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At one point, the Western film genre was one of the most popular genres in American cinema. They enjoyed a hugely prosperous time during the silent film era. Nearly every time you looked up, there was a Western out. The genre has a rich history and has been through quite the evolutionary process beginning with stories that were straightforward tales of morality. Good vs. evil, cowboys vs. Indians, lawmen vs. outlaws. At some point, there was a shift and soon the stories became more morally ambiguous. The once clean-cut hero who adhered to his own moral code of honor had now become the scruffy anti-hero whose motives became questionable.
The Western has had its ups and downs and over time, has been pushed to the background, making the occasional appearance in contemporary cinema. While the comic book film genre has arguably taken the Westerns place, as movies of this type seemingly cannot be produced fast enough (hello Marvel Studios), we are left with the question: is the western still relevant in today’s post 9/11, more socially conscious world we now live in?
The American Western in general isn’t outdated in my opinion. Sure, there are aspects of it that are out of step with what we might like to see today (particularly the demonization of the Native American Indian), but there is still much to enjoy about a good, old fashioned Western. The beautiful untouched landscapes and rugged terrain, exhilarating chases on horseback, bar fights and duel challenges are just a number of escapist elements of a now nostalgic kind of film.
The lone heroes and anti heroes of the romanticized West are in many ways the descendants of epic Greek heroes like Odysseus, they are the more contemporary versions of the Arthurian knight from the medieval legends and the samurai from Japanese culture. They travel from place to place battling foes and righting wrongs along the way. The stories of Greek myth continue to be told today, so why should stories of the old West be any different? Which leads to the question of how can you continue to tell a Western tale in our time.
Well, you can make a contemporary Western like Robert Rodriguez’ fantastic Mexico Trilogy. You can make a Sci-Fi/Western like Joss Whedon’s awesome Serenity or Jon Faverau’s Cowboys & Aliens. Heck, if your name is Quentin Tarantino, you could go straight up and make a Spaghetti Western like Django Unchained. All of these can be viewed as homage pieces to a genre that is more or less mythologized now, much like the comic book hero. They are also different takes on the genre though they may not be new. They are how you revitalize the Western.
The influence of the Western genre in non-Westerns is also far reaching. Films like Star Wars and The Untouchables have clear homages to the Western. Star Wars has a cowboy in Han Solo and the classic scene at Mos Eisley Cantina, which deals with the age old debate of who shot first, is straight up out of a Western. The Untouchables has the great horseback ride scene. While films like The Dark Knight and its sequel The Dark Knight Rises, are clearly not Westerns, they do contain elements that are decidedly Western, intentional or not. Particularly in Rises, you have Batman who is essentially the aging lone outlaw who comes out of retirement for one last ride on his trusty steed (Batpod). There are also some not so great examples of films with the Western tacked on, like Ghost Rider. Need I say more? I will say that while I would not really recommend that film, I would say that if you’re curious about what a Supernatural/Western comic book film looks like, you might see it.
So where does all this leave us now with the upcoming release of The Lone Ranger? For those who don’t know (and I’ve talked to some who don’t), the Lone Ranger is an ex-Texas Ranger who fights injustice with his trusted horse Silver and his Indian friend Tonto in the Old West. From the trailers, it looks to be a Westerns Western with a bit of 21st century isms thrown in. This is an indication that while Westerns probably won’t reach the place of ubiquitousness it once held, there is still an audience for them. The Western itself is a timeless piece of American film, but it never hurts to have it be reinterpreted and reinvigorated. On to The Lone Ranger.