Sunday, June 8, 2014

Is the Movie Western Dead?

Last weekend, multi-hyphenate Seth MacFarlane’s much-anticipated and heavily-promoted new comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West opened to an audience ghost town, earning only $17 million from over 3500 theaters (compare that to Maleficent’s $70 million). It aimed to be the new Blazing Saddles but now seems more like the new The Lone Ranger, another recent big-budget western that bit the dust hard. Has the sun finally set for good on the Hollywood western?

Westerns used to be a staple, perhaps the staple, of movie fare, as far back as the silent movie era. They largely fell off the map until 1939’s Stagecoach starring John Wayne, then took off again. Hollywood pumped out classic after classic like Shane, Rio Bravo, High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, until the ‘70s ushered in a whole new breed of filmmaker. Clint Eastwood’s outstanding Unforgiven in 1992 sparked hope that the genre could be resurrected (tough guy Eastwood, of course, previously starred in many other gritty westerns like High Plains Drifter and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), but the western only sputtered to life occasionally after that. Kevin Costner’s Open Range in 2003 and the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe come to mind as memorable but uneven examples. Neither was a big money-maker.

Hollywood now produces few westerns. Why? A major reason is that they don’t do well overseas where Hollywood now makes at least 65% of its revenue. Foreign audiences just don’t connect with our Wild West experience. It doesn’t help that, in a cinematic landscape dominated by CGI-bloated superhero films and fantasy epics, character-driven westerns don’t command much attention abroad or at home. Failed big-budget attempts to spice up the genre with a hybrid like Cowboys and Aliens or TV series adaptations like The Lone Ranger and Will Smith’s Wild Wild West haven’t turned the tide.

It has reached the point where filmmakers don’t want to be associated with the genre even if they have made a western. Actor-director Tommy Lee Jones, for example, debuted his new film The Homesman at the Cannes Film Festival recently and bristled at the suggestion that it is a western, even though it’s set during the mid-19th century American westward expansion and involves a tense confrontation with a threatening Pawnee raiding party. Perhaps Jones is afraid that having it lumped into the western genre is limiting or may even be the film’s kiss of death.

What is the principal reason for the disappearing western? At the risk of oversimplifying the history of a complex and influential genre, the classic western as a morality tale celebrating the rugged, independent, heroic, pioneer spirit, with white-hatted loners facing off against black-hatted gangs, is simply passé, and has been for decades.

Broadly speaking, Hollywood over that period of time moved away from straightforward good-versus-evil conflicts toward what they like to think is moral complexity (but is too often merely moral equivalence), with anti-hero protagonists. It has also embraced, if not actually driven, a politically correct reinterpretation of the history of the American West, to the point where, as in multiple Oscar winner Dances with Wolves, the Indians now wear the figurative white hats and cowboys the black hats, or at best gray. In last year’s flop The Lone Ranger, to name a more recent example, the Native Americans are depicted as wiser and more morally upright than the rapacious white man. They mock the buffoonish Lone Ranger, the movie’s ostensible hero.

In a press conference following The Homesman’s screening, Tommy Lee Jones seemed to be bucking that trend when he defended his movie against criticism that it presents Native Americans as the bad guys. He said, “I am not ashamed of the fact that they are considered by our characters to be potentially homicidal. We are not bending the truth at all or stereotyping anybody. That’s the last thing we wanted to do.” Good for him. It’s PC revisionism to pretend that 19th century Native Americans were all noble, peaceful environmentalists or to romanticize their way of life as superior to the vastly advanced European settlers.

But then Jones declared that “I won't try to hide the fact that a consideration of American imperialism on the west side of the Mississippi river is the film’s underlying theme.” So much for bucking the trend.

Though hardly a traditional take on westerns, is MacFarlane’s bomb A Million Ways to Die in the West the genre’s last gasp? In the tragic film Lonely Are the Brave from 1962, Kirk Douglas plays a fiercely independent cowboy who loses a heroic battle against the inexorable advance of modernity. It would be a tragedy as well if the classic Hollywood western and its archetypal American hero met the same fate.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/4/14)