The Lone Ranger's failure at the box office earlier this month not only dealt a blow to mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters, Johnny Depp's career, and Disney. The Jerry Bruckheimer-Gore Verbinski flop--which cost a reported $250 million to make and brought in just $50 million opening on a holiday weekend--also may mark a decisive chapter in the sad story of how the Western was lost.
Since the dawn of film, the Western has been one of the great, durable movie genres, but its audience seems to be finally drying up. The Lone Ranger is the third Western to flop in four summers, and the most expensive, capping a trend set by Cowboys & Aliens and Jonah Hex. (Remember them? Exactly.) Western fans are getting older and whiter with respect to the overall population, and as any Republican political consultant will tell you, that doesn't bode well for the future. Other, newer genres like superhero movies and fighting-robot flicks have cowboy movies outgunned with younger generations and international audiences.
Now the genre finds itself in the ironic position of needing a hero to save it, and quick. 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.
Westerns provide many timeless pleasures--tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes, good triumphing over evil. It's all there already in arguably the first narrative film ever made, The Great Train Robbery.