Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
One hand. That's all it takes for me to count how many Westerns of prominence have come out in the past decade: Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and True Grit. This seems like a great shame considering how illustrious the state of the Western was not even forty years ago.
There are no actors like John Wayne anymore, instantly recognizable in spurs and a ten-gallon hat. The heyday of the Western was somewhere around the 1940s, when John Wayne was recognized by virtually the world. Children played Cowboys and Indians and nearly all arguments or conflicts of the ill-tempered were decided by the draw of a gun. The storylines and action were so popular that the appeal of the genre went overseas to Italy. Spaghetti Westerns became a staple of the genre with American stars like Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda. The peak of this movement came with the Man with No Name Trilogy directed by Sergio Leone, just one of many releases a year.
The number of releases–formerly twenty to thirty a year—is now a trickle of its former self with five to six a year. What killed the genre was constant exposure to it. Ironically, The Duke is also the reason why the genre witnessed a fall from grace, given that he appeared in eighty-four Westerns throughout his career. If constant audience exposure didn’t kill the Western, then the predictability did: a stranger walks into a dusty, old town, a conflict occurs between the stranger and the local baddie, the good guy wins—typically in a shoot-out—and that is that. With nearly every story ending the same audiences began to drift toward dramas and comedies that related to the new time period they lived in. Current Westerns have no such clichés. There is no winner in The Proposition and presumably it is safe to say that for all of the effort Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) put into finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) her life suffered far worse for it.
By the 1970s the lure of seeing the wide-open west on the silver screen was gone. Replacing sheriffs and U.S. Marshals were gritty cops who cared less about justice and more about blood-lust Clint Eastwood, icon for years for playing The Man with No Name, traded his poncho in for a suit. Dirty Harry went on for several years before he donned a cowboy hat again, in Unforgiven. With Unforgiven Eastwood deconstructed the genre. Gone was the squint-eyed rascal that saved the day and in his stead was a broken down old man. The sheriff is no longer a saintly figure like Gary Cooper in High Noon, but a cold-blooded tyrant. The stranger who waltzes into town doesn't save the locals; he ends up the victim of humiliating beat down. In fact, the only hope for the damsel in distress (prostitutes this time around) is a former murderer of women and children. After thirty years Clint had put the genre down for good.
The presence the Western once had is really all but finished. With only a handful of notable Westerns over the last ten years, that is nearly impossible to argue. But the influence, thankfully, is not gone. 2011 gave us Rango and Cowboys and Aliens, but both have come out to tempered enthusiasm. Another 2011 release, Drive, in a lot of ways, is a Western with a fresh decal. A stoic leading man coupled with a lot of money at stake, and angry, powerful men waiting to get their hands on it. The inspiration for these films could not be more nakedly grabbed from the Western and whether this trend will continue is anyone's guess. But while these films reference the classics from yesteryear the hopeful mood of them seems to be missing.
The Western seems attached to the spirit of this country. The wide-open west may not be solely associated with the United States, but the optimism and romanticism certainly is. Maybe the reason Westerns have died off is because there is no idealized vision of the United States anymore. Settlers seen in films like How the West Was Won and Red River are seen as hardworking idealists; recent films show that this is not the case. Settlers in modern Westerns are often there because they are forced to be, by the law or by their own failings.
The protagonists in contemporary Westerns like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are little more than thieves and robber barons. Llewelyn Moss, the protagonist of No Country for Old Men, is on the run after stealing two million dollars from a drug cartel. Daniel Plainview, central character of There Will Be Blood, is a capitalist through and through; he sacrifices anything and anyone to further the size of his oil empire. His relationships with his son and long-lost brother are only tools to aid that effort. He cannot relate to people on his own without them. More accurately, he doesn't want to relate to people—he hates them. The Duke would hardly recognize these scoundrels.
The romance seen so often in films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Red River is also gone. Leading men of today’s Westerns are often stoic and seek pleasure from alcohol, and other vices. No woman would be willing to put up with these anti-heroes. Solitude is the only way they know. There is no Vera Miles, or Joanne Dru to cling to at the finale, only a bottle, a needle, or a gun.
Perhaps the genre isn’t dead. Film is constantly evolving and the stories and characters that inhabit them evolve along as well. Violence has seen a major uptick in recent films. Regularly, characters are shot and blown away for no other reason than they are a source of irritancy. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford James (Brad Pitt) kills a man for nothing more than standing in front of a safe longer than he should have. This isn’t new by any means. The Wild Bunch brought blood to the Western in a big way in 1969. This reflected the time it was made in, lingering anger associated with Vietnam, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. still stung, and the Zodiac killer piled up victims, the shining smile of Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane did not fit anymore.
The times have long since passed when there was a glowing aura around the frontier and the people who settled it. The Western will come back as all genres do at one time or another. The question is in what form? Will it be a sparkling revival of the earnest and optimistic sheriff against all odds? Will a hero like Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, who sought to fight his battles with the law, emerge? Or will it be a continuance of films like The Proposition, where the sheriff (Ray Winstone) sets a murderer (Guy Pierce) free, holding his younger brother as insurance, in order to collect an even more sadistic outlaw? The wind coming off the prairie will have to tell.