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25 Years, 25 Westerns - The Evolution of the Modern Western

Looking back to the future of the Old West

by Casimir Harlow Aug 2, 2014

  • Movies Article


    25 Years, 25 Westerns - The Evolution of the Modern Western
    Love Westerns? Well then you'll know all of the classics.
    From Sergio Leone's masterpieces (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Dollars Trilogy) to Eastwood's staggeringly vast contributions (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Hang 'Em High, High Plains Drifter); from the John Ford / John Wayne gems (The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache, Rio Grande) to the Howard Hawks offerings (Rio Bravo, Red River, The Big Sky) ; from the efforts by the likes of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Major Dundee, Ride the High Country), to the classics like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Shane and High Noon - there are almost too many to mention in what is coming up to 100 Years of Westerns.

    But what about more recently? How has the genre coped with the influx of CG-dominated blockbusters, and a seeming waning appeal for the age-old West? We look back at the evolution of the modern Western, following the last bevy of more classically-crafted mainstream efforts in the early nineties, through a tough patch of alternative offerings during the mid-nineties all the way through to almost the mid-noughties, as the appeal for grittier, revisionist efforts saw a few modern classics delivered, right the way through to the shot of adrenaline that was Tarantino's Django Unchained. We even look at a few upcoming Westerns to see what the future holds for this genre, which has often felt like it was out for the count over the past two decades, but which still refuses to lay down and die.

    1. Young Guns II

    Back in the late eighties, the Western genre was still popular enough for the Brat Pack to jump on the (band)wagon, delivering a largely engaging alternate tale of Billy the Kid and his posse of palz, as they go from deputies to outlaws on a quest for vengeance. With a then-all-star cast including Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Terrence Stamp and a snarling Jack Palance, as well as an punchy score, the action-packed shooter was massively successful, spawning a decent enough sequel that saw Christian Slater and William Petersen's Pat Garrett enter the mix, and that charted the last days of Billy and his gang, all to a soundtrack by Jon Bon Jovi.

    2. Dances with Wolves (1990)

    Indeed, Westerns were still so big at the start of the 90s that Costner's 5-years-in-the-making epic Dances with Wolves not only cleared almost half a billion in Box Office receipts, but also earned its Producer/Director/Star no less than 7 Oscars. Credited with having revitalised the Western genre, there's no doubt that the dollar signs must have caught the attention of studio bosses, as it led to the last great wave of Western film over the next few years, not to mention having its story used as the basis for Cameron's Avatar, as Costner's Civil War veteran earns the trust of the Sioux Indians only to find himself regarded as a traitor by his own people, who seek to conquer the tribes. It's just a shame that The Holy Road - the sequel - set 11 years later, was never made, with Costner seemingly uninterested in returning to the role, and Viggo Mortensen's interest in replacing him looking like it's leading nowhere either, but at least we got the considerably more substantial Director's Cut to keep us placated.

    3. Unforgiven (1992)

    The third western to win Best Picture (following Dances with Wolves and, long before that, the 1931 film Cimarron), Clint Eastwood's last Western was a dark look at the ugly side of violence and revenge, de-mystifying the genre staples, playing out as something of an anti-Western, and fuelling the Box Office popularity and Oscar glory (4 Awards) all in one fell swoop. Its superior tale of an ageing ex-outlaw who reluctantly takes one last job, meeting up with old friends and foes along the way, is a perfect bookend to Eastwood's grand career in the genre, and is so iconic that it has recently been retro-fitted as a Japanese samurai tale, Yurusarezarumono, starring Ken Watanabe.
    "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. Taking away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna' have."
    4. Posse (1993)

    Directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, this exciting ensemble effort was a stylish, frenetic look at the oft-disregarded African-American cowboys of the West, and features an eclectic cast including Stephen Baldwin, Billy Zane, Isaac Hayes, Big Daddy Kane, Pam Grier and Woody Strode. Proving a Box Office success, it still did not exactly catapult black cowboys into the limelight, a story conceit that was not really revisited until Tarantino's Django Unchained.

