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Go Western, Young Man

Why America’s love for Westerns has come back with a vengeance

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Photo: Kevin Lynch for Paramount Network

The sound was like thunder! Hundreds of horses, a dozen wagons, rifle and pistol fire. The air was thick with the dust and gun smoke from the running battle. Soldiers trying to save settlers, being pursued by 12 united tribes of enraged Apache warriors. The settlers are finally saved when the hero of our story defeats the Apache chief in a gripping final fight.

John Wayne was our hero in 1953’s Hondo. A handsome leading man, a damsel in distress, incredible scenery (even in black and white), edge-of-your-seat action and high drama were some of the hallmarks of traditional Westerns.

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With shows like Yellowstone and Longmire and movies like The Harder They Fall, and with nearly 80 other Western movies released in 2022, the genre is back. But how do these modern versions stack up against those of the Western’s Golden Age? Are those gems from our childhoods as good as we remember them? What made them seem so great?

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway,” said John Wayne’s character in True Grit (1969).

No matter who the star was back in those golden days, older Westerns portrayed a standard set of values. The heroes were known for their independence, self-determination, hard work, perseverance, strong sense of right versus wrong, and refusal to cut and run when the going got tough.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Randolph Scott and Gary Cooper embodied those heroes. As the ’60s and ’70s came along, new actors, including James Garner and Clint Eastwood, took their place.

If the United States’ founding principles were equality, rights, justice, liberty, opportunity and democracy, then Western movies were as “American” as you could get.

“If you consider film an art form, as some people do, then the Western would be a truly American art form, much as jazz is,” Clint Eastwood once said.

These ideals were so strong in Westerns that one later Hollywood bad guy specifically called them into question. In 1988’s Die Hard, the character Hans Gruber says to the hero, John McClane, “But who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” It was as if holding these “cowboy” ideals was a bad thing.

But like America itself, Westerns started to change in the 1960s. The Wild Bunch (1969) abandoned classic cowboy virtues, replacing them with cynicism, violence and the rejection of moral principles. It became each man for himself, no matter the cost. The string of so-called Spaghetti Westerns blurred the lines between the good guys and the bad guys.

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This can be explained in part by the times we lived in. Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the rejection of conformity changed how we looked at government, authority and one another. The movies basically concluded that society is corrupt, that you should only take care of your own interests. Westerns absorbed and reflected that attitude.

“Probably more than any other genre there is, even though they take place 100 and something years ago, Westerns reflect the decade in which they were made,” director Quentin Tarantino said after releasing Django Unchained (2012). “Westerns in the ’50s reflected an Eisenhower America. In the ’70s, they reflected a Watergate America. You didn’t believe the myths of the West.”

The popularity of the genre faded at that point, and what had been a cultural icon in decades past had, by the ’80s and ’90s, become a novelty. There were some rare gems in those years, including Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silverado (1985), that harked back to earlier decades, though with some notable changes. The villains, for instance, were now folks in power who abused their authority.

This allowed the genre to start shedding some of the stereotyping of preceding decades and paint the past with a more truthful brush. In Dances With Wolves, the Native Americans are no longer the mindless savages of older films but people with thriving cultures who love, laugh and try to live in communion with nature.

“When I do a Western, I often wonder what I would have really done in that situation,” said actor and director Kevin Costner, putting a current set of values and mindset into an 1800s context.

This brings us to today and the recent explosion of Western movies and television shows. Seven of the 10 highest-grossing Westerns in worldwide box-office history were made in the last decade or so.

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Costner’s Yellowstone, which presents a more traditional version of the old-style Western, had over 12 million viewers for the Season 5 opener, according to Nielsen. The audience is not just older viewers; viewership among those ages 18 to 34 grew 53 percent.

What are we to conclude by the return of more traditional Westerns and their values? Roger Ebert wrote a four-star review for 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. He said at the time, “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western.” If there’s any way to describe the last decade or two, “very hard times” fits the bill.

Today’s America is a more realistic nation than it was in the heyday of the classic Western, with more diverse viewpoints. History is not whitewashed the way it was in the movies and TV shows we watched as kids.

As a whole, my hope is that society is re-embracing the foundations that the United States and Westerns were built on: standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, building community, ensuring justice and taking every opportunity to be the best you can be.

Share Your Experience: What's your favorite western movie and why? Let us know in the comments below.

For more stories celebrating what's good in America, subscribe to the Experience Counts newsletter by clicking here.

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