How Westerns got Weird, and what it means for Comic Book Films


In 2014, director Steven Spielberg famously said: “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” He was, of course, referring to the way in which the cowboy genre, so used to strutting into the saloons of our cinemas, became a turn-off for the counterculture audiences of the 1960s. Going “the way of the western” is heading off into the sunset…and not coming back.

It’s now been half a century since the Classic Western Movie heyday, and they’ve hardly bothered the box-office since. Even western-flavoured blockbusters with big stars such as Wild Wild West, Cowboys vs. Aliens and The Lone Ranger proved to be financial train wrecks.

A few years back, it almost seemed that quasi-Westerns were going to make a comeback. The Revenant, True Grit and Hateful Eight used Western tropes in order to pursue their own, peculiar narratives. Now, however, with the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, (the sole major Western release in 2018), it seems that the genre is an anomaly once again; one that is beloved by auteurs and indie filmmakers rather than studio heads.

It’s time, then, to reassess what “the way of the Western” means. Nowadays, Westerns are generally no longer in the hands of the studio machines; they’ve been placed in the hands of independent filmmakers. The cowboy genre has been taken apart, aspects of it cherrypicked by auteurs and put to use in increasingly idiosyncratic ways.

It’s not that Westerns have gone.

It’s that they’ve gone weird.

Here are some key ways in which the Western has deviated from its classic roots in film, diverting from studio staples to indie experiments–and a thought on what it could mean for today’s popular cinema.

Once Upon a Time

The Spaghetti Western

Instead of waiting for sundown, lets deal with this head on: some Western connoisseurs amongst you might take issue with this post, by dint of the fact that there were some popular Westerns in the 60s, some of them more well- known than any of the John Wayne/John Ford collaborations of the Classic Western period.

I’m talking, of course, about the Spaghetti Western, and more specifically the hits of Clint Eastwood’s Dollars trilogy: For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

As revered as they are, and as “classic” as they may seem to us, those films are actually the first steps towards the arthouse approach to Westerns we enjoy today. Watching the opening to A Fistful of Dollars is witnessing a statement of intent: the movie begins with Clint Eastwood’s character calmly having a drink of water while another cowboy shoots at the feet of a child. Morality has gone to hang (pun intended), and the motivations of our protagonist are–as the title suggests– based on greed. It’s a bleak vision of the West, and one that was designed as a counterpoint to the good/bad morality of the Westerns of old.

The films are also the work of visionaries. Operatic and singular in their approach, director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone took relatively generic stories and executed them in ways that were unmistakably their own. This wasn’t how Westerns were made in the 40s and 50s: they were studio tentpoles, many of them bearing the bland mark of committee-filmmaking. Compare that to Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably the best western ever made and the culmination of Leone and Morricone’s collaborations, and the difference in approach is clear.

Also worth noting is the beginning of arthouse Westerns in the 60s, most remarkably in Jodorowsky’s El Topo, a bizarre vision that twisted the genre and created a nightmarish vision of the West to boot.

Even at the tail end of the Western heyday, therefore, cinema was already getting a taste of what the industry would do with the genre. It’s not such a leap from Leone to The Revenant, and in both cases the tropes of the cowboy narrative were becoming a sandpit for visionary filmmakers.


The Feminist Western

When Johnny Guitar was released in 1954, featuring Joan Crawford as the strongest, most dominant character of the picture, it was derided by critics. The New York Herald Tribune wrote “Feminism has gone too far”, while the New Yorker explained in shocked terms that the movie “has not only male but female gunfighters…I can state authoritatively that this twist is doomed.” The message is clear: The Old West was a man’s world.

The cowboy genre was often a celebration of masculinity, and as such they served as platforms for male movie stars. John Wayne would essentially make a living out of playing the same character in his films (some exceptions aside, such as in True Grit and Who shot Liberty Valance), and he epitomised the vision of the American Hero in the West for others such as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen follow in his wake. Even more recent films trying to recreate the Westerns of old were used as star vehicles for men, such as Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall in Open Range and Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma.

It’s a mark of the new generation of filmmakers’ approach, then, to turn the most macho of genres on its head. Of course, there were precursors. Sam Raimi made in The Quick and the Dead in 1995, and made his protagonist a heroine who bests her male counterparts in gunplay. Although it might be a stretch to call it feminist, it’s also worth noting that Ang Lee, in adapting Annie Proulx ‘s Brokeback Mountain, elevated his tale of homosexual love by setting it against the backdrop of an America reminiscent of the West. If the prevalent vision of mascilinity in Westerns is that of the heroes in The Magnificent Seven–ready to ride in and protect the powerless– then Brokeback took similarly hunky movie stars but made them play maladjusted, broken individuals instead. If anything, the female character in the film (played by Michelle Williams) was the figure of strength and conviction.

