The Western genre has had a major impact on the history of cinema and the people who watch them. In the first part of this two-part series, we looked into the past, evaluating westerns from different decades. And, we examined how features of plot, cinematography and character writing reflected society during their respective releases.
However, it is not just looking into the past that completes our theory of the importance of the western in film history. We must look at the films of today! This includes modern westerns, sometimes called the neo-western, and look at how the genre has influenced filmmakers in today’s world.
Cinematography, editing, color grading, narrative devices, etc. There are many micro and macro features that are particular to the western that appear in modern film and TV. Yes, I will be making a slight diversion in the land of television. But I believe it important as TV is reigning as the supreme form of storytelling in contemporary entertainment.
But, the most important element of this part is asking the question: what relevance does the western have on the modern world? I will explore this angle as we continue, but this part will have a stronger focus on society’s reaction to the genre, rather than how the genre reflects the people within it.
So, join me as I continue to explore the importance of the western genre in film history!
Part Two: The West Never Died
Attitudes toward genres begin to shift as time moves forward. Japan saw this with the samurai genre. The German’s experienced this as the expressionist movement started to subside. And Americans said goodbye to the western in its classic form.
However, like the samurai genre, there are still plenty of westerns being made today. They just shifted its market somewhat. There are still commercial westerns being released, such as the remake of The Magnificent Seven (2016), but it seems to me that the genre has started to move in the direction of the independent film.
The cause for this transition? Box office receipts! Back in the golden age of the western, the genre was a reliable source for a major return in revenue in comparison to the funding placed into the film. Unfortunately, Hollywood did what Hollywood always does; once they found a formula that worked, they saturated the market with these films until the audience started to experience genre fatigue.
The Western Prophecises the Super-Hero Genre?
This fatigue was alleviated, somewhat, by the influence of international westerns. As discussed in part one, the darker tone the films coming from Italy gave the genre a new direction and created a western for a new generation. But that eventually petered out itself as pop culture shifted in a new direction during the ’80s.
It seems to me, almost prophetic of the super-hero genre, as we see history repeat itself once again. Another feature that the box office monsters share with the western is a film that stands as the turning point of it. Avengers: Endgame (2019) ends a saga that the MCU spent eleven years building up to. Where do they go from there? Doesn’t it seem that it merely recycles itself from this point on?
This exact issue arose with the release of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992). Gone are the tales of morality as the film forces us to face an immoral world. Gone are the pleasures of seeing a violent shoot-out as the film tackles the demons that violence can leave in people. The western as we knew it died with this picture. Our fatigue had killed the romance. It had killed the fantasy.
This film could have been the genre’s grave, but like all great art, it adapted to fit the times. It was born again as the neo-western.
A neo-western is essentially a western set in the modern-day. Think of David Mackenzie’s Hell or Highwater (2016). On display are the common traits of criminality and family values, but we also see the iconography the western in the vast landscapes, the primary color palette and the costume design of the characters.
We also see this in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013). We see the wide-angle shots that take in the beauties of New Mexico, we get the iconic villain in Gustavo Fring, and we see the destruction of Walter’s morality as he must deal with the consequences of his actions and his reaction to the world around him.
When I consider the evolution of the genre, I see something of our modern world in the handling of these stories. History is still being made every day. As technology continues to advance and we become more divided through the horrors of everyday life, we retreat into ourselves.
These films have become more character dramas than explorations of society as a whole, and I believe it is a reflection of our desire to understand ourselves. We have the opportunity to dwell on who we really are and what means to be part of a community. We are all searching for a deeper purpose.
But there also remains a demand for great storytelling. Consider Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant (2015). A desire is there to return to escapist roots with a modern twist. As much as we want to explore ourselves, we must take time away to enjoy the pleasures of a good story.
So, why is the western one of the most important genres in film history? I believe it is because it not so much reflects the past, but mirrors ourselves during its time, as we come to terms with what is happening in the world around us. But it is also an opportunity to escape for a short time. An opportunity to simply exist for the briefest of moments…
The western will stay with us for a long time to come as it continues to adapt to the changes around us. It may have gone in the direction of the independent film, but its staying power makes it stand as one of the most important genres in the history of film.
I hope you enjoyed my take on the western genre! Comment below if you’d like to join in on the discussion.
If you fancy reading something else, how about checking out this one?
From Swindon, England. Jacob loves all nerdy pursuits like movies, games, science, history, etc. His favourite game is Jade Empire. For any inquiries, you can shoot him an email at [email protected]