Cowboy heroes used to be commonplace. They were in the cinema on a regular basis and even showed up at the Oscars now and then. That time seems to have passed with the western having lost popularity to a new generation of cyber thrillers and action packed movies that offer more gun fire in the first five minutes that most westerns did during a hundred and twenty minutes.
Westerns took the issue of life and death seriously. Killing, even when the killer was casual about it, was not something taken in stride by either the killer or the people around them. The heroes and villains of the western had a moral sense of some kind whether it was valid or misguided it was still present.
Over the years the western movie genre has undergone serious changes most of which have been for the better. One cannot help but look back with fondness and perhaps a little disbelief at the careers of Ken Maynard (the first singing cowboy star), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans without wondering at the naiveté of the time. Westerns had already started to change though with the inestimable John Ford directing the soon to be legendary John Wayne (The Duke) in Stagecoach which changed all the rules for the western as a genre. John Wayne’s gift of looking hard as nails in one frame and as soft as eider down in the next turned him into box office gold as both men and women flocked to Wayne pictures. There were no shortages of westerns being written and though many of them were tripe there were many gems which make for great watching even today. (See list at bottom of the page).
The western movie and cowboy heroes continued to develop just as film and film techniques developed and as our society changed and evolved. Just as Ford’s Stagecoach looked closely at prejudice, addiction and redemption the western continued to reflect the concerns of society with touchstone productions which reflected or influenced the changing way audiences thought about war, politics and law enforcement.
Movies like Red River brought into sharp focus the emerging generational differences between the beat generation and the generation before it which emerged battered and hardened from the deprivations of the depression era and World War II. Red River is a seminal point in both American film and the history of the western. The vehicle of the western allows for a frame work of biblical proportions as the story progresses into the wilderness of the Chisholm Trail across the Red River and competing philosophies of how to meet the unexpected and the future play out in the characters of the story.
Red River is a stand out in the western cinema but there are many other equally amazing stories with similar if not immediately apparent social commentary. The simple emergence of Clint Eastwood as a star in western’s playing a good man wearing a black hat was reflective of a profound change in the way a hero could be portrayed. While the pedigree of Eastwood’s character type can be found in characters like Shane, Marshall Will Kane and Tom Doniphon the rough hewn exterior and lean to the bone style of acting were uniquely Eastwood.
The western has continued to progress and change though it has been a long time since one has seen the big screen. Brief forays back into the genre by Hollywood have resulted in some wonderful movies like Silverado and the already classic Eastwood tribute to the genre Unforgiven. Despite the seeming disregard that major studios have for the genre these occasional forays by studios and television (in the form of Lonesome Dove) have been very popular with viewers who seems as interested in the western as they ever have been which could bode well for a future return of the western to popularity.
Compulsory viewing for western fans.
Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
A Fistful Of Dollars
The Wild Bunch
For A Few Dollars More
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Little Big Man
Once Upon A Time In The West
Dances With Wolves