Today OBAAT broadens its horizons with the first post from Beth Kelly. Beth is a blogger and freelance writer from Chicago. She loves old Western, but has never been west of the Mississippi. (She hopes to change that soon.) When she’s not writing, she can be found practicing piano or teaching her cat new magic tricks. Find her on Twitter @bkelly_88.
Beth approached me a couple of weeks ago t ask if I’d be interested in running some of her pieces on Westerns in the blog. I read some samples and told her to fire when ready. I’m looking forward to seeing more from her as she gets a little deeper into what makes Westerns special to her, and maybe provoke a few arguments lively discussions while we’re at it.
Take it away, Beth.
The Western is a tradition as old as American cinema itself. The idea of the nomadic gunslinger who rides into the frontier town and confronts—or becomes—the local criminal is closely tied to the classical American values of exploration and individualism. More recently, filmmakers have broadened their perspective on the genre, and used it as a backdrop to explore more deeply the themes of racism, violence, community, women's rights, and many others. This has led to the reestablishment of the Western as a commercially viable and artistically important art form.
The concept of Manifest Destiny played heavily into the stories of early Westerns, and Native Americans were often portrayed as dishonest savages who threatened the well-being of frontier towns. This is apparent in John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, which launched the career of Western film icon John Wayne and is considered one of the most influential films of all time. In Stagecoach, the villains are Apache Indians, and Wayne's character, a fugitive, becomes the hero of the piece when he helps protect a group of settlers from an Apache attack.
Over the next two decades, Westerns became a metaphor for the hard working, individualistic American spirit. The image of John Wayne or Gary Cooper fighting Indians or outlaws against the backdrop of the sun beating down against the wide-open plains was a parallel, for many, to the entrepreneurial attitude needed to survive and succeed in the wide-open free market. In the 1960s, however, film noir began its heavy influence on American cinema, and the Western was no exception. Noble frontier knights in shining spurs started to be replaced by opportunistic drifters and hired guns whose primary motivation was money or simple revenge. These traits are most distinctly highlighted in the spaghetti Westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone, whose hero, often played by then-rising star Clint Eastwood, was typically a selfish, amoral drifter who excelled at killing and subterfuge. Leone's films influenced a slew of imitators, but by the mid-70s, production of Westerns in general had declined rapidly, perhaps because audiences felt the genre had been thoroughly explored and had nothing left to offer.
It wasn't until 1990's Best Picture winner Dances With Wolves that the Western began to regain popularity. Based on the book by Michael Blake, Wolves tells the story of an American army lieutenant who befriends a tribe of Lakota Indians. The subject matter allowed for a more introspective and character-driven film, and for a more comprehensive and sympathetic view of Native Americans than had been seen in previous Westerns. Only two years later, another Western won the Best Picture Oscar: Clint Eastwood's unanimously praised Unforgiven. Heralded as an instant classic, Eastwood's film explores the themes of heroism, violence, and revenge as they relate to an aging gunman, played by Eastwood himself. Taken in the abstract, the film can be viewed as a self-aware examination of the progression of the Western itself as a genre, or of Eastwood's own career, as the most popular living Western movie star.
Since those two landmark movies, the Western has attracted a wealth of talented filmmakers. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is a story of forbidden homosexual love. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is about the evils of slavery, and borrows its titular character from a 1966 spaghetti Western. 2010's True Grit saw a classic John Wayne Western remade by the Coen Brothers. The most recent buzzed about Western is Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender. Before the film even had a chance to premiere at Sundance A24 productions and DirecTV bought the rights to distribute it. The popularity of the Western may rise and fall, but the beauty of its landscapes, its window into the soul of American culture, and its resonance with American film goers will always be universal.