In recent years, the cowboy has been replaced by the superhero as the most common expression of American values in blockbuster filmmaking. But the decline of the western—the genre that dominated cinema's first half-century—began long before the Marvel era. In the golden age of spurs-and-saddles films, between 1940 and 1960, up to 140 westerns were released per year. By the turn of the century, that was a good number for an entire decade. There were only 148 westerns made in the 1990s, and 142 in the 2000s.
But cowboys, it seems, are trying to mount a comeback. So far, it’s not going well: The Lone Ranger flopped spectacularly a summer ago, and last month, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West opened to tepid reviews and middling box office. Still, the fact that major studios bankrolled these films indicates at least some amount of faith in the genre. And that faith, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be flagging.
The Homesman, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, won rave reviews at Cannes and will see release later this year; the film has been called an “inverse western” for its focus on women and rejection of the alpha-male cowboy stereotype. 2015 will bring at least two highly-anticipated genre entries: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (his last film, Django Unchained, was the rare new western to succeed commercially and critically), and Jane Got a Gun, starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor.
To try and understand the western’s return, it’s important to understand why it left in the first place. There are many theories out there, but a lot of film critics attribute the decline of the western to the Vietnam War. Most films of the genre are essentially war pictures, detailing combat between American Indians and frontiersmen. J. Hoberman wrote that “save for a handful of releases, the western itself has remained defunct since the fall of Saigon,” noting that the ugliness of the conflict rendered the often blindly patriotic tone of the western obsolete. Vietnam-era westerns such as Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson reflected this revision of the American character by showing Native Americans to be sympathetic and U.S. military officials (like General Custer) to be fools, but the trend did not last long.
The underlying subject of nearly every western is the tension that erupts when an ascending civilization comes into conflict with the savage wilderness. Whether it is a sheriff chasing an outlaw or a homesteader fighting off an Indian attack, classical westerns depict an America trying to balance its frontier spirit with the need for manmade justice and order. Films like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and High Noon show the difficult process of extending a young nation into new territory. Perhaps that’s why westerns resonate less and less: Precious few among us would still call America a country on the rise.