The Rise and Fall of the American Western

The western is the greatest cinematic genre bar none and it is the ONLY genre to be utterly and completely American. Others have tried their hand at it (hello, Italy!), but it’s a genre that could not have been conceived anywhere but in these here United States. It is as uniquely American as jazz or baseball. More than any other genre, the western not only reflects America, but also the America in which it was made. While even the worst westerns can serve as mirrors to their eras, the best transcend expectations to act as multi-leveled analogies for the issues at hand, be it societal? Psychological? Racial? Sexual? Westerns have covered it all.

Some examples are obvious—High Noon, directed by a left-wing European, is a commentary on the blacklist and red-scare environment of McCarthyism—while Rio Bravo is the all-American right-wing, anti- intellectual response to it. Little Big Man takes aim at the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And so on. But the examples don’t need to be quite so specific: The westerns of the 1950s, for example, almost always reflect the American values of the Eisenhower administration, while the westerns of the Nixon/Watergate 1970s enjoy subverting the conventions of the genre with the so-called Revisionist Westerns like Altman’s masterpiece, McCabe and Mrs.Miller. You can literally do this with almost every film in every decade.

It’s hard for us today to really grasp just how big a genre the western was before it started to sputter and slow to a crawl in the 1970s. Imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including all of its various phases, television and streaming shows, and then add the DC Universe to it, including any one-offs like Joker, and throw in any other super-hero franchises you can think of, and then times that by fifty. That’s how many westerns existed between the late 1940s and the end of 1960s. In television alone, just listing the more popular shows, there was The Lone Ranger, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Wild Wild West, Rawhide, Bonanza, Cisco Kid, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley and many more. And this is pre-cable! Not even basic cable! This was network television. And in the 1960s, that meant THREE CHANNELS ONLY! Each churning out western after western after western. Add to that the countless films being released in theaters, and it is little wonder that by the end of the 60s, audiences had had enough. Take note, Marvel.

Nothing could sustain that much exposure for that long and survive. It seems almost inevitable that the Italians would come along and make the western their own. The Americans had grown stale. Who wants to watch Rowdy Yates when they can watch the Man With No Name? But the Spaghetti Western is a very different beast—and I do mean BEAST with no fewer than 600 films produced between 1960and 1978. Yes, you read that correctly. Six hundred films! It is practically a different genre. Yet its influence is so enormous, that one could genuinely argue that if over-saturation was one of the arrows slung into the American west, then the spaghetti western was the other. There are exceptions, of course: Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Robert Altman were most definitely NOT influenced by the films coming out of Italy and Spain. And the period of revisionism overlaps with spaghetti westerns somewhat, but all things being equal, by the 1970s, the western as we knew it had become something else—either due to foreign influence, counterculture, a distain for the old Hollywood, or just because. The classic era was over, and soon the western would become a niche genre—like the musical, something to dust off every so often, no longer the awesome sight it once was.

“It’s hard for us today to really grasp just how big a genre the western was before it started to sputter and slow to a crawl in the 1970s. Imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including all of its various phases, television and streaming shows, and then add the DC Universe to it, including any one-offs like Joker, and throw in any other super-hero franchises you can think of, and then times that by fifty.”

Accepting, therefore, that the classic American Western ended in the mid to late 1960s, it is worth noting that the genre basically went through three unofficial phases. The first and most prominent of these was the manifest destiny. Think: going out west, land grabs, farmers staking out their claims, cowboys and Indians, cavalry outposts in the middle of nowhere, wagon trails across country, the films of John Ford, and so on. Everything from Stagecoach to Fort Apache to Red River to Winchester 73 to The Searchers comfortably falls into this section. This period is by far the largest and would overlap, and eventually give way, to the idea of the professional.

By now, most of America is usually well and truly conquered, and professional men need hiring to do things for you, instead of trying to deal with them yourself. Amateurs get killed in this world. This is the era of the lone marshall and the bounty hunter; of the cattle baron wanting to buy out the farmer and hiring guns to do it for him; of the kidnapped wife and the career criminals. Films like Rio Bravo, Vera Cruz, The Naked Spur, The Professionals, True Grit and—most of all—The Magnificent Seven epitomize this era.

