating it. In this post 9/11 world I believe most Americans understand the need to take a stand against evil and defeat it.

Nothing typifies the American spirit like the western. Rugged individualists facing adversity with courage, dignity, a “Can Do” attitude, and just plain grit is a concept anyone can admire.

Westerns remind us what it’s like to face tough times without whining about how tough life is. When drought or flood or grasshoppers got the crops people choked it down and went on looking toward better times next year. When a rancher shot a wolf or a mountain lion after his stock he didn’t get sued by PETA. If a woman had to wield a rifle to defend the homestead while her man was away she didn’t look for a therapist afterward or keep the kids out of school for counseling.

We like our heroes. Whether it’s Superman standing up for truth, justice and the American way, Jack Bauer pursuing terrorists or our brave troops in the armed forces fighting to defend our nation we love our heroes. We need them. Our heroes are extensions of ourselves. They stand up for what’s right. They protect us. They defend the weak. Because of the very nature of the settings and circumstances of westerns there are more opportunities for heroic behavior than in more civilized and sedate environments. The western lends itself to producing heroes.

We’re proud of our country. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved in a little over two centuries. We’re proud of what it took to forge this nation from the wilderness. We’re proud of what our country stands for. Even the things we have done in our history that we cannot be proud of like our mistreatment of the black man and the red man can lead us to be proud because we addressed those horribly unjust situations and tried to correct them. We have admitted we have done wrong and progressed as a society. We are not perfect but we should be given credit for being honest about the darker chapters of our history. I believe in a world where in the 21st century slavery still exists and certain nations rewrite the history of WWII to absolve themselves of guilt The United States Of America deserves to not be judged too harshly.

I believe these factors account for the American people’s affection for the western. I believe this is an enduring love affair that will never end. I believe there will always be room for a good western on the American entertainment scene whether it’s in the form of a book, a television show, a play, or a feature film. Yeah, there’s something about the western.

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