The 21st Century Western

The western has been one genre that has long resisted change, but newer releases illustrate how this type of film can adapt for the modern age. 

In the opening shot of the classic western The Searchers, the camera emerges from a darkened homestead to reveal a desolate desert landscape. The silhouette of a woman in a dress obscures the sight of an approaching traveler, meandering through the hardscrabble on weary horseback. As the woman emerges from the room, light floods the camera and the view comes into focus. The rest of the family comes out onto the porch, and they welcome the venerable John Wayne upon his arrival. 

John Wayne was a staple in the western genre, and a representation of American cinema for decades. This introductory shot has long since seared itself into the memories of those who have watched this film, one of Wayne’s greatest. Part of what makes this opening sequence stand out is simply how well it is executed. The crisp cinematography and adept handling of the shadows makes an indelible impression. But the other part of what makes it stand out is also the romanticism we associate with the Western genre. 

The western has long been an expression of the American outlook. We see wild untamed lands and want to conquer them. We see extreme hardship, but persevere through difficulty to make it our own. There is conflict, but also a simpler understanding – a connection between man and the natural world. We see greed, violence, and treachery, but also love, redemption, and adventure. For many years, the western was popular because it tapped into that escapism which brought us all together. 

But over time, the charms of the western wore off. Endless repetition and cheap knock-offs made them boring. The 70’s saw a darker, grittier return, but it was short-lived. Recently we tend to get a western every 5 years or so that makes an impression on the general public and awards circuit, but then the genre returns to its hibernation from the mainstream. The western has been done so often that it feels like there isn’t much new territory to explore. The once-lucrative wells of classic Hollywood have dried up. 

So where does that leave the western today? Well, against expectations, poised for a modest renaissance. While audiences were so busy clamoring for the latest Star Wars movie or the next entry into the MCU, they forgot about the charms of the Western. Specifically, they forgot about how the appeal of the western isn’t that different from the latest superhero film. It’s all escapism, an adventure you can have without leaving your seat. 

The problem is that the western’s reputation has held it back. We associate the genre with a time that passed long ago. There’s no excitement on men riding around on horses when you can watch superman flying into the air to save a crashing plane. We have forgotten about what made the genre interesting in the first place – that initial draw to the limitless expanse in which it took place and the cinematic tension which could be created there. All film genres deal with the unknown to some degree, but the western gave it a sort of majestic, natural feel. 

I feel like the appeal of westerns declined because our lives became easier, and more convenient over time. With the advancement of technology, we had less in common with the struggles depicted in the western. The genre felt less and less about who we were. Without that connection, younger audiences turned away. New generations don’t associate with the hardships of the western, and so it doesn’t feel real. More importantly, the issues that younger generations are facing are not the types of issues commented upon in westerns. 

So, in those terms, the traditional western simply couldn’t keep up with audience expectations, and so eventually they just gave up. This puts filmmakers in a tough spot. On one hand you have a loyalty to the genre and its traditions. Make enough changes and it fails to have the original appeal of a western. But by adhering to those qualities, you are losing out on the opportunity to draw in new audiences.

(L-R) CHRISTOPH WALTZ and JAMIE FOXX star in DJANGO UNCHAINED

Luckily, it seems like we are on the cusp of a new era of westerns who may find a good balance of new and old. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Taylor Sheridan have already brought newfound interest into the western with unique perspectives. Tarantino’s approach was sensationalized and nostalgia-focused. Initially he tackled the bridge between westerns and samurai/martial arts films with his Kill Bill films, before moving on to more traditional reinterpretations. Sheridan has in a way modernized the western. His films focus on modern issues that take place in western communities. 

Each of these approaches provides appeal that is not present in our classic connotation of what a western is supposed to be. For Tarantino, he brings more modern, edgy entertainment value wrapped up in an old-fashioned western wrapper. Indeed, even Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has this nostalgia-obsessed devotion to the western. Tarantino provides his audience a reason to reinvest in the western, even if he doesn’t really do anything new with it. Part of the success of these films is that audiences trust Tarantino, and if he finds something interesting in the genre as a fulcrum of great cinema, so do his fans. 

Modern westerns often struggle to find a way to push beyond the clichés of the genre, simply because the genre has been done so often that there is so little area to explore. Tarantino ties his interest into our love of classic cinema, and so the approach doesn’t really work when you try to modernize the western, or at least use more modern storytelling techniques. Indeed, look at a list of westerns from any given year of the 21st century and you’ll see countless titles you’ve never heard of before. The bulk of these films drive at a connection between the modern action movie, and the classic western. That’s not really enough to invite any excitement beyond fans who are into westerns in the first place. 

