Westerns are a cornerstone of American cinema. Films of the genre starring everyone from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood run on a near 24-hour cycle across television sets. Despite Hollywood’s current superhero blockbuster craze, they are still managing to impress and resonate with critics and audiences.
“Hell or High Water,” about a pair of modern-day brothers (portrayed by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who begin robbing banks to raise enough cash to save their family land, is currently earning some of the best reviews of the year with a near perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“I think the spirit of the western has been engrained in the DNA of Americans, to be honest.”
While many special effects-heavy films have failed to impress critics and audiences this summer, westerns are proving this may be their year — if not in box office dollars, then in quality.
“In a Valley of Violence,” set for release in September, stars Ethan Hawke and John Travolta and has earned similar raves from audiences and critics who have seen some of its festival screenings. Then there’s the “The Magnificent Seven,” a big budget remake with a trailer that has incited hefty anticipation.
While the western boom died long ago, audiences have remained faithful to the genre. It’s why fans rush to great westerns such as “Django Unchained” and “Bone Tomahawk.”
“I love westerns. There are morals in westerns, both in TV shows and movies,” screenwriter and “Old Habits” author Ben Trebilcook told LifeZette. “I think the spirit of the western has been engrained in the DNA of Americans, to be honest. The westerns of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, especially those films leading up to the Second World War, had Hollywood giving us the cowboy hero fighting on behalf of the defenseless homestead.”
He continued, “They embodied the psychology of the East-West struggle. Audiences were bombarded by stories of how their forefathers spectacularly won in their fight against antisocial forces. Tales of town law enforcers, upholding the decent way to live and hard-working cowboys and everybody had a ‘don’t push us around’ way about them.”
The uniquely American nature entwined in the genre is partly what continues to drive fan love. It’s also what makes them hard sells in today’s market where international box office means more than ever before.
While many films today rely on international markets to earn the majority of their financial take, westerns typically can’t match their American tally overseas. “True Grit,” a big hit in the states, made less than half its U.S. gross overseas. Western hits including “Unforgiven” have faced similar setbacks outside America. The overseas conundrum is often cited by filmmakers as a reason for producers not being as open to financing westerns today.
“The appeal for producers and why they still make westerns is the ‘Americanness’ of the wild west and the hope it can capture an audience’s imagination like it did in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. The western is a tough sell, at least that’s what I hear from studios,” said screenwriter Bobby Lee Darby (“See No Evil 2”).
However, even through fads of popularity with different genres in Hollywood and despite the box office trouble, the western remains reliable. The classics are rebroadcast, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers carry their torch, and the genre continues to influence film in general.
“Hell or High Water” is an obvious example of that influence — a western without the horses. Jeff Bridges, who plays a Texas Ranger out to catch the robber brothers, shared his own love for the genre in an interview with The Denver Post.
“I’ve always been a fan of westerns. My father, Lloyd Bridges, did a lot of terrific westerns including ‘High Noon.’ I remember as a kid, whenever he got a western, he would come home and I’d love to get into his costume and walk around in his boots and hat and vest.”
He added, “I’ve done my share of westerns and I always loved it. It’s a wonderful time in our history, and a very short time.”