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The Future of the Western Genre
For the past two decades, enthusiasts have lamented the disappearance of Westerns as the rest of the world went about its business, unaware that anyone could care about a genre relegated to a few obscure shelves of the local bookstore. Westerns have been hugely popular for over a hundred years. Not only were they popular in the United States, but the whole world devoured them. The western was a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television and daydreams. What happened?
The overexposure, on the one hand. In 1959, there were 26 Western series on prime time television. On the silver screen, John Wayne has wielded his Winchester at countless villains. Paperback westerns could be found in abundance at any drugstore, most with Louis L’Amour’s name on the cover. The big names made some wonderful, quality stuff, but the demand was so great that a lot of waste made it into print and celluloid.
The common perception is that the Western genre is dying. Yet somehow, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and a host of others make a good living from Westerns. Robert B. Parker temporarily dropped private detective Spencer for a two-gun trilogy. Parker’s Appaloosa grossed a respectable $28 million at the box office, while 3:10 to Yuma grossed over $70 million. As recently as 1992, Unforgiven won the Best Picture Oscar, the first Western to be so honored. DVD sales of vintage westerns are doing well, and Louie L’Amour, Zane Gray and even Max Brand are still selling enough books to keep their prodigy happy.
So the western isn’t dead, but it’s just as certainly not the rage, especially for the rising generation. Thrillers, fantasies, science fiction and romance novels take up all the space on the shelves. Action movie soundtracks are filled with revving engines, not thundering hooves. And television…well, television is just broadcasting another permutation of CSI or Law and Order. In fact, the Western excesses of the late 1950s are being repeated today with crime shows. Perhaps weary audiences are ready for a resurgence of westerns.
Maybe. But what kind of western? Probably a new breed. There have been three distinct Western eras. I call them the healthy, imperfect hero and violent times.
The healthy era lasted until the late fifties. He has been portrayed by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and other white hat cowboys. Instead of killing bad guys, they shot guns out of their hands. If someone was killed, he damned deserved it, and his death would be bloodless, with a promise like a hand on his chest to cover unsightly bullet holes. As in all eras there was an overlap, and during the latter stages of the healthy phase Wayne and others made more realistic westerns – but these, of course, were quarantined in cinemas , and they only played at night.
The flawed hero of the sixties was not the anti-hero of today. He simply had flaws, like Josh Randall, the bounty hunter played by Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive, or the Maverick brothers who proudly proclaim themselves cowards. Richard Boone wore black and looked mean as a gun for hire from Paladin. The Magnificent Seven were the reluctant saviors of a small Mexican village and flawed for a man. Again, overlapping eras. The spaghetti westerns of the late sixties took the genre into new territory.
Starting in the ’70s, the anti-hero ruled a frontier filled with slow-motion violence. The violent era was ushered in by Sergio Leone with his Man with No Name trilogy (1967) and Sam Peckinpaw with The Wild Bunch (1969). From then on, blood red dominates the color spectrum and the hero is only one step away from the villain. This kind of raw realism was deemed inappropriate for television until cable brought Deadwood (2004) to our living rooms.
And after? Luckily, these eras overlap, so seeing where the western genre is headed today is no guesswork. Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Robert B. Parker have, to varying degrees, left behind the age of violence. They signal that the future of westerns is historically accurate storytelling. If the story is set in the past, we call it a historical novel, except for westerns. They’re relegated to a niche genre that still bears the taint of pulp fiction. But a story set on the 19th century American frontier has as much legitimacy to be called a historical novel as Ken Follett’s World Without End.
McMurtry, McCarthy and Parker have found the key. Good writing, sound plots that move with confidence and great characterization. They focus on characters who are forced to deal with hardship and human frailty at some point in the story. These are the basic elements of good storytelling. A Western historical novel can indeed be action-adventure, but it can also borrow elements from crime, suspense, romance, mystery, and other genres. Lonesome Dove took on all of them. The world is tired of cookie-cutter cop shows and endless permutations of thriller tales about secret societies that are about to take over the world. Before Daniel Radcliffe can learn how to spin a six-shooter, Westerns will once again rule the page and the screen.
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