Who Killed the Western?

By Ryan Fleming


Clint Eastwood in a publicity image for 'A Fistful of Dollars'.

1969. A significant year in many respects. The year of the first manned Moon landing, the year of Woodstock, the year of Abbey Road and Tommy, the year that saw the end of Star Trek and the debut of Scooby-Doo, the year of George Lazenby, the year of Richard Nixon. What is perhaps forgotten is that it was the year that saw the Western peak as a film genre in the United States. Two of the top ten highest grossing films that year were Westerns, including the highest grossing film of the year in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The other Western in that top ten, True Grit, also earned an Academy Award for its lead actor and genre stalwart John Wayne. On the small screen it was in good shape too. Of the top ten highest rated programmes for the television season ending 1969 two of them were Westerns, the long-running and nigh institutional Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Just a decade later no one was really making Westerns anymore, on the big or the small screen. In the space of ten years it had gone from being the dominant genre in film and television in the United States to being almost entirely abandoned. So, who killed the Western? Before we begin hurling accusations, it is worthwhile to remember just how big the Western still was by 1969. It had come onto the film scene almost as soon as films began getting made in Hollywood, the landscape being big on tumbleweeds and low on skyscrapers at that early stage. The advent of sound saw it go into something of a decline, but that would all turn around with the first pairing of director John Ford and star John Wayne.

When Stagecoach hit movie theatres in 1939 it was a complete reinvention of the genre because ,at the time, big budget Westerns were out of vogue. Ford struggled to get the film produced and all the studios objected to Wayne as a leading man, but Ford stuck to his guns and one of the most famous pairings of director and actor was born. The years following World War II would see the genre really take off with many more offerings from Ford along with other directors such as Anthony Mann. Though the dominance of Westerns in cinema during the 1950s is often compared to the modern dominance of superhero films this actually undersells just how many Westerns were being released in the 1950s. The first full decade of television also saw the Western break out as a popular genre for programmes. Wanted Dead or Alive and Rawhide made household names of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood before they broke into film, and when both did break into film in the 1960s it was in Westerns – The Magnificent Seven for McQueen and A Fistful of Dollars for Eastwood. The 1960s would also show just how universal the Western had become over the years. Despite being so rooted in American history filmmakers from other nations would make their own versions of Westerns. The most famous being the Italian productions filmed in Spain by directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. There were also East German productions filmed in Yugoslavia that took a far different look at Native Americans than their Hollywood counterparts. Then there were the films that portrayed the history of other countries told like Westerns, both the Anglo-Zulu War and the Russian Civil War would get this treatment in Zulu and White Sun of the Desert, respectively. Which brings us back to 1969, were the 1970s a complete downward spiral? Not really. The Italians were still making Westerns year after year. Clint Eastwood had become a director and was honing his craft on Westerns. Other countries were still joining in on making their own variations of Westerns, as seen with the Australian bushranger films. Yet in the 1980s you can count successful Western films on one hand. So, to ask again, who killed the Western? A wiser scholar of comparative genre studies than I once famously claimed it was science fiction that routed the Western, but as much as I respect the theories of Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2, I don’t think he is telling the full story on the decline of the Western. Not that the assumption is without merit, far from it, but the blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of Star Wars. You can look at the fact Westerns petered out in the late 1970s and that during the same period Star Wars was released to become the highest grossing film up to that point, causing almost every studio and filmmaker to scramble in an attempt to cash in, and forever changing the film industry to draw the obvious conclusion. Were science fiction and Westerns really so incompatible? A look at the two genres in other decades, in other media, and even at science fiction film and television themselves would suggest otherwise.

John Agar: Equally at home fighting Aliens and Apache

As mentioned, the 1950s were a decade of dominance for the Western in American film, but another major trend that decade was a boom in science fiction films. The birth of the atomic age saw all manner of giant insect creep on to cinema screens, and though they did not come close to challenging the dominance of the Western the two genres were able to co-exist without one strangling the other. If anything the two complemented each other since many science fiction films of the 1950s made use of the same Southwestern United States locations as Westerns, and there were many crossover actors between the two including John Agar who became as known for appearing opposite radioactive monsters as he was known for appearing opposite John Wayne. What about if the Western weren’t at the height of its dominance? Looking at other media again shows the two genres could exist alongside each other. The Lone Ranger existed alongside Flash Gordon on the pages of syndicated comic strips, yet how was it that when the boom in big budget science fiction began in 1977 the Western quickly went out of vogue completely? All the major science fiction franchises to that point owed some debt to Westerns. Star Trek had been sold to a dubious television network as “Wagon Train to the stars”; Planet of the Apes had about as much horseback action as Fort Apache; and Star Wars was happy to lift direct imagery from The Searchers. Why was it then that the Western was completely supplanted by the 1980s? The boom in science fiction that followed in the wake of Star Wars was a factor, particularly when looking at the decline of Italian westerns. However, was this a symptom rather than a cause of the decline? Was it already a fait accompli by the time Star Wars hit theatres? Were broader demographic trends in American film and television causing a decline in tales from the Old West? In the 1970s the film industry had still yet to come to terms with the existence of television. In fact, arguably in 2020 the film industry is still struggling to come to terms with television and its evolution into streaming. Then as now though the two mediums of live action filmed entertainment fed off of each other.

