The western ideals of freedom, the open range, open skies and the chance to loom large were irresistible to early movie audiences. At one time, horse operas made up 25 per cent of Hollywood's output. But the recent success of big budget westerns like 'There Will Be Blood' and the upcoming Coens' remake of 'True Grit' may indicate a return to the wild west. Moviefone spoke with Variety film critic and Cowboys & Indians writer Joe Leydon about the western as an enduring American art form.
Some recent Hollywood westerns have been critical and commercial hits. Are times right for a comeback?
It remains to be seen whether we're going to see a renaissance of the classic western. You could argue there may only be three true westerns in recent years: 'Open Range,' '3:10 to Yuma' and 'Appaloosa.' Only the first two were embraced by large numbers of moviegoers. The verdict on 'True Grit' is yet to come. If it does attract ticketbuyers, maybe that'll convince the bean-counters and decision-makers there's still an audience for the genre. If not, well, we'll be lucky to continue seeing sci-fi/fantasy hybrids like 'The Warrior's Way' (which bombed) and the forthcoming 'Cowboys & Aliens.'
In the early days, the cowboy/western provided fantasy fulfillment for urbanites who craved heroism and adventure. What's the appeal today?
At the risk of wading into political controversy, I would guess that a classic western of the sort John Wayne used to make might have a special appeal to Tea Partiers and other contemporary conservatives. That is, it might appeal to those who value romanticized notions of rugged individualism -- and who are profoundly skeptical about the mixed blessings of civilization and cooperation.
- Brad Pitt ('The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford')
Some say the wild west never existed, that it was a construct of the early Hollywood studio men. Do you agree?
Actually, if you believe people like David Milch, the creator/producer of 'Deadwood,' the wild west might have been even more violent and the people certainly were more, ahem, blunt spoken. When I recently interviewed Milch, he told me, "The language and the conventions of westerns had more to do with the Hays Code of censorship than with the way people really spoke at that time in the west. My research into the west -- rather than into the conventions of old movies -- suggested, given the absence of statutory law, before turning to outright physical violence, people resorted to violence in language, which included profanity.
The western genre is defined by a rigid set of rules. What are they?
The classic western hero adheres to a simple moral code. John Wayne sums it up best in 'The Shootist' when he says, "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." That's always been a very appealing philosophy for many, if not most, people. Still is.
What else is a western?
That's a very difficult question to answer, because the genre is vast and multifarious. It contains everything from 'Stagecoach' to 'The Hired Hand,' from 'The Searchers' to 'Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.' I would say a western is a story about a man -- almost always a man -- who is expert enough with a gun to have an even chance in a gunfight and lives at a time and in a place when his prowess is repeatedly tested. He is sufficiently unencumbered to place everything he owns in his saddlebags and ride off anytime he pleases. If he decides to stay put anywhere very long, he is never out of danger.
The hero's survival skills and common sense are called upon in ways we will never face. How is he relevant?
Leslie A. Fiedler said, "The private eye is merely the cowboy dismounted and moving gracefully through the streets of the city." I agree. The classic western hero has pretty much the same qualities as the classic hardboiled detective. The big difference is -- in the older westerns, at least -- the cowboy is more polite.
The genre keeps renewing itself. What about women's roles?
Verna Bloom in 'The Hired Hand' and Annette Bening in 'Open Range' are two of the very, very few women in post-1970 westerns I can think of who had more complex roles to play than most actresses in most pre-1970 westerns. There are obvious exceptions -- think Claire Trevor in 'Stagecoach' -- but Westerns have always been, by and large, for better or worse, a man's world. This, of course, may explain why many women are fascinated by them.