I've always loved Westerns, or more colloquially "Cowboy Movies," which supposedly makes me fairly unusual for a man of my generation. Westerns, we're continually told, are deader than dead - and judging by the box office of almost every Western released in my lifetime, it seems true. How does that happen, exactly, to a genre that was once among the most popular pop mythologies not only in America but across the world?
For my part, I blame deconstruction gone too far. From about the 1970s onward, American popular culture did an exemplary - and very necessary - job of deconstructing and owning up to the darker currents of racism and colonialism running through the genre, but I wonder if we didn't hastily throw out what was fun, good and even redeeming about Westerns along with the bad stuff. Consider: In a few short decades, we've gone from a movie world where Native Americans were always the bad guys to a movie world where Native Americans are all but nonexistent - and no, the Na'Vi don't count.
So, Westerns are dead, but then the videogame Red Dead Redemption - pitched right across the plate of the audience that's supposed to be least interested in six-shooters and sagebrush - comes out to great reviews and big sales. Is this the spark that makes the Western catch fire again? You never know. Who could've guessed that Johnny Depp and a tub of eyeliner would makes pirates cool again?
Or maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part. But if there are any youngish gamers out there who're feeling cowboy curious after Red Dead, here's a quick rundown of movie westerns that might also strike your fancy. Not necessarily the best, not necessarily the worst, but the stuff that'll give you a rough estimate of where it's all coming from.
Director John Ford and actor John Wayne - the two most towering names in the Western genre - unite for the first time in what's often called the birth of the grownup cowboy movie. A stagecoach whose passengers represent multiple levels of society (a lawman, a doctor, a prostitute, a widow, etc.) pick up an unexpected new face when the lawman arrests wanted fugitive The Ringo Kid (Wayne). His presence inflames an already edgy clash-of-classes, but he comes in handy when they learn they're on a collision course with Geronimo's Apache raiders.
A slew of interesting characters forced into a single, yet mobile, location that rolls from travelogue to drama to chase to action. Why were Westerns so popular? Because you could tell stories like this.
Fort Apache (1948)
Ford and Wayne again, this time plus Henry Fonda, in what's the main template for both the "Cavalry Western" and "Siege Western" subgenres. The two stars are U.S. Cavalry officers clashing over how to run an isolated outpost in Indian territory. Wayne is the older one, who believes in treating the Natives with respect and understanding, but less-experienced Fonda is prejudiced and doesn't think they're worth the effort. When a corrupt Indian Affairs official stirs up a violent rebellion, they're both stuck in the middle of it.