And then, finally there’s the changing times: men out of touch with the world they once knew. The 20th Century is usually upon us and honest men—even amongst outlaws—no longer exist. The Wild Bunch most famously falls into this grouping, but so too do the so-called neo-westerns set in the present day. Films like Giant, Lonely Are the Brave, Hud and Midnight Cowboy. Films that took western sensibilities and iconographies and exposed them for a hoax, killing the myth on purpose.

But the film which truly encapsulates the end of the classic era must be Hud, way back in 1963. It is here that the beginning of the end of the American western can be traced back to. Giant may have pre-dated it, but it’s not a terribly good movie and its messages of equality and anti-racism, though admirable, stick out as false (and shots of black and white turkeys together to hammer home the point stick out as crap). But with Hud, there is no phony discourse or Hollywood message to its public. No pretense. It is here that the west truly enters the modern. But if Hud is the moment the water broke, then Howard Hawks’ 1948 masterpiece Red River would have to be the pinnacle.

“And then, finally there’s the changing times: men out of touch with the world they once knew. The 20th Century is upon us and honest men—even amongst outlaws—no longer exist.”

Red River tells the story of cattle baron Tom Dunson, played by John Wayne in a tour de force performance, and his adopted son Matthew (Montgomery Clift) who, due to widespread poverty after the Civil War, decides to drive his herd north across the Red River. Along the way all kinds of mishaps befall them—most famously, a fantastically shot deadly stampede—which eventually forces Matthew to take over the herd against his father’s wishes. On the surface, Red River reads like another western about a cattle drive. But in reality, it deals with such themes as post-war poverty and unemployment (something very familiar to 1948 audiences); patriarchal families and the drive to succeed in the American dream no matter what the cost.

In fact, Dunson’s relentless Ahab-like drive for success—and can you get more American than Ahab?—feels positively modern. He could easily fill JR’s shoes in Dallas or find himself sitting at the head of the table in Succession as a self-made man who won’t let anyone stand in his way. In the prologue, for instance, when staking out his land, he kills the first person to question his landgrab without so much as a blinking an eye. It’s not much of a stretch to see Dunson as the influence on Daniel Day Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood. But even more so, the character is the influence and blueprint for what would become the John Wayne persona for the rest of his career. Only 39 at the time, Wayne was playing considerably older than his real age, with a measured pace and gravitas that he would continue to bring to his roles for the rest of his life. This was the film that made John Ford say, “I never knew the sonofabitch could act!”.

Wayne had come a long way since playing the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach just nine years earlier. Red River, more than any other film, created the myth of what we like to think of as John Wayne. He would get darker (The Searchers), he would even put in better performances (Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist), but he would never top his creation of Thomas Dunson—not even with Rooster Cogburn. This alone secures Red River a place as one of the most important westerns ever produced, without even allowing for the beautiful photography, epic sweeps, gripping story, supporting cast and Howard Hawks’ sublime direction. But what makes Red River particularly interesting, in the context of this piece, is just how much it has in common with the film which, in many ways, signaled the beginning of the end of the era: Hud. It is as if these two films mirror each other, but as negative prints, with everything back to front. Where fair is foul and foul is fair.

“Civilization is anathema to the western hero. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a corrupt cancer that can only end badly for those involved.”

