The Future of the Western Genre

For the last couple of decades, enthusiasts have lamented the demise of Westerns while the rest of the world has gone about its business, ignorant that anyone might care about a genre relegated to a few obscure shelves at the local bookstore. Westerns were hugely popular for over a hundred years. Not only were they popular in the United States, but the whole world devoured them. The Western was a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television, and daydreams. What happened?

Overexposure, for one thing. In 1959, there were 26 Western series on prime time television. On the silver screen, John Wayne brandished his Winchester at countless bad guys. Paperback Westerns could be found in abundance in any drugstore, most of them with Louis L’Amour’s name on the cover. The big names did some wonderful, quality stuff, but the demand was so great that a lot of trash made it into print and celluloid.

The common perception is that the Western genre is moribund. Yet, somehow, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and a host of others make a good living off Westerns. Robert B. Parker temporarily abandoned private eye Spencer for a trilogy about two guns for hire. Parker’s Appaloosa grossed a respectable $ 28 million at the box office, while 3:10 to Yuma grossed over $ 70 million. As recently as 1992, Unforgiven won the Oscar for Best Picture, the first Western to be so honored. DVD sales of vintage Westerns do well, and Louie L’Amour, Zane Grey, and even Max Brand still sell enough books to make their prodigy happy.

So, the Western isn’t dead, but it’s just as certainly not the rage, especially for the upcoming generation. Thrillers, fantasies, sci-fi, and romance novels garner all the shelf space. Action movie sound tracks are filled with revving motors, not thundering hoofs. And television … well, television just broadcasts yet another permutation of CSI or Law and Order. In fact, the Western excesses of the late fifties are being repeated today with cop shows. Perhaps tired audiences are ready for a resurgence of Westerns.

Perhaps. But what type of Western? Probably a new breed. There have been three distinct Western eras. I call them the wholesome, flawed hero, and violent eras.

The wholesome era lasted until the late fifties. It was epitomized by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and other cowboys sporting white hats. Instead of killing bad guys, they shot guns out of their hands. If someone was killed, they damn-well deserved it, and their death would be bloodless, with a pledge like hand to the chest to cover unsightly bullet holes. As in all eras, there was overlap, and during the later stages of the wholesome phase, Wayne and others made more realistic Westerns-but these, of course, were quarantined to movie houses, and they only played at night.

The flawed hero of the sixties wasn’t the antihero of today. He merely had faults-like Josh Randall, the bounty hunter portrayed by Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive, or the gambling Maverick brothers who proudly proclaimed themselves cowards. Richard Boone wore black and looked mean as a gun for hire in Paladin. The Magnificent Seven were reluctant saviors of a small Mexican village, and flawed to a man. Again, overlapping eras. The spaghetti Westerns of the late sixties took the genre into new territory.

From the seventies on, the antihero ruled a frontier filled with slow-motion violence. The violent era was ushered in by Sergio Leone with his Man with No Name trilogy (1967) and Sam Peckinpaw with The Wild Bunch (1969). From then on, blood red dominated the color spectrum and the hero was only a step removed from the bad guy. This kind of raw realism was deemed inappropriate for television until cable brought Deadwood (2004) into our living rooms.

What’s next? Luckily, these eras overlap, so seeing the current direction of the Western genre is not guesswork. Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and Robert B. Parker have, to differing degrees, departed from the violent era. They signal that the future of Westerns is historically accurate storytelling. If the story occurs in the past, we call it a historical novel-except for Westerns. They get consigned to a niche genre that still carries the taint of pulp fiction. But a story that takes place in the nineteenth-century American frontier has as much legitimacy to be called a historical novel as Ken Follett’s World Without End.

McMurtry, McCarthy, and Parker have found the key. Good writing, sound plots that move with assurance, and great characterization. They concentrate on characters who are forced to deal with hardships and human frailty at a particular point in history. These are the basic elements of good storytelling. A Western historical novel can indeed be action-adventure, but it can also borrow elements from the detective, suspense, romance, mystery, and other genres. Lonesome Dove took from all of them. The world has tired of cookie-cutter cop shows and endless permutations of suspense tales about secret societies that are about to take over the world. Before Daniel Radcliffe can learn to twirl a six-shooter, Westerns will again rule the page and screen.