    5. Tombstone (1993)

    Another massive Box Office success, this epic ensemble piece was the first of two films focussing on the Earp brothers and their Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer (look at him in this and reflect on what's become of him), Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn, the massively popular piece remains a genre favourite for its cast alone, but also sports an engaging, well-paced plot peppered with expertly-shot shootouts. It would be a tough entry to follow, particularly for filmmakers determined to cover the same subject-matter.

    6. Wyatt Earp

    With Costner still riding the wave of his 'Wolves success, he tried to use all of his Hollywood clout to get the distribution of the rival Earp picture, Tombstone, stopped, but to no avail. Ironically, Costner had actually been cast as Earp in Tombstone first, before disagreeing with the story, and eventually setting out to do his own 'take' on the legendary character. Costing twice as much to make, it made half as much at the Box Office, undoubtedly suffering from having been released over 6 months after its competitor, and covering much of the same ground, and despite the fact that a number of high profile cast members were along for the ride, including Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman and Michael Madsen.

    7. Wild Bill (1995)

    Following the poor returns of Costner's double-bill Wyatt Earp and Waterworld, the loss of a second leading proponent of Westerns (following Eastwood's retirement from the field) saw the genre dwindle, despite the best efforts of Western-styled director Walter Hill (whose films, from The Driver to Last Man Standing have an undeniable Western feel), who took on the last days of legendary lawman Wild Bill Hickok, as brought to life by Jeff Bridges. A middling entry, with glimmers of majesty, but arguably more wrong than right, this particular historical note was better reflected upon within the opening few episodes of the unmissable Deadwood TV series.

    8. The Quick and the Dead (1995)

    Another final high-octane entry came courtesy of Sam Raimi, who brought his own heavily-stylised approach to the genre with this comic book actioner featuring then-popular Sharon Stone leading a cast including Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately the deadly duelling competition tale failed to grab audiences, leading to poor Box Office returns and a lacklustre critical response, adding a further nail in the coffin of the genre.
    "Men are gonna' get killed here today. And I'm gonna' kill 'em."
    9. Ride with the Devil (1999)

    Some four years later, things were only further compounded by the utter Box Office bomb that was Ang Lee's genre effort, which focussed on the American Civil War. Critically well-received, it only cemented the fact that Westerns were no longer popular, providing a brief middle-entry blip in what was the worst decade for Westerns, which is a shame as the film itself is not without merit; a fine war western (with, following Posse, a prominent and complex black character involved too, which was still a relative rarity).

    10. The Claim (2000)

    Michael Winterbottom's Mayor of Casterbridge-fashioned drama too disappeared without a trace, despite the strong lead performance from the fantastic Peter Mullan. Even with a relatively limited budget, the film was still poorly received, making only a few hundred thousand at the Box Office, and yet still remaining one of just two noteworthy Western entries within the best part of a decade.

    11. Open Range (2003)

    Thankfully things picked up in 2003, as Costner returned to the genre, bringing with him Robert Duvall, a familiar face in the genre thanks to his excellent Lonesome Dove / Broken Trail TV contributions. Directed, produced and starring Costner, this low-key story of two open range cattlemen who come into confrontation with a ruthless land baron who is running a small town, is absolutely superb; the first genre masterpiece in a decade, blending revisionist elements into a sharp-witted script, and cleverly utilising the beautiful vistas and stunning cinematography to help conceal the limited budget, from which it saw good returns.

    12. The Missing (2003)

    In the same year Ron Howard explored the genre with this Revisionist Western thriller, and boasted a mythical horror vibe as Cate Blanchett's single mother teams up with her estranged, gone-Native, father - played by Tommy Lee Jones - to recover her daughters, who have been kidnapped by Native Americans with a view to selling them into slavery. A Box Office failure, there's still plenty to enjoy in Howard's feature, not least Tommy Lee Jones's convincing Apache dialect. Unfortunately it did nothing particularly for the genre as a whole.

    13. The Proposition

    Indeed, between 2003 and 2007, there were no noteworthy US Western productions, and it fell upon Lawless's writer/director, John Hillcoat, to deliver us this Australian contribution, which featured strong turns from Guy Pearce, Danny Huston and Ray Winstone, and a compelling tale about family, justice and revenge. Although considered a Box Office success, it simply could not have been a failure given its ludicrously tiny budget, and - in spite of strong critical reception - didn't exactly make Studio Execs sit up and take note.

