You’ll get a wide variety of options to choose from during an average cinema visit. There’s superhero flicks, rom-coms, real-life stories and a host of other options. But perhaps you’ve noticed, there’s rarely any Westerns. In fact, chances are you can’t even name more than a few movies of that genre – especially if you’re under 30. But what happened to make the Western disappear from screens?
There have been a handful of critically acclaimed Westerns over the past couple of decades, but they’re few and far between. Take Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit – the 2010 remake of a film originally starring iconic Western figure John Wayne. It made millions and even received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
Going a bit further back, the 1990 Kevin Costner-starring Western movie Dances with Wolves was also a big success. Though many films of that genre have won Oscars, Dances with Wolves still has the most. It was nominated in 12 categories and won seven – including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score. And it took a domestic gross of $184 million, according to Biography.com.
But not all Westerns achieve that level of success. Sometimes they can be critically acclaimed, but the problem is that nobody goes to see them. In 2007 Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck got good reviews for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Looper notes that the movie didn’t even earn its $30 million budget back.
And some Westerns sit at the very bottom of the pile – being both critical and financial disasters. The 1999 movie Wild Wild West – while admittedly more of a Western/sci-fi than a true Western – was a complete and utter disaster. In fact, it was so hated by critics that suddenly Will Smith movies stopped being dead certs.
Another huge flop for the genre was the 2013 movie The Lone Ranger. The flick was an attempt to bring back the iconic pop culture character from the past… and it completely failed. Despite the movie starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, it made a mere $89 million domestic gross from a $215 million budget, according to Looper.
But it was the old Westerns which made the genre what it is. And you have to go all the way back to the 1920s to find the beginnings of it all. Director John Ford is one of the people credited with creating the whole concept. Among his films are The Iron Horse and Stagecoach.
Back in those days, we didn’t have the vast array of distractions that exist nowadays. The cinema was a place we could go to escape, and the Westerns presented an image of the country that people very much wanted to see. The heroes of Ford films were solitary but noble figures defending their families and societies. Men of the era also wanted nothing more than to be them.
Interestingly, John Ford’s legacy is tied up with that of another John. This actor was born in 1907 under the name Marion Robert Morrison. But the world would come to know him as cinematic icon John Wayne. And the latter did many Western films with Ford – including Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.
Yet not all of these films actually presented Wayne’s rough, gruff characters as good people. In Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers Wayne plays an ex-Confederate named Ethan whose niece is abducted by the Comanche nation. And he goes in search of her – though not to rescue the woman. Instead, Ethan aims to kill his relative, because he doesn’t want her living with Native Americans.
The message of The Searchers is still debated to this day. In 2020 journalist Steve Rose wrote for The Guardian newspaper, “In its defense, the film hardly portrays Ethan as a hero. He’s clearly a psycho as well as a racist haunted by past traumas – ultimately becoming the ‘savage’ he views the Native Americans to be. So you could argue The Searchers is more a study of racism than a racist movie. But is that good enough?”
John Wayne was not a fan of another Western: High Noon. This one came out in 1952 at the height of the “Red Scare.” The film’s writer Carl Foreman had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to give names of potential communists. And people have read the film’s subtext as being a left-wing take on the situation.
The film’s director Fred Zinnemann claimed that the movie had no political subtext at all. But that didn’t stop Wayne telling Playboy magazine in 1972 that he considered High Noon to be “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He added, “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country…”
Yet other famous Westerns attempted to provide more lighthearted fare. Take the Robert Redford and Paul Newman film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was released in 1969. This was essentially a buddy movie. But it was a hard sell, because despite The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly having come out three years prior, the Western was considered to be in its last days.
Of course, the Western genre remains an important part of American cinema. To give one example, Clint Eastwood’s performance as the Man with No Name is iconic even today. But Westerns have still largely faded out of the public eye in the 21st century. So, what happened? And why did they disappear?
There are several reasons why Westerns fell out of favor – many of them very complicated. But one of the simpler reasons is that they are incredibly expensive to film. It costs a lot of money to make a place look like it’s the Old West. That’s not even getting into the price of purchasing, feeding and caring for horses – one of the most important staples of the genre.
Did you know that one of the more recent Westerns – 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma – actually ran out of money before the film was even finished? Yes, the writers even changed the script so this was a story point in the movie. The actual town the characters inhabited was also under budget and unfinished. But on release the flick hardly made any money, either.
Money is a problem, but so is the audience. U.S. films are shipped all over the world, and not everywhere likes the Western concept. China is now a huge movie market, but people there don’t go for Westerns the same way Americans do. After all, it’s not their country’s history being shown.
In 2013 Michael Agresta of The Atlantic wrote about “the rejection of cowboy movies by international audiences.” He said, “… Even as filmmakers have become more interested in incorporating a diversity of viewpoints, they have hit against what appears a global demographic ceiling.”
Making the issue more complicated is that Westerns are largely a genre both designed and made for white male Americans, Agresta claimed. But now the world is changing and people want more diversity in their movies. The journalist went on, “If the genre in this era can be said to have a unifying aim, it’s to divest itself and its audiences of a strictly white, male, heterosexual perspective on history, and by extension on present-day conflicts.”
