What happened to all the Western movies?

This segment of "Pop Quiz" aims to answer why Westerns were once one of the biggest film genres in Hollywood, but there aren't many made anymore.
Posted at 8:09 PM, Apr 26, 2023

"The Great Train Robbery," a silent film from 1903, is widely considered to be the first narrative film as well as the first feature Western.

It has all the hallmarks of a classic Western: A train to depict American expansion and adventure, a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys, a climactic gunfight to save the day and the familiar image of a bandit shooting a gun at close range. And as simple as it was, the movie really established the look and the basic narrative of classic Westerns, which grew as a genre alongside the evolution of Hollywood in general. 

Between the 40s and 60s, as many as 140 Westerns were released per year. One reason the genre became so prevalent was because of its deep ties to American culture and the stories that were already being told for years through books and serialized stories in magazine.

"You can imagine the cultural exposure of that and how it impacted how we tell stories, how we relate to stories, and how big an impact it had," said Rick Drew, writer, producer and professor at Vancouver Film School. "It's kind of like the same way in America, jazz is the American music. The Western is the unique contribution to cinema that's exclusively, primarily American."

Drew got his start assisting on films like the 1976 Western "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" and then later as a writer and producer on the miniseries "Lonesome Dove." He said Westerns were pivotal to the development of both Hollywood and Americana.

"The Western became how the rest of the world saw America," Drew said. "It became the personality of America because it was the first time it had been commodified, but even before that, there were Western novels being written in Germany in the 1890s by a German writer who had never even been to America. And they made German-language films that were Westerns in the pre-World War II period entirely in German, shot in Europe, but they were American Westerns. That's how big an influence that the American West was culturally."

For all the ways the genre established a sense of excitement over "the new frontier" and clear-cut battles between good and evil, many of the classic Westerns idealized the archetypal hyper-masculine heroes — cowboys, rangers, outlaws turned good — using violence against bad guys.

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"They're very masculine in their orientation, and they're also not just about what it means to be a good man, but they're about a man with a gun," said Carl Plantinga, research fellow and film studies professor at Calvin University.

Plantinga specializes in studying the ways morality and ethics are portrayed in the media. He said early Westerns painted a black-and-white sense of morality when it came to the use of violence — specifically, gun violence. 

"The American love of guns was certainly portrayed in the Western and may be influenced by the Western," Plantinga said.

"In addition to sanitizing violence, they also sanitized racism and completely ignored the fact there were a lot of African American cowboys and really famous characters who, well, they weren't for 'White audiences,' so they never got an audience," Drew said.

Historians don't know exactly how many cowboys there were during America's Wild West period, and it's not even really clear what a cowboy was because there's no universal definition. But some estimate that of the 35,000 people that could've counted as cowboys, about 6,000 to 9,000 were Black, and very rarely were they playing heroes in Westerns.

Similarly, classic Westerns were very inhumane towards Native Americans, oftentimes portraying them as "savages."

The 1939 film "Stagecoach" is considered one of the films that helped define the classic Western, but at the same time, it created this heavily stereotyped image of Native Americans. In the 2009 documentary "Reel Injun," Anishinaabe writer and arts advocate Jesse Wente called "Stagecoach" "one of the most damaging movies for Native people in history."

"They were just props in Westerns, they didn't even hire Native Americans to play Native Americans," Drew said.

That started to change in the 60s and 70s with the era of the "revisionist" Western, which subverted the romance of the West, wrote more Native Americans into protagonist roles and focused more on the moral gray areas and consequences of violence.

"Westerns like 'The Wild Bunch,' 'Little Big Man,' 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' from the early 1970s and late 1960s — they began to portray violence as something that cannot be controlled," Plantinga said.

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"When we did the 'Lonesome Dove' TV series, from one season to the next, it was a very Hallmark-friendly, light, pretty Western. It was a romance novel kind of Western," Drew said. "Then our order for the second season, we turned it into 'Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years' because they wanted to show that more action and violence. We as writers didn't want to just write violence, so we said, 'Let's write it about the consequences of violence,' and made it about a character who's desperately trying not to be violent and is forced constantly to have those values tested."

Westerns were still being made into the 80s and 90s, continuing to subvert the tropes of the classics. But audiences were starting to grow a little tired of the repetitive tropes and settings. 

Pair that with the rise of science fiction, superheroes and new franchises like "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars," and Westerns began to feel even less exciting. Instead of 140 Westerns being made a year, the 90s saw exactly 148 in total.

Today, even though there have been a couple modern Westerns like "No Country For Old Men" and a remake of "True Grit," the influences of the genre is becoming apparent in series like "The Mandalorian" or "Better Call Saul," anime like "Cowboy Bebop" and films like "Nope" and "John Wick: Chapter 3."

Sean Boelman, a critic with Disappointment Media and Fandomwire, is a fan of Westerns. He doesn't see it as something that's ever actually left, but as a genre that continues to evolve today.

"There's the scene early in the film where John Wick is kind of building the revolver, and he's kind of creating that gun and then he kind of fires it off; that's a very Western influence scene," Boelman said. "You have audiences who are going back to these tropes because of their almost familiarity and comfort that we are seeing in the modern day, because we are going back to these ideas of moral conflict."

"We need to reinvent the Western for a new generation and tell the truth of the reality of the violence and the untold stories of who were the real heroes," Drew said. "I would love to see the untold stories of Native Americans — not just the horrible things they experienced at the hands of the White people, but just their own stories and their own legacy and their own legends, that have not yet been told."