Few categories of pop culture can capture the moniker “quintessentially American” quite like the Western genre in film.
From early John Wayne to older Clint Eastwood, from Glen Ford’s 1957 version of “3:10 to Yuma,” to the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale remake 50 years later, audiences around the globe immediately identify tumbleweeds, swinging-door saloons and the pristinely desolate landscapes of Monument Valley with a certain place (the United States) and time (the second half of the 19th century).
Even if the television show or film in question was made in Italy, it only takes the right opening shot or a few bars in a musical score to alert an audience to exactly when and where the story they are about to watch takes place.
But just because most everyone can identify the Western genre, and all of the associated storylines and archetypes, it does not mean the genre is culturally relevant or appreciated.
Westerns have come a long way since their heyday, but some would argue they are making a comeback with the advent of streaming TV.
Where have all of the cowboys gone, and do we care enough to find out?
Still, the question remains: Where have all of the cowboys gone, and do we care enough to find out?
On “television,” which includes streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the Western seems to be alive and well. This past spring, audiences tuned in in droves to the final chapter of the modernized Western FX series “Justified.”
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The result was a riot for fans and critics alike: A short story by the late Elmore Leonard turned into six seasons of a gun-toting U.S. marshal from rural Kentucky (Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant) shooting his way through dozens of drug-smuggling bad guys (featuring more than a few hokey Southern accents).
Also on Netflix, fans of the strong, silent type of Western hero can enjoy multiple seasons of “Hell on Wheels” and “Longmire.” Both shows follow the adventures and exploits 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, while “Longmire” is about a sheriff in a small Wyoming town who suffer no fools.
While neither program is in danger of supplanting “Dancing with the Stars” in the list of top TV rankings, both series command a loyal fan base and have grown in popularity, particularly with newcomers now afforded the chance to binge-watch earlier seasons.
On the silver screen, it might be said that the Western, once considered “left for dead,” has been experiencing a rebirth in the past decade or so. The aforementioned “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) with Crowe and Bale may have started the trend by employing rugged stars that typified the rough-and-tumble stars of the classic genre.
A few years later, Quentin Tarantino blew the roof off the genre with 2012’s “Django Unchained,” the stylized account of a German dentist-bounty hunter who offers a freed slave the opportunity to avenge his tormentors and wife’s captors in the South set in 1858. The film earned more than $400 million and spurred (no pun intended) Tarantino to follow that Western up with another — the forthcoming “The Hateful Eight,” which hits theaters this Christmas.
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Tarantino makes it a point of pride to reconnect American moviegoers with forgotten aspects of classic 20th century cinema, and many Western fans are certain to appreciate his efforts.
Every now and then, another bright spot emerges in the Western genre, most recently with Michael Fassbender in “Slow West.” Even with an occasional rotten egg (e.g. Seth McFarlane’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.
Some thought leaders, including the legendary Steven Spielberg, have even posited that the recent flurry of comic book-superhero movies ought to be included in the Western genre. There may be a few fair points in such a thesis, the hero shtick being the driving, mythological force. However, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart wanting anything to do with “Thor 2.”
The genre is not waning.
For the most part, though, 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, “Green Lantern” or “The Flash.”
Nevertheless, while there is room for debate, it’s clear the genre is not waning. The quintessentially American Western offers timeless lessons for future generations, both as a cherished part of our popular culture and a classic period of history worth revisiting.