The Western is Galloping Back

A remake of 'The Magnificent Seven' is promising to be big budget, big box office

This could be the year that the Western really makes a comeback. Sony is giving a strong marketing push to its star-studded September release, “The Magnificent Seven,” a remake of the beloved 1960s classic. The just-released trailer is already prompting early positive buzz for the film. 

The film not only appears to have a sizable budget and A-list cast, including Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, but it’s a straight Western from a major studio. The trailer pulls no punches. There are no aliens, no-end-of-the-world scenarios. It’s a played with obvious homages to the most classic elements of the genre. “Magnificent Seven” is the first major studio release of a western film that doesn’t have a Tarantino or Coen Brothers name attached in a long time.

On the other side of the coin is the upcoming “In A Valley of Violence” from Blumhouse Productions. The film, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, recently made its premiere at South by Southwest and is winning huge praise from fans and critics alike. Currently sitting at 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, one review from the Austin American-Statesman reads: “‘In A Valley of Violence’ is just downright entertaining, with all the tropes of a Sergio Leone-esque gunslinger flick without being gratuitously explicit in the formulaic recreation of probably the most enduring of all the American genre.”

The film seems ready to be an original, fun Western with the potential to win new and old fans over when it’s unleashed in September. “Violence,” combined with the positively received “Seven” trailer, suggests 2016 is the year top studios and stars are beginning to respect and refine one of the oldest of genres once again.

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“Unforgiven,” the 1992 Academy Award winner in the Best Picture category, was the last time we saw American icon Clint Eastwood grimace behind the stock of a Winchester rifle. The movie acted as a deconstruction of the Western. It was seen by critics and audiences as the last, truly respectable gasp of a genre that for decades held the undivided attention of both Hollywood and the American public.

From Roy Rogers kindly singing Old West tunes in black and white to John Wayne standing taller than any man from film to film all the way to Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone introducing the world to the hard-edged spaghetti Western, they were the costumed avenger tales of their day.

They were stripped-down stories of right and wrong, machismo and revenge. They also felt special to audiences because they were uniquely American. These were stories that belonged to us, belonged to our history and our cultural values — whether they were represented by upstanding, macho men like Wayne or darker antiheroes portrayed by Eastwood.

 “Good guys and bad guys! That’s it. There were no politically correct police back in that era of films,” screenwriter Jack Reher explains. “The Duke was the Duke and he administered swift justice. Dames were dames. Foul mouths ran wild. Violence was plentiful. Action was awesome and story was simple with heart. Westerns had clear messages and good values. They could go way dark and still be successful.”

However, like any genre at the top of Hollywood’s heap, the Western slowly evaporated. When Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was released, it was all but a goodbye for the genre.

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Since then, the Western has had a teeter-tottering relationship with success. The select films that manage to get financing today mostly fail. Few filmmakers have managed to find success in the field of the Western, and it’s mostly unique filmmaking names like the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino. However, for every successful “True Grit” or “Django Unchained,” Hollywood manages to put another nail in the coffin of the long dead genre with films like “The Lone Ranger” and “Cowboys and Aliens,” big budget extravaganzas looking to be Westerns in name only.

This year may be different. The Western genre may have a chance at a solid comeback with audiences.

However, some insiders are still skeptical of the Western genre making a full swing back into popularity. “The issue with Westerns these days is that, as much as North America likes them, they play very poorly overseas, which limits international box office. And international box office is almost everything in 2016,” says screenwriter John Sullivan.

Studios do put an emphasis on international markets today. Some releases have entirely separate cuts of film to appease international crowds. For many years, filmmakers complained that financing Westerns was impossible because there was no way to sell the foreign rights. The genre is just too American, it would seem.

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Sullivan admits 2016 does have a chance of recasting the Western spell over audiences, though. “‘The Magnificent Seven’ remake has a great cast, and the original played well overseas, so that could be the outlier.” However, the writer also encourages those still pining for the genre to take a closer look at modern action films made over the years, as they are simply thinly veiled Westerns because of the stories they tell and the messages imparted.

“My movie ‘Recoil’ is a Western. Steve Austin rolls into town, a reluctant hero, man of few words, takes on the baddies, saves the girl, rides off — alone into the sunset. Sure, he drives a 2006 Charger … but that’s his horse,” says Sullivan, who also compares his upcoming feature, “Security” starring Antonio Banderas, to westerns like “Rio Bravo” and “High Noon.”

The Western may or may not be charted on a course for a comeback this year, but Sullivan says the nature of the stories will never die. They roll into modern tales of vengeance and right and wrong like “John Wick” or “Mad Max.” If horseback riding and six shooters become the vehicle again for those stories of high noon justice, all the better.

Sullivan points out that no matter what, we will never tire of the genre’s essential component. Westerns are “cathartic,” he says, “You want to be that … gunslinger who’s not afraid of anybody, and sure, that gunslinger takes some hits … but wins the showdown. We all want to win a showdown. Whether literally or figuratively.”

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PopZette editor Zachary Leeman can be reached at [email protected].