It’s really in the last few years that we’ve really started to see a truly feminist take on the genre. Hilary Swank made headlines when promoting The Homesman as a “feminist Western”, prompting many discussions in critic circles about whether the film justified such an epithet. The Keeping Room, including none other than indie darling Brit Marling, depicts a group of women and a slave protecting themselves from a group of men headed by Sam Worthington (who, in another age, would have been perfect for hero-cowboy casting). It’s essentially a home invasion thriller made out of a community of women protecting themselves from cowboys turned bad, and it’s the most openly feminist Western I’ve seen.

It’s a far cry from the days of the Johnny Guitar outrage- and films have become all the more interesting from it.


The Auteur Western

The film awards season of 2016 is mostly remembered now because of the oscarsowhite# controversy. It is notable now, however, to think about many awards The Revenant gathered. It was a violent and beautiful experience for those who caught it in the cinema– but it was also undoubtedly a Western. No beautiful shots of trees and snow-dappled rivers could hide the fact that it had all the tropes of a cowboy film: a revenge plot, a Native American attack, a dual, and, yes, even some scalping. Significantly, however, it didn’t feel like a Western– it felt like an Alejandrio Gonzales Innaritu film.

And that’s the point. The fact that a film is a Western isn’t the selling point anymore, and so the directors are given free rein to create their own arthouse/indie hybrids with the genre.

It’s easy to start with Tarantino, because he’s emblematic of the phenomenon. He’s been flying the flag for Westerns for as long as he’s been giving interviews, and he clearly worships at the feet of Leone and Morricone. Yet even his “Westerns” aren’t really typical of the genre, and take detours (or, less charitably, indulgences) which would never get studio approval in the Stagecoach days. Django Unchained mashed Western scenes with a revenge-fantasy narrative, and used slavery as a topic in which to create a new kind of cowboy. As the Jaimie Foxx character becomes a hero at the end of the film, riding away on his horse (a mirror image to him walking in chains at the beginning) it’s clear that the film depicts a journey towards becoming a cowboy icon, which is contrary to typical Westerns, in which our heroes tend to step off the train fully-formed as gun-toting archetypes. The Hateful Eight is another example of a Western-ish Tarantino film, revelling in some aspects of the genre but really concentrating on being a good chamber piece thriller.

Tarantino is far from the only one to take the furniture of the cowboy film and weave his own tale from them. For the few who saw it, it’s difficult to shake off the imagery of The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik’s meditation on the legends of the West, and John Hilcoat made his name telling an Australian story with Western tropes with The Proposition. Just a few years ago, Bone Tomahawk also cross-pollinated the genre with horror to critical acclaim.

Perhaps the most symptomatic of the auteur-western genre is 2015’s Slow West. It’s an off kilter, beautiful, unique take on a much-used Western story, artfully using colour and sound in order to paint the Old West in a whole new light. It’s undeniably an independent-minded, artistic film.

And right now, that seems to be where the Western is at its best.


Modern Westerns

It’s worth having a short word on the so-called “Neo-Western”– the subgenre in which a modern setting evokes the feeling of the cowboy film. It’s a slippery term, as so many American filmmakers grew up with Westerns and then try to incorporate their tropes.

However, the operatic showdowns, the duals, and the desert landscape are a handy way into seeing how some films fit into the landscape of American cinema. No Country for Old Men is a great example of a film that successfully manages to take some key inspirations from the Western films of old to give the movie a timeless, classic quality. Indeed, the timelessness in rural America means that the Western vibes can sit happily in a modern setting, as proved in John Sayles’ masterpiece Lone Star and the underrated Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Mostly, the idea of the Neo-Western is mostly just a fun way to reevaluate cherished works. Once someone tells you that Breaking Bad is a cowboy story, it’s hard to think of Hiesenberg, and his back hat, in the same way again…

Deadpool cowboy

What it means for Blockbusters

The tropes and imagery of the Western are so ingrained into American cinema that they are ripe for ridicule, à la Million Ways to Die in the West, or for subversion. Playing it straight feels-ahem- old hat.

If that is the consensus, then Spielberg’s comments that the superhero film will “go the way of the Western” is a promise of fascinating films to come. Yes, comic book films are a fad, and one that seems to be here for years to come. But even when they lose popularity, as they inevitably will in years or decades to come, then it doesn’t mean that comic fans won’t be served. It’s just that the adaptations will become singular and low-key.

For the future of the current blockbuster, then, you could do worse then look at Kick-Ass or Deadpool. While neither of those films are particularly subversive, nor belong to an arthouse tradition, they are nevertheless the work of directors, writers and producers who have a clear vision of their own. There is also promise of different kinds of superhero films, including comedic versions of the tale, with Superbob gaining a cult following and Shazam coming out next year. And we are finally getting female-centred takes on the genre as well, with the success of Wonder Woman and next year’s Captain Marvel set to change the blockbuster landscape permanently.

With the success of Avengers and Venom this year, there are no signs that superhero films are going out of fashion. But even when they stop being guaranteed cash-grabs, if Westerns are anything to go by, than it won’t mean that the genre is doomed.

Maybe– just maybe– it will signal that the best will be yet to come.

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