Some Westerns have bucked this trend, though. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 blood-splattered Django Unchained starred Jamie Foxx as a black ex-slave turned bounty hunter, and it was a big success. The New York Times newspaper wrote that year, “Django Unchained is pulpy, digressive, jokey, giddily brutal and ferociously profane. But it is also a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism.”
And the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain – directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee – was about two young cowboys who fall in love. Many referred to the flick as a “gay cowboy movie,” but it was still essentially a Western. And the production also made the point that homosexuality has always existed in American history.
But other Westerns have been accused of perpetuating racism. When The Lone Ranger was released in 2013, it was Johnny Depp who was playing the Native American Tonto. But the star himself was white. This sparked a lot of controversy as people debated whether it was offensive for an actor to portray a different race.
Time magazine interviewed people on both sides of the issue following the movie’s release. So what did they think? Well, Comanche chairman Wallace Coffey said he liked the film and added that “it was a very realistic portrayal of a Native American. It’s got drama and it’s got a lot of comedy; it fits right in with Comanche culture because we are well known as a humorous people.”
Holding the opposite view was Adrienne Keene – author of the blog Native Appropriations. And she disliked the stereotypes used in the movie. The writer told Time, “It would have been really cool and powerful if Tonto was just another guy who happened to be Indian, if they didn’t have to go into the whole mystical, spiritual fantasy element.”
The article pointed out that Depp did believe he had Native American ancestry back in his family tree, and that the Comanche tribe had made him a honorary member. Wallace Coffey told the publication that he hoped more Native Americans would be involved in any Lone Ranger sequels. But because the movie was a flop, they never happened.
The problems of America’s past come up a lot when Westerns are mentioned. And 1956’s The Searchers perhaps illustrates this best. In his 2020 review of it for The Guardian, Steve Rose wrote, “The plot contrives to demonize [Native Americans] from the outset by barely identifying them as individuals and having them kidnap innocent white girls – thus affording Wayne and co a patch of moral high ground they don’t really deserve. Running through the film is a deep-seated paranoia about racial purity.”
And Wayne himself is a big problem these days. His own remarks, once unearthed, turned him from an icon of American cinema into a vilified figure. Back in 1971 he damned himself for future generations by telling Playboy magazine, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”
That wasn’t even all Wayne said. He used a homophobic slur when talking about the “perverted” movie Midnight Cowboy. And regarding Native Americans, he declared, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Understandably, it’s hard to keep a genre going strong when one of the people most associated with it was a self-confessed white supremacist. Yet there are some other, less serious reasons why the Western is in decline as well. Tastes have simply changed. When such films first came into cinemas, the moon landings were a long way off. But now things that were once sci-fi concepts are an everyday part of life.
Everything changed when the Space Race kicked off in the late ’50s. Suddenly, there was a new frontier. The movie Toy Story 2 – which features as its main characters a cowboy doll and an astronaut toy – points this out at one point. Woody’s Western-themed franchise was replaced by space-themed ones “once the astronauts went up…”
Of course, some filmmakers have attempted to cross over the two concepts and make space Westerns. One of the most famous and beloved films of all time – Star Wars – is essentially this. It has themes in common with the traditional Western and of course, there’s a lot of desert for the heroes and villains to traverse.
George Lucas was actually a big fan of Westerns. And did you know that he worked references to some of his favorite scenes into Star Wars? The shootout between Han and Greedo, for example, is extremely similar to a scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Han himself also has a very cowboy look to his costume.
But not all crossover attempts have been anywhere near as successful as Star Wars. For example, Cowboys & Aliens was released in 2011 and it did pretty much what it said on the tin. But despite a cast that included Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, it was a flop with both critics and audiences.
And our tastes changed in another way, too. These days movies are meant to be fast and thrilling, and Westerns generally just aren’t fast-paced films. After all, there were no airplanes or motorbikes in the Old West – everyone had to get where they were going via the slower trains or horses.
Westerns also don’t have the same scope and spectacle that, say, your average superhero movie does. CGI opened doors that were firmly closed before. Most people – especially kids – want to see space aliens and wizards battling it out with colorful weapons rather than watch men firing slow-loading guns at each other.
But in addition to all those things, there’s also the problem that movie-going itself has changed. Now, television is a major competitor when it comes to storytelling. Instead of heading to the cinema to see a film, you can simply sit down at home and watch hour after hour of your favorite characters.
Massive blockbusters still drive in the crowds of course, but smaller stories appear better suited to television it would seem. Perhaps the Western will find another life there? Well, it’s debatable so far. Deadwood was one modern-day Western show that was highly critically acclaimed, but it was still cancelled after three seasons.
But television does seem to provide a good place for the Western/sci-fi crossovers. Westworld is one of these, and it’s praised by both critics and audiences. The massively popular The Walking Dead franchise has also been called basically a Western with zombies. And Firefly – Joss Whedon’s space cowboy show – still has a cult following.
So it remains to be seen whether the Western will ever rise again – on the big screen or the small. If it doesn’t, though, movie fans can rest assured that the tropes of the genre live on in other films. After all, take away the black suit and Batman is essentially a vigilante cowboy – just not the same way John Wayne was.