    14. Seraphim Falls (2007)

    After a quiet 4-year lull, 2007 saw a number of decent two-handed offerings, as big stars faced off against one another. We got Crowe/Bale and Pitt/Affleck, but this one saw Liam Neeson hunting down Pierce Brosnan in this frequently exciting revenge thriller. Whilst it had some rather random flourishes, particularly Anjelica Huston's desert appearance, it's a worthy entry nonetheless, even if it failed to do anything at the Box Office.

    15. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

    Perhaps the biggest entry was this remake of the 1957 original (which was also based on the Elmore Leonard short story), headlined by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Punchy and engaging, with compelling star turns from the two leads, its Box Office success arguably helped fuel the modern renaissance of the Western, which has since seen solid entries pretty-much every year to date. I'd argue that films like Open Range truly reinvigorated the genre first, but it wasn't until 2007 when studios caught up, literally racing to release their westerns first - with 3:10 to Yuma beating Assassination of Jesse James out of the gate.

    16. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

    2007's final offering was this enigmatic, elusive Brad Pitt vehicle, written and directed by Andrew Dominik, who was behind Chopper, and went on to give Pitt another excellent turn in Killing Them Softly. Pitt had it in his contract that the Studios could not change the name, but it's a pity that he didn't stipulate that Dominik would have final cut, because we'll likely never see that now. With Dominik's more Malick-ian approach to the tale warring out against the Studios' more action-orientated, shorter version, the end result (which was delayed by over a year) is a curious tale which doesn't always work, but which certainly has a haunting allure beyond its compelling lead performances and offers us something hitherto rarely seen: a Western as art.

    17. Appaloosa (2008)

    The following year we got this well-crafted entry, which marked star Ed Harris's sophomore directorial effort following on from Pollock. Partnering up with Viggo Mortensen, the tale of two lawmen hired by a small town to bring order when Jeremy Irons's bigshot rancher kills the town marshal, is a more traditional, straight Western than many other recent entries, but is no less efficient in its delivery, nor any less unflinching in its brutality. The Western renaissance was well and truly in its full throes.

    18. True Grit

    Another remake of a Western classic, in many ways this is the least Coens' Brothers-esque film that they have ever made, but no worse off for it, as they revisited this tale of a young teenage girl who hires a gruff, ageing Marshall to find and kill the men who murdered her father. With a superb star turn from Jeff Bridges, himself on something of a comeback trail, and excellent support from Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and scene-stealingly excellent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the film was both critically well-received and a massive Box Office success, raking in returns rivalled only by Costner's Dances with Wolves in terms of Western entries. It was guaranteed that after True Grit, studios would be once again interested in the genre, although the time from concept to green light to production to filming to release would be several years, leaving us still waiting for many of the films that benefited from the success of 'Grit.

    19. Meek's Cutoff (2011)

    This quirky indie production may have been well-received at the Venice Film Festival, but is probably little-heard of elsewhere, taking a more offbeat, alternative look at the genre; being delivered under a rather rare PG rating and in the even more rare 1.33:1 format (which, arguably, both offers a more TV-style to the format, whilst also lending itself well to accentuating the claustrophobia of the piece). And with a compelling lead turn from Michelle Williams, solid support from There Will Be Blood's Paul Dano and Place Beyond the Pines' Bruce Greenwood, and some unusual style to it, this deserved a lot more mass audience attention than it got.

    "You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don't have time to think about how many's with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of the wrath that's about to set down on him."

    20. Blackthorn

    This little-heard-of indie Western is actually a further tale of Butch Cassidy; which is not only a rarity in and of itself, but also in that it is actually a decent revisionist piece in its own right, which largely avoids tainting the original Redford/Newman classic. Although limited by its tiny budget and inexperienced supporting cast, it boasts a strong lead performance from Sam Shepherd, and benefits from a small-scope anti-Western tale which, while nothing like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, still works perfectly for an ageing outlaw drawn in for one last violent outing.

