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Talking about improving The Magnificent Seven reminded me of some thoughts I had on the decline of the Western.

 

Factors effecting the Decline of the Western
 
Westerns and early cinema you could say almost say go hand in hand. 1903’s “Great Train Robbery “ was filmed while the West was still “Wild”. Harvey Logan “Kid Curry” (one of the last of the Wild Bunch) robbed his last train outside of Parachute, Colorado, in 1904. So Westerns in effect were contemporary cinema at the time they were first filmed. Even as progress spread rapidly on both coasts in the interior US West it reached only major towns and cities while isolated pockets remained off the grid for decades, even today there remain areas off the grid entirely. Most old timers I’ve interviewed concur that noticeable progress didn’t take effect until the post WWII era when tracked vehicles replaced horse and steam. (I actually knew a guy who grew up next to an "alumni" of Custer's Last Stand", his father was a teamster who drove a supply wagon in Eastern Montana).
 
The artisans who were responsible for early Westerns lived in that contemporary twilight of the West Era. They, especially if they were born West of the Mississippi or had emigrated to the West from Europe, grew up rubbing shoulders with  Native Americans, cowboys, prospectors, a hands on knowledge of how to work horses, they drove horse drawn vehicles, saw steam power, saw the last of the Transcontinental Railways (The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific RR) completed in 1909, used telegraph lines, kerosene lamps, barbed wire, saw the first motor cars, the first telephones networks, the first electric power grids. That knowledge of the West they applied to the films they made regardless of the scripts and overly melodramatic screenplays. This knowledge was passed down by those responsible for motion picture production and the companies that employed them (Thomas Edison's Manufacturing Company, American Mutoscope, Biograph Co., Republic Pictures, etc., etc.). Thomas Ince invented the studio system, he produced detailed scripts with new situations and characters for a vast number of classic westerns. Bison Company production studios (known as Inceville) purchased the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and the Wild West Show to use their props and performers for assembly-line, mass-produced films. In the early 1910s, Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother) was directing and starring in westerns in California for producer Ince, before joining Universal and Carl Laemmle in 1913.
 
Time passed from the Silent Era to the Sound Era to the Color Era and so did the original knowledge and the hands on creativity learned over the years. The popularity of Westerns expanded and again evolved to television production reaching a peak in the late 1950‘s early 1960‘s. This continued until the early 1970’s. Its in the 70’s where the breakdown becomes evident in production numbers. Factors that seen to be involved would be the increasing injection of heavy handed politics into Western themes from the 1950‘s onward, public taste, the newer generations total lack of personal familiarity (or total rejection) with the culture of the past, the exposing light shown on the brutal historical record of manifest destiny, the disruption of the studio system and the stability it provided, and the loss of the handed down knowledge of how to make a Western that looks and plays like a Western when Westerns weren’t being made at the same time the old school filmmakers died off. 
 
But we are really not getting Westerns any longer Westerns as we knew them are DEAD, we are in the Neo Western Age.
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I tend to view The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a convenient ending point for the 'classic' western period (similar to how I view Odds Against Tomorrow as it relates to noir).    

 

The basic theme of the film is the transition from the old west to the new west;  statehood instead of open, unlawful territory;  men of learning instead of men who live by the gun;  people learning to share the land for multiple purposes instead of only one (cattle),  etc....

 

Lonely are the Brave also released in 1962 covers similar territory but on a very micro level as it relates to the psychology of one individual that mentally belong in the old west.

 

 

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Perhaps another aspect of the "Neo-Western" would be that the characters began to look as if they hadn't just visited some barber situated along Burbank Blvd for a haircut and a nice close shave, and thus looked as if they HAD actually been denizens of the late-19th Century.

 

Case in point...

 

TOMBSTONE (1993)...

great-mustaches-of-cinema-tombstone-movi

 

 

GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957)...

Gunfight-at-the-OK-Corral-Morgan-Earp-5.

 

(...yep, every old tintype I've ever seen of Wyatt Earp, he sure looks a heck of a lot more like Kurt up there than he did Burt here)

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Recently I compiled a top ten favorite films from each year from 1930 through to the present. After reading all of this back and forth about Westerns, i decided to look my lists over to see how many Westerns are present, and what period of the time held the most titles that I rank highly. Here are the Westerns from those lists:

 

1930's

Stagecoach (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939)

 

1940's

The Westerner (1940)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Red River (1948)

Fort Apache (1948)

 

1950's

Winchester '73 (1950)

Rio Grande (1950)

High Noon (1952)

Shane (1953)

The Searchers (1956)

Rio Bravo (1959)

 

1960's

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Ride the High Country (1962)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Cat Ballou (1965)

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

 

1970's

Little Big Man (1970)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

 

1980's

The Long Riders (1980)

 

1990's

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Unforgiven (1992)

Tombstone (1993)

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Dead Man (1995)

 

2000's

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

 

2010's

True Grit (2010)

Django Unchained (2012)

 

Looking over this list, I can say that for me, the post-Liberty Valance Western era is the one I prefer. 

