So, Where Are Westerns Headed, Anyway?


John Wayne in The SearchersWesterns. Just bringing up the genre can lend a musty, ancient aroma to any conversation with a fellow cinema lover. You think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. You see especially tan white men playing cartoonishly offensive Indians. If you're like me, you daydream wistfully about Hollywood's Golden Age and old Route 66 watering holes playing host to film icons out of their Hollywood comfort zone in New Mexico. You might also think they just don't make 'em like they used to -- your latest bit of evidence being the disastrous Jon Favreau-directed genre mashup Cowboys & Aliens.

On the heels of the film's release Vulture wondered aloud if the genre had outlived its usefulness:

Is there still a national soft spot for Westerns? Cowboys & Aliens' audience was mostly people over 30, and it performed especially poorly with young women. Is there a way to make the genre more relevant again? Was True Grit the cowboy/gunslingers' last hurrah? Or is Cowboys & Aliens just not representative of Westerns' appeal?

Being an enormous fan of Westerns and also having not yet seen Cowboys & Aliens (that mistake would come later), I was simultaneously outraged and terrified. How dare anyone question the noble Western, I muttered angrily. Just how much damage could this scalding hot mess do to one of my favorite genres, I worried immediately after.

None at all, as it turns out. Let's start with this: Cowboys & Aliens, while being a poorly written, stage-coach wreck of a film, is also the seventh-highest grossing Western since 1979, according to Box Office Mojo, falling in behind Dances With Wolves, True Grit, Rango, Wild Wild West, Maverick and Unforgiven.

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & AliensIt's made $89.4 million in less than a month, and while that's not even in the ballpark of the rumored $160 million budget for the film, it hasn't hit theaters outside of North America yet. The guess here is that once it does, it will make at least enough to offset production costs. A disappointment given all the star power, directing talent and promotion? Yes. A genre-killer? No way.

So, I don't have to worry about never seeing another wide-release Western again, at least not for now, and that's good. But are my much beloved Westerns in decline, box office results be damned?

I suppose that's all a matter of perspective. It's true, they don't make nearly as many Westerns as they used to, and I suppose the consensus is they don't make them as well either, though I'd argue that there's still plenty of quality in the genre -- from True Grit to the more obscure 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa to the upcoming Quentin Tarantino project Django Unchained.

I wouldn't call the decrease in volume a decline, though perhaps that distinction is splitting hairs. I'll leave the explanation for why fewer Westerns are made now -- generational shifts, costs, dispersal of interests and talent -- up to the experts.

What I can offer with some authority is the assessment that quality Westerns are hardly disappearing. In the space of two years, the Coen Brothers and Tarantino -- three of the biggest directing talents in Hollywood -- will tackle the genre. On the television side of things, you have AMC premiering a Western serial, Hell on Wheels, this fall, you have a writer from Band of Brothers working on a Western pilot for TNT and, over on FX, you have Justified, a so-called modern Western, that is one of the most critically acclaimed shows around.

This may not be the Golden Age for the genre, but it's hard to complain about the landscape when you take a look around.