For Taylor Sheridan’s work, the stories he tells have real modern-world implications. This gives the films an immediacy which aren’t found in other modern westerns. Furthermore, because they take place in modern times, they are more direct. For people who live in the west, these films feel more inclusive than something that Hollywood would typically produce. Sheridan’s films focus on characters from small towns, and the plots often take place in remote areas. With these types of stories, people in small town America feel like they are being better represented than the types of mass-appeal stories that Hollywood typically produces. 

The lack of these types of stories being told in major Hollywood productions seems to be a void that is attracting a lot of attention. Starting with the Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men, the merging of traditional western tendencies in more modern settings gave rise to the “Neo-Western”. Today, mid-budgeted films such as Let Him Go, The Little Things, No Man’s Land, or Cry Macho continue to be popular. Interest in this type of film has culminated in a best picture win for Nomadland at the most recent Oscars ceremony. 

Nomandland’s win is important to the trajectory of the modern western not just because of how it represents the “Neo-Western”, but how it represents change. Unlike No Country for Old Men, Nomadland isn’t adhering to the classical connotations of danger which adhere to the traditional western. It is instead driven by the chaos of modern life. It isn’t dwelling in the past, but documenting how economic and social changes are upending the traditional ways of life. While it still focuses heavily on the connection between man and the natural world, and also has connections to the self-sufficiency which we often find in traditional westerns, it is ultimately a diversion from what the genre has seen before. 

Interestingly, we are seeing more and more use of the “Neo-Western” as a conduit for addressing more modern social and economic issues which would not be possible in a traditional western. More specifically, newer films are focusing on characters who may adhere to traditional western expectations, but placing them within the flux of modern life. Matt Damon’s upcoming film Stillwater focuses on a roughneck who travels to Europe to rescue his daughter. In Mark Wahlberg’s 2020 film Joe Bell, he portrays a small-town father who campaigns across the nation after his son is bullied for being gay.

In both of these cases these films are focused on the type of character who may not have been featured in this type of a film in the past. It places a character who would be right at home in a modern western into a situation which wouldn’t be. These hybrid stories provide attraction for those who are interested in westerns and those are not. This juxtaposition becomes a clash of our traditional views towards the western versus what is happening in the real world right now. So, in a way, they are making the western less about cinematic escapism, but still adhering to many of the same qualities which made that type of film popular in the first place. 

Next up is The Harder They Fall, directed by Jeymes Samuel. This film is almost the opposite of the hybrid neo-westerns described earlier. Rather than placing a traditional western character in a modern setting, it takes a traditional western story and fills it with characters who have traditionally never been portrayed by people of color. Historians have estimated that up to a quarter of all cowboys were black, and yet they were never portrayed that way on film. The Harder They Fall thus challenges the traditional old-Hollywood western by approaching it with an eye for modern diversity. In doing so it has appeal to people who haven’t had interest in Westerns, but maintains many of the classic trademarks for those who do. 

Last year’s News of the World was another interesting example of contemporary perspectives being introduced into a classic western setting. This film follows a man who delivers news to remote towns in the American West. In his journey he finds examples of misinformation from biased news sources. It is a commentary regarding our current distrust of the mainstream media and the rise of misinformation. While the subject matter in this film may very well have been accurate, it wasn’t something that audiences would have necessarily found interesting until today. The use of historical settings to provide modern lessons is nothing new, but it represents another opportunity for the western to be utilized in a more meaningful way. 

This effort to cross beyond the threshold of what traditionally made a western film a western is what will define the genre moving forward. The classic interest in a western will certainly never go away, and so there will always be those films which will more strictly adhere to the traditions of the genre. But as we move forward, I don’t see how it can appeal to filmmakers besides being another paycheck. There is certainly a nostalgic appeal, but that love feels like more of a commitment to classic cinema (of which the western was one of the most dynamic elements) than it does to the western itself. The western in its classic format doesn’t offer much opportunity for an up-and-coming filmmaker to make much of a difference on the scene. 

For this reason, the western may slowly dissolve over time. But what will replace it are the types of films like what we have already seen where elements of the western are put to new, and frankly, better use. Unlike other genres, the western is largely defined within the space it takes place, rather than the type of story it tells. Being anchored to a location rather than an idea makes it more difficult to evolve over time to adapt to changing tastes and perspective. But by separating the core ideas of a western, namely the remote or small-town perspectives, we find many opportunities to connect to topics that matter today. It’s about bringing attention to voices which don’t get the kind of attention they once did thanks to Hollywood’s increasing obsession with mass appeal. In that way, the modern western, in whatever format that may take, has plenty of opportunity to grow. 

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Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."