At the end of the 1970-71 US television season, CBS, which had garnered the nickname Country Broadcasting System for its reliance on rural themed shows, set out to make massive changes in their programming. To get away from their rural image, the network set out to, in the words of actor Pat Buttram, cancel “everything with a tree – including Lassie.” Amongst all the rural sitcoms and variety programmes to meet the axe were many Western staples of the small screen. Though it still had strong enough ratings to survive the initial swathe of cancellations even the mighty Gunsmoke would meet its end in 1975. CBS was not the only television network to see cancellations of long-running and successful Western programmes in the first half of the 1970s. NBC would cancel The Virginian at the conclusion of its ninth season in 1971, and Bonanza would follow at the end of its fourteenth season in 1973. ABC would buck the trend by actually premiering a new Western series in 1971 in the shape of Alias Smith and Jones, but it too would be cancelled after three seasons in 1973. Alias Smith and Jones was adapted from a successful 1970 television film entitled The Young Country, itself heavily inspired by the immensely successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid released the year prior. In the space of four years a concept had gone from being the most successful film of the year to being unceremoniously cancelled as television networks looked to target a different demographic. The word was out, people that watched Westerns weren’t the ones advertisers wanted to target their products toward. The audiences for these and other rural themed programming tended to skew older, living outside major cities, and without a lot of disposable income. Television advertisers were keen to target a younger, urban demographic with a lot of cash on hip. This might have held true of television, but film did not have to worry about advertisers rejecting their product. In stark contrast to today in the 1970s they would make films that would never have a chance of being made for the small screen. Whilst the move to more urban themed content on television was certainly an aspect of the decline of the Western, was there something peculiar to Hollywood itself that saw the Western almost completely disappear by the 1980s? The 1970s were a transformative decade for the film industry outside of the Western. It was the decade where Hollywood really began to move away from studio driven film production to director-driven industry as part of the New Hollywood movement. Until 1980 when a particularly poorly received Western film spelled the end of New Hollywood and may have given the Western an undeserved reputation as box office poison. Heaven’s Gate stands today as one of the most infamous films in Hollywood history. It became infamous for its production – cost overruns, allegations of animal cruelty, and rumours of director Michael Cimino’s dictatorial attitude on set. A butcher of an edit and a disaster of a premier was all anyone needed, and everyone came out for blood. Director Michael Cimino, whose last effort The Deer Hunter had won both Best Picture and Best Director, saw his reputation as a filmmaker destroyed. Studio United Artists recorded a major loss caused almost entirely by the failure of Heaven’s Gate and saw its parent company put it up for fail soon after. This one film that was almost destined to fail not only saw the end of New Hollywood as a major trend but also served as a killing blow for the Western. The rest of the decade would see nary a single Western released by major film studios, with the exception of the twin releases of Pale Rider and Silverado in 1985. Despite a brief revival in the early 1990s that saw both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven win the Best Picture Academy Award, ever since 1980 Western films have been few and far between. Who killed the Western?

If we’re talking about a killing blow, then certainly Heaven’s Gate should bear the brunt of the blame. It was in decline long before that film had its disastrous premier, however. Science fiction films might have been in vogue at the time the Western petered out, but both genres had co-existed in the past previously. Then there was the trend in other mediums to move away from rural themed programming that spiralled into film. Who killed the Western? A combination of trends and factors that came together at the wrong time for the genre. How could the Western be saved? Avoiding the Heaven’s Gate debacle might make some effort toward it. Though the critics and studios might have been long overdue for a film to draw their vitriol it need not have been a Western. Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Sorcerer – all would fit the bill of lengthy, artsy, director-driven films with troubled production stories that might have been butchered in the editing room. It might have been the Vietnam War film that gained a reputation as box office poison instead of the Western. Avoiding the general decline might be much more difficult, but we might have seen a 1980s that still had Westerns being produced regularly. This might have given a lot more continuity of style in Westerns to the turn of the century, in a way that might not make every Western made this century feel something of a throwback or a director-indulgence. It’s clear that many filmmakers enjoy making Westerns, with both Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers both making multiple Westerns in the 2010s. Without the death of the Western genre in the 1980s perhaps both directors might have been making Westerns in the 1990s rather than having to wait until they had sufficient clout in the industry. There were plenty of attempts to make Westerns during the 1980s, legendary directors in the genre Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah both had projects they tried to get off the ground in the 1980s before their respective deaths in 1989 and 1984. In a different climate they might have had more success. At least one cult favourite of the 1980s started life as a Western, the original script of what would become John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was set in turn of the century California. 1969 would still have been the peak year, and the long-term trends in film might still have been against them, but it is not difficult to imagine the 1980s and 1990s at least seeing Westerns still made in significant numbers. The 2010s did see something of a revival in the Western film. The Coen Brothers bookended the decade with their adaptation of True Grit and their anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Quentin Tarantino would turn out Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, sets itself in 1969 Hollywood at the height of Western film and television making. 2015s The Revenant joined the 1969 True Grit in seeing its lead actor take home the Best Actor Academy Award. Even on the small screen the first successful Western programme in decades may have emerged from HBO in the form of Westworld, albeit one as much science fiction as it is Western. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs saw its wide release via Netflix instead of cinemas. Perhaps the route to a revival of the Western is through the small screen rather than the big. Who killed the Western? Does it matter when its in the best shape it has been in decades?

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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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