For England, there is Shakespeare; for Italy, Michelangelo; for France, Voltaire. America has John Wayne. From Manifest Destiny to the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill, the idea of ‘the Wild West’ – that vast, romantic frontier wilderness civilised by the lonely pioneers – is central to American identity, and, appropriately, Westerns were among the first movies made.
Yet, beyond their political and cultural importance for America, Westerns at their peak resonated with an international audience. Their central figures – the lone wanderer riding into town to drive away local villains; the moral out- law pitted against corrupt authority; the settlers struggling against hardship to establish a home on the frontier – evoke old traditions of the knight-errant of Arthurian romances, and reconcile the opposing values of individualism and the importance of community and family.
Nowhere is this better expressed than in the famous closing image of The Searchers (1956), in which Ethan Edwards, who has searched for years to return the kidnapped Debbie to her family, stands alone in the closing doorway of their house, isolated from the community he has fought to protect. In the eyes of John Ford, the Wild West was a place of elemental, mythic struggle, where human strength and determination were heroically exposed.
An effort was made to revise Ford’s vision of the Old West as early as the Westerns of Anthony Mann, but it was not until the 1960s that filmmakers truly found new meaning in the old genre. The ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone are perhaps most famous for achieving this. In the Dollars series and in his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone reimagined the frontier as a violent, lawless, amoral purgatory, in which Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name could just as easily be murderer as saviour – and sometimes both. Yet these films, just as much as those of Ford and Hawks, created their own mythology, infused with a sort of violent and anti-heroic heroism, so that Eastwood himself returned to recast the Man with No Name as the melancholic old gunslinger William Munny in his magnificent Unforgiven (1992).
Unforgiven may have been a sardonic commentary on the operatic brutality of Leone’s films, but a far more obvious forebear was the revisionist canon of Sam Peckinpah, whose best films created a world of profound cruelty and ambiguity closer than anything else to the reality of the Old West. Although butchered by MGM and seldom seen today in its true form, his elegiac Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is one of the greatest Westerns ever produced. Like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), it is as near as one can get to poetry on film. These are works of incredible beauty, featuring memorable set-pieces (Slim Pickens’s riverside death, Garrett’s vigil beside Billy’s body, McCabe’s showdown with the three gunslingers) which can be almost unbearably moving.
The comparative unpopularity of Westerns today is unfortunate. Although The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and True Grit (2010) are important films, much work in the genre, most obviously Cowboys & Aliens (2011), seems lazily derivative. Western themes are clearly visible in many contemporary-set films such as No Country for Old Men (2007), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), and Wendy and Lucy (2008), but the best Westerns have not been widely popular. Even a decidedly mainstream piece like the Mann-esque 3:10 to Yuma (2007) garnered only mediocre profit.
Perhaps the Western is lying dormant until it can once again be mythologically reimagined. It is certainly hard to believe that Westerns will not be popularly reinvigorated once more; after all, the great truth of the Westerns is also the great truth of cinema – ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’.