While Red River is about the forging of the west, Hud is the Texas of the 1960s, well established with full-blown cattle and oil industries. Like Red River, Hud also tells the story of a Texas cattle baron and his son. But whereas Matthew only broke ranks with his father because he had to, Paul Newman’s eponymously named character wants to break free for purely selfish reasons. And whereas Dunson was a man who became unhinged and tyrannical, Homer Bannon—the patriarch in Hud, played by Melvin Douglas in an Oscar winning performance, is a fair and principled man. A decent man at the end of his road, with his cattle and life’s work suddenly faced with having to slaughter his entire herd—the polar opposite of a long, arduous cattle drive across country. Hud is a man without scruples; a man who has no check on his appetite. Women are there for the picking, whether they are someone else’s wife or if they even want to go to bed with him in the first place (late in the film, he will try to rape the housekeeper). He is amoral and lives only for himself and therefore, as his father says, is unfit to live with. Hud is positively 20th Century. Driven by lust and greed. For Hud, the west and all that it stood for is dead. The cattle are useless and diseased, so why not pawn them off onto an unsuspecting sucker? The old should move over and die. And what is more, there’s oil under their land—the ultimate symbol of American imperialism. Hud can’t wait to get his hands on it, except that his father won’t have it: “What can I do with a bunch of oil wells?” He asks. “I can’t ride out every day and prowl amongst them like I can my cattle. I can’t breed ’em or tend ’em or rope ’em or chase ’em or nothing. I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in ’em, ’cause they ain’t none of my doing.”

They ain’t none of my doing.

That is the key line. Oil is just luck. What pride can one get from having been lucky? From getting ahead without ever having worked for it? That is not the way of the cowboy. It’s the way of the mining baron who comes to the town you’ve built with sweat and blood and wants to buy it from you, and if you won’t sell, sends in a couple of gunmen to shoot you down and take it from your cold dead hands. It’s the dishonest and cheap way, and not what this country was meant to be built on. But Hud doesn’t see it that way. To him the answer is simple: “There’s money in it.”

Hud is a man without sentiment and without guilt. But he’ll be rich. Oil rich. And perhaps that’s what killed the western more than anything else. Money. Because once you get into that kind of money—Texas oil money— you inevitably end up in politics, and nothing about the west should ever involve politicians. The west is about man staking out his own claim and making something of his life. It’s about being king of your own domain. It is not about democracy and certainly not about politicians, which bring with them the big city. The western is about the underdog. The rebel cause. David in the face of nature’s Goliath.

It is no coincidence that so many villains are portrayed as cattle barons, or railroad barons, or mining companies who would sooner kill you than have to negotiate with you another day. They represent the establishment. Civilization is anathema to the western hero. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a corrupt cancer that can only end badly for those involved. It is also worth noting that it is no coincidence that the vast majority of western heroes who fought in the civil war, fought for the confederacy—a trend that continued well into the 1980s. This is part geographic (a lot of these films take place in Texas or the southern confederate states), but it also has to do with the myth of the outlaw, from Robin Hood to Emiliano Zapata. The lone pilgrim fighting for what he believes in and refusing to back down to crooked politicians or big business. Of course, today it is hard to view anyone associated with the confederacy as heroic, and sometimes can be used to its advantage. Ethan’s racism in The Searchers, for example, is very much a part of what makes him lost and broken, a man without family, forever destined to wander the plains alone. But those plains are lost too and big business has won. And perhaps that brought on the cold, revisionist period as much as any Nixon administration.

When the Huds of the world get to go through life without consequence, and not only don’t get punished for it, but actually get rewarded with more riches, it becomes very hard to take the black and white morals of films like Shane with their clear depictions of good and evil seriously. There can be no place for an upright gunslinger like Shane in Hud’s world. In fact, there isn’t even a place for the gang in The Wild Bunch, and they were stone cold killers. But they had principles. Their word meant something. But they knew their time had come… this dilemma of clashing worlds is perhaps best summed up at the very end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where James Stewart’s character who is a US Senator contemplates (quite dishonestly) quitting politics and moving back out west because he knows it would make his wife extremely happy. Only to change his mind not half a minute later, when someone recognizes him, crushing his wife’s dreams and hopes without pity. The west could never survive in such a cynical world, and the classic American western was bound to die alongside it, with John Wayne forever destined to wander its vanished plains alone.


Fort Apache (1948)

Forty Guns (1957)

The Gunfighter (1950)

High Noon (1952)

Hud (1963)

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

Winchester ’73 (1950)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Red River (1948)

Ride the High Country (1962)

Rio Bravo (1959)

The Searchers (1956)

Shane (1953)

Stagecoach (1939)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

True Grit (2010)

Unforgiven (1992)

Vera Cruz (1954)

The Wild Bunch (1969)