Originally, Hollywood responded to cultural demands to showcase the impact of the new frontier of America. In the 1950s, this meant making films like The Searchers, Shane, and High Noon, among many others.
In the 1960s, we were given The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The genre drastically slowed down in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, but films like Tombstone, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven still impacted the box office and hold their own today. Recently, however, the last few Westerns flopped on the silver screen.
Hardly anyone remembers popcorn flicks like Cowboys and Aliens, Jonah Hex, and the recent The Long Ranger fiasco. Part of the reason for this change comes from society’s demand to focus on later generations for storytelling, like the 1950s, but we also moved on to a new form of escapism in space.
Films like Star Wars and the original television series Star Trek were similar plots to westerns, where a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In addition, the protagonists were also armed and dangerous, either in the form of a gun or light saber.
The Atlantic writes, “If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it'll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don't like what we see staring back at us.”
That said, there have been some successes, but they’ve all been remakes. The best Westerns in recent years have been arguably been True Grit, The Magnificent Seven, and the film, 3:10 to Yuma.
Beyond the remakes, there are other Westerns like the mix the genre to make something slightly new altogether. Sleepers like The Proposition, Seraphim Falls, Bone Tomahawk, Slow West, and The Assassination of Jesse James are keeping the genre alive by existing within the Indie market or being made in Australia.
Part of the reason for this decline is because they used to actually have to build a western town just to shoot a movie. For the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake, they actually had to build a town from scratch but ran out of money before they finished, which they simply wrote into the story as a town out of money.
Any western short today is still shot on the Warner Brothers lot known as Laramie Street, which includes the recent Blake Griffin Kia commercial and the Geico Talk-the-Talk, Cowboy Sheriff advertisement. Otherwise, this lot is merely a tourist attraction between Conan O’Brien shows for movie fans.
There is some good news in all of this, however. First of all, all of these films from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Jeff Bridges still hold up over time and it’s likely that they always will. Second, we’ve been given HBO’s Westworld and AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Both of these stories are mixed genres, but the heartbeat of a Western lives within. Westworld reveals a Western setting in a Sci-Fi world and The Walking Dead showcases a Sheriff and his posse in a corrupt world within the Horror genre. The walkers (zombies) are more like wolves or bears and the true black hat of the show is currently Negan.
Since Westworld is arguably more Science Fiction than Western, let’s focus on the zombie-drama, The Walking Dead. The series is about to enter its eighth season and the creators want to go for a whopping twenty seasons in total, which would make the show exist as long as the original Western juggernaut, Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975.
Gunsmoke was adapted from a radio series and The Walking Dead has been adapted from a graphic novel, which makes it easier for the televised version to create extended, detailed story lines. When Robert Kirkman’s show returns in October, we’ll get a closer look at The Good (Rick Grimes), The Bad (Jadis), and The Ugly (Negan).