I can’t imagine how people who talk of having “superhero fatigue” would have survived back in the ’50s and early ’60s when westerns were driving the entertainment landscape. If they think being inundated with Marvel and DC movies and television shows is insufferable, imagine the majority of the boob tube being filled with programs such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Death Valley Days, Cheyenne, and Maverick. So they go to the theater to try and escape and… Jesus, there were a lot of westerns released in the ’50s.
While some may say the western died out due to saturating the market, it had more to do with the idea of the Old West mutating from a Saturday morning bit of heroic escapism into a brutal realization of savagery and survival. With America doing some deep, dark soul-searching throughout the mid-to-late ’60s and well into the ’70s, people just weren’t going to buy the shining knight image of Shane anymore. The spaghetti westerns embraced this brutality and the best of them transmogrified it into a chunk of cool nihilism, and the counterculture was all too happy to glom onto a more sardonic take on the myth of the Wild West.
As the movie-going experience shifted more and more towards bombastic spectacle, the western was left to hang back and occasionally make some noise with a Tombstone or an Unforgiven. The western can never truly die, and while the first half of this new decade gave us incredible wide-releases such as True Grit (it’s leagues above the John Wayne film) and Django Unchained, 2015 more than any other year in recent memory is violent proof of the frontier resiliency of the western.
There’s usually one or two smaller westerns that get the critics buzzing, and 2015 had some extremely notable entries. John Maclean’s Slow West is a simple and superb tale of love and death in the Old West, told almost like a European fairy tale. Drafthouse Films’ The Keeping Room is a hard-edged siege flick that goes for an almost apocalyptic feel. My favorite of these has to be The Salvation, which even though it’s an oft-told tale of revenge, the fact that it’s a Danish western with a killer performance from Mads Mikkelsen gives it an added bit of interest.
One of the undeniable standouts of the year has to be the horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk (read lots of stuff about this movie), a film with an unbelievable cast and one of the most horrendous death sequences imaginable. As far as depicting the gruesome nature of the real-life frontier, Bone Tomahawk succeeds in spades.
And before the year is out, the world will be gifted with another quasi-horror western from the director of Birdman, and by all accounts The Revenant is an unspeakably harsh picture. There have been reports of walkouts due to the intense gore and a lot of early viewers are calling this Leo’s most extreme Oscar bid yet. Oh, and that Tarantino fella is doin’ another western as well. Have you heard about that one?
Jesus, 2015 has been so good to the western that even Adam Sandler has an assuredly awful comedy coming out in the genre (if I watch that film and write about it, y’all better send me gift baskets filled with Bulleit whiskey). Why has the western suddenly become the New Niche? I like to think it’s an inverse of what happened back when the western was king. In the shadow of the western, science fiction and fantasy began to creep in. An English author began publishing an epic tale about a fellowship’s quest to destroy the One Ring, Rod Serling spun tales straight from the fifth dimension, and the Enterprise began its five year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. With these kinds of tales now dominating the cultural landscape, the western has taken up the space they once filled. If the genre can keep producing the kinds of excellent films that 2015 gave us, then I’m more than content with westerns being the new thing to be a true geek about.