The rise, fall and rise again of the western

After the remake of The Magnificent Seven we chart Hollywood's troubled relationship with the wild west.

Gary Evans October 5, 2016

We’re in the wild west, way out in the barren, sun-bleached desert. Troglodytes attack a sheriff and his elderly deputy. This tribe of mutant cannibals then drag the lawmen up the side of a mountain and into their cave.

The mutants throw the pair into a makeshift cell with the woman they set out to rescue. Also behind bars, the sheriff’s original deputy; no longer behind bars, a drifter whom the cannibals ate. What follows is the most brutal death scene in the history of the western.

Until recently, moviemakers appeared to have given up on the old west. Hollywood, certainly, stopped making anywhere near as many westerns as it did during the genre’s heyday. But recently the cowboy movie has enjoyed a slow and steady resurgence, thanks to a series of scripts that reworked and reinterpreted many of the western’s classic themes.

Not since the 1970s have we seen so many good westerns on the big screen: films like the tense and stylish Slow West starring Michael Fassbender in 2015; movies about women in the west, The Homesman and Jane Got a Gun; an unashamedly old-school wild west picture, Forsaken, and movies about men in the west, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.

Last month a big-budget remake of The Magnificent Seven hit cinemas, starring Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt. It’s directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has Training Day, The Equalizer and Southpaw on his CV.

HBO recently confirmed Deadwood – the violent TV western that the network cancelled prematurely – will tie up unfinished business on the big screen. And next year, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey will star in a film adaptation of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. After a series of expensive flops, Hollywood seems ready to saddle up and return to the west. Are we witnessing the second golden age of the western?

Close to the bone

S. Craig Zahler directed Bone Tomahawk, the film in which the most brutal death scene in the history of the western takes place. “One of the reasons that recent westerns haven’t done that well is that the ones that are getting made in Hollywood are poor for the most part. And they, the studios, feel that there needs to be some really in-your-face gimmick.” The American novelist, cinematographer and first-time director struggled to finance his movie. Westerns, he says, are now considered risky business.

Zahler ended up shooting the movie for relatively little money in just four weeks. “I wanted to create a race that was unlike anything you had seen before. This is a western that has very strong horror scenes but is also part of the lost-race fiction discipline. Kurt said it’s a graphic western. That’s what it is.”

The Kurt he mentions is Kurt Russell, a veteran of the western, who plays the sheriff of Bright Hope, and incidentally appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The death scene that went viral earlier this year – before YouTube took it down – could so easily have looked hammy and daft were it not for Russell. 

The sheriff watches on through the wooden bars of his cell as the mutants strip his deputy naked. To stifle the man’s screams, the cannibals take the scalp they’ve just sliced from his head and stuff it into his mouth. One Troglodyte ensures this flap of skin and hair remains in place by driving a stake into the back of Nick’s throat. The muscle-bound mutants then hold the deputy upside down by the ankles, splay him, and tear him in two.

How the west was lost

The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first proper narrative films ever made, contained all the elements that every western following it would use: guns, spurs and Stetsons, the railroad and all it represents, wild country, wild men, angry posses and gunslinging outlaws, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Stagecoach (1939) is the first truly great western, a film made by one of the genre’s greatest ever directors, John Ford. John Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw who finds himself in jail for defending his home and his family. He joins a group of misfits on a dangerous journey across Apache country. At the end of the movie, he and one of his fellow stagecoach passengers, a prostitute, settle down to a new life on a ranch in an apparently meritocratic land. Not only did this film make a star of the unknown Wayne, but Ford and his technical innovations made critics and cinemagoers take the western seriously.

The history of the genre mirrors the history of America. The western dominated cinema’s first 50 years. From 1940 to 1960, studios of all sizes made as many as a 140 westerns a year. Between the first and second world wars, Hollywood very much liked the idea of the righteous hero battling the barbaric villain, usually saving the poor and defenceless along the way. When the Great Depression hit, capitalism came under fire. Now the hero often found himself mistaken for a villain. He had to prove his heroism.

During the 1950s, 60s and 70s the cowboy became an increasingly complicated character – darker, troubled and troubling. Many of the greatest westerns were made during this time: Shane (1953), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). The US entered into an era of coups, invasions and assassinations; it started and got mixed up in increasingly dodgy wars.

And so the cowboy morphs from John Wayne in Stagecoach to James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, from an outsider sure of his morals to a law enforcer with a guilty conscience. In the film made by the great rebel director Sam Peckinpah, cattle barons hire Garret to kill Billy, an old friend and notorious gunslinger. After he finally does so, the sheriff quickly shoots his own reflection in mirror. He doesn’t want to look at himself. He can’t face what he has become, what the west has become. The film turned out to be Peckinpah’s final western.

Westerns were mostly war films fought between Native Americans and frontiersmen, and by now most Americans were tired of war. When protests about the Vietnam conflict were at their most vocal and violent, the number of antiheroic cowboys more than matched the number of heroic ones. After Vietnam, westerns fell into decline. But before the war was over, Native Americans appeared in a more sympathetic light. Ideas about the west were revised and redrawn. 

No truly great westerns were made in the 1980s. Moviemakers released just 148 westerns throughout the entire 1990s – although during this time, old ideas about the west and American history were questioned in Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans and Clint Eastwood’s brilliant Unforgiven. But even fewer cowboy films appeared in cinemas in the early 2000s. And then slowly, steadily and not without a few expensive mistakes along the way, the west began to rise again. 

The new west

When the Academy announced its Oscar nominations at the beginning of this year, two westerns had done very well. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a 19th-century frontiersman on an expedition along the Missouri river to establish a fur-trapping base.

After natives attack, the experienced tracker leads survivors across the country, but is left for dead after being mauled by a bear – perhaps the second-most brutal scene in the history of the western.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight sees an ensemble cast of various moral standings forced together by bad weather in a wild west whodunnit that slowly ratchets up the tension. 

One film is raw, harsh and mostly set outdoors. The other is theatrical, wordy and mostly set indoors. Both are paranoid films. Both are without clear heroes. Both feature characters that suffer and cause suffering. But most importantly, both films were well received by critics and moviegoers, and made money at the box-office. 

Jonah Hex (2010), Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013), however, all performed poorly and blew big budgets. Race, gun control and the justice system, religion and immigration, settler paranoia, modernity and those it sweeps aside – many of the themes that the western has tackled in the past feel particularly relevant today, in America and elsewhere.

The second golden era of the western is here thanks to Zahler, his contemporaries and their new take on the old west. But whether or not this second golden era goes mainstream may come down to how well The Magnificent Seven and studio films do at the box-office. The wild west now, as it was back then, is mostly about money.