    21. Django Unchained

    Tarantino's highly stylised Spaghetti Western tribute vehicle is a masterful ensemble effort driven by a trio of excellent leads, with Christoph Waltz once again standing apart from the rest, despite the presence of both Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Di Caprio. With his trademark script, monologues, flashbacks, interludes, humour, and violence (yes, too much), Tarantino delivered a resoundingly well-received Box Office success which almost hit that same half-billion mark that Costner nearly reached twenty years earlier. If True Grit started the ball rolling, then Django sealed the deal, and the future finally looks bright for the Western, with Tarantino himself looking to revisit the genre, once he gets done editing this film into a longer 4-part TV version. For no apparent reason.

    22. The Homesman (2014)

    Well it's time to look towards the future. This year there's a few offerings which have yet to see a mainstream release, including this Tommy Lee Jones-directed effort, which has already wooed this year's Cannes critics, with Jones pairing up with Hilary Swank and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) for a tale of a reluctant duo who pair up to escort three insane women across several states. Although it's produced by Luc Besson's Europacorp, don't be put off: it's written by, directed by, and stars Tommy Lee Jones after all, whose great non-period Westerns, No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are both excellent.

    24. Slow West

    Anything which stars Michael Fassbender is sure to be well-received, and this upcoming 'action thriller' western has Fassbender's mysterious gunslinger escorting Kodi Smit-McPhee through deadly territory. With only a set photo glimpsed so far, it looks like this one is going to be 2015 at the earliest, but Fassbender alone is going to guarantee it gets good profile, and the promise of a more action-driven offering certainly sounds intriguing, although the word should be taken with a pinch of salt until we learn a little more about it.

    24. Jane Got a Gun

    This one's suffered from almost as brutal a production history as Mad Max: Fury Road, with the original director, leaving the production on day one back in early 2013, taking supporting actor Jude Law and the cinematographer with her. Eventually Warrior director Gavin O'Connor took up the mantle, requesting rewrites, which further delayed production. The cast too were shuffled between roles, with Fassbender being replaced by Edgerton in one role, after Edgerton was swapped from villain to hero and Ewan MacGregor replacing Edgerton after he vacated the villain role which had originally been set for Jude Law. Pretty-much the only constant is Natalie Portman's lead, playing the wife of a vicious outlaw who betrays his own gang. Taking up a gun, and seeking help from an old flame, Portman's Jane has to defend herself from the surviving revenge-seeking gang members. Another action-driven offering, I'm certainly interested to see what O'Connor brings to the table, even if the mottled production history isn't a great start.

    25. The Hateful Eight

    Easily the most anticipated upcoming Western is the only-just-announced Hateful Eight, which Tarantino teased us with a few weeks' back with his all-star script read-through, but has only just officially committed to after briefly shelving the project when his first draft script was leaked. Featuring an ensemble cast of regulars - including Tarantino-regulars Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Remar, Walton Goggins and Zoe Bell, as well as newcomer Amber Tamblyn and, I'm sure, plenty more to follow - the story involves a couple of bounty hunters, their quarry, and a group of mysterious strangers they are forced to shack up with during a blizzard, I'm guessing totalling eight. It's got a Western-infused Dusk Till Dawn-meets-Twelve Angry Men vibe about it, and I'm there on day one for anything the arrogant, outspoken, irritating, loudmouth filmmaking genius has to offer.
    "May I come aboard?"
    "Well, it up to me, yes. But it ain't up to me."
    "Who's it up to?"
    "Fella' in the wagon."
    "Fella' in the wagon not partial to company?"
    "This ain't the regular line. The fella' in the wagon paid for privacy. And I'm here to tell ya' he paid a pretty penny. So if you wanna' go with us, you gotta' talk to him."
    Far from dead, it seems that the likes of Costner, and now Tarantino, have managed to keep the fires burning in this often-disregarded genre, as the films produced have taken a curious full-circle from frenetic actioners, through reflective biopics, indie efforts, more gritty, realistic offerings, all the way back through to Spaghetti-Western-infused actioners once again.

    The future holds promise for not just these few profiled releases, but also the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Salvation, Thomas Jane's A Magnificent Death from a Shattered Hand, Kurt Russell's Bone Tomahawk, Ethan Hawke's In a Valley of Violence and Kiefer Sutherland's Forsaken coming soon.

    With high profile directors and big name stars still prepared to visit the Old West - en masse - hopefully we'll get another few decades of quality productions yet.

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