Few pop culture categories capture the moniker “quintessentially American” quite like the Western genre.
From early John Wayne to older Clint Eastwood flicks, audiences immediately identify tumbleweeds, saloons and the desolate landscapes of Monument Valley with a certain place — the United States — and time, the second half of the 19th century.
The genre reflects the American experiment in a way other story categories often can’t.
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The genre reflects the American experiment in a way other story categories often can’t. The tales brim with adventure, individual achievement and a hunger to stake a claim and defend it with steel and determination.
Just because most everyone knows a Western — and all of the storylines and archetypes that go along with it — doesn’t mean they’re still culturally relevant or appreciated, however.
So where have all the cowboys gone? How is the Western genre doing these days?
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In recent years, the Western seems to be alive and well on the small screen. This past spring saw the release of the final chapter of the modernized Western FX series, “Justified.” A short story by the late Elmore Leonard turned into six seasons of a U.S. marshal from rural Kentucky shooting his way through dozens of drug-smuggling bad guys (and more than a few bad Southern accents).
Fans of “the strong, silent type” can enjoy multiple seasons of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” and “Longmire,” the latter now a Netflix production. Both shows track the adventures of leading men who are haunted by their past. “Hell on Wheels” is set during the post-Civil War era when the transcontinental railroad was being built. “Longmire” follows a sheriff in a small Wyoming town who does not suffer fools.
It is hard to imagine John Wayne wanting anything to do with “Thor 2.”
While neither program is in danger of supplanting “Dancing with the Stars” in the ratings, both have grown in popularity as Johnny-come-latelies binge-watch earlier seasons.
On the silver screen, the given-up-for-dead Western has been experiencing something of a re-birth. The gritty 2007 remake “3:10 to Yuma” with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale did well at the box office and was well received by fans and critics. A few years later, director Quentin Tarantino blew the roof off the genre with 2012’s “Django Unchained,” the stylized account of a German bounty hunter who offers a freed slave the chance to avenge his tormentors in the antebellum South of 1858.
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The film made more than $400 million and spurred (no pun intended) Tarantino to follow that Western with another — the forthcoming “The Hateful Eight,” which hits theaters on Christmas Day. Tarantino makes it a point of pride to reconnect American moviegoers with forgotten aspects of our own 20th century pop culture.
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The past 12 months in particular have seen some bright spots in the Western genre: Michael Fassbender in the indie western “Slow West,” and a miss or two along the way, Seth McFarlance’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Nary a year goes by without a handful of Western films making their way into the national consciousness.
Director Steven Spielberg recently posited that the flurry of superhero movies ought to be included in the Western genre. There may be some fair points to make in such a thesis, but it’s hard to imagine John Wayne wanting anything to do with “Thor 2.”
Westerns are a different breed of pop culture vehicle than the average Comic-Con attraction. Swashbuckling science fiction stories like “Star Wars” and a few other recent examples — last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this month’s “The Martian,” perhaps — could more readily fit the Western bill than, say, “The Green Lantern” or “The Flash.”
The quintessentially American Western genre is an important part of our cultural past and, Lord willing, should be something future generations are inspired by as well.