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Talking about improving The Magnificent Seven reminded me of some thoughts I had on the decline of the Western.

 

 

The Magnificent Seven was the remake of a Kurosawa samurai movie, and the best westerns (A Fistful of Dollars) were.

 

As for other westerns, the fact that they were everywhere on TV because they were easy to shoot outside Hollywood was one of the factors that made them "establishment".

When artsy Italian guys started trying to make violent misogynist "myth" westerns without ever having grown up in the US in their lives, everyone cheered the "Deconstruction" that Clint Eastwood wasn't the Lone Ranger, and between the two, we forgot what real westerns were in the middle.

 

And back when the 70's were deconstructing every "old-fashioned" Hollywood genre because they weren't cynical enough, we got a few post-westerns like Altman's (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Buffalo Bill & the Indians) and a few with Charles Bronson ("The White Buffalo" is actually one pretty darn good film), but it was Heaven's Gate's attempt to do The Big, Big, Period-Detailed American-Guilt Deconstructionist Shame-Western that brought the whole genre crashing down.

 

Lawrence Kasdan's "Silverado" was good, but ten years ahead of its time--

If it'd come out after Clint Eastwood had established the Neo-Western in "Unforgiven", the way that Tombstone and The Assassination of Jesse James did, it would have done rather well.

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I am a big fan of the 1950s western, not so much for other decades, although there are westerns from other decades that I like. I'd certainly add Hombre and the grim Ulzana's Raid as films that would make top tens for their year.

 

All genres rise and fall. Part of the greatness of the 50s western was that there was a great sense of confidence from having defeated Hitler, a pride in being American and in the course of American history. For almost all Americans, there was little doubt that we had right on our side in the continuing struggle with communism. The West was often seen as an arena in which the division of the Civil War could be repaired. As a result of that confidence, the shortcomings of the past, especially the mistreatment of Native Americans could be addressed, in films like Devil's Doorway, Apache, and The Searchers, without the sense of cynicism, self-righteousness, and unearned superiority which became endemic in the revisionist western.

 

If much western "product," like TV shoot-em-ups, could be reduced to good guys vs. bad guys, to some filmmakers the western gave an opportunity to explore moral dilemmas. Mann, Boetticher, Daves, Ford, Hawks, De Toth, Zinnemann, Walsh, Tourneur, Stevens, and other directors, as well as the writers who worked with them, made the 1950s western at its best a rich and complex genre.
 

 

 

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I am a big fan of the 1950s western, not so much for other decades, although there are westerns from other decades that I like. I'd certainly add Hombre and the grim Ulzana's Raid as films that would make top tens for their year.

 

All genres rise and fall. Part of the greatness of the 50s western was that there was a great sense of confidence from having defeated Hitler, a pride in being American and in the course of American history. For almost all Americans, there was little doubt that we had right on our side in the continuing struggle with communism. The West was often seen as an arena in which the division of the Civil War could be repaired. As a result of that confidence, the shortcomings of the past, especially the mistreatment of Native Americans could be addressed, in films like Devil's Doorway, Apache, and The Searchers, without the sense of cynicism, self-righteousness, and unearned superiority which became endemic in the revisionist western.

 

If much western "product," like TV shoot-em-ups, could be reduced to good guys vs. bad guys, to some filmmakers the western gave an opportunity to explore moral dilemmas. Mann, Boetticher, Daves, Ford, Hawks, De Toth, Zinnemann, Walsh, Tourneur, Stevens, and other directors, as well as the writers who worked with them, made the 1950s western at its best a rich and complex genre.

 

Great post, but it sort of ignores the fact that westerns did strong business in the 1930s and during the war years. Plus a film like Republic's DARK COMMAND, produced in 1940, gives us a rich and complex story about profiteering on both sides, a zealot's massacre and his brother's disillusionment. In many ways, Raoul Walsh's classic motion picture is covering the themes we see in the postwar and revisionist eras.

 

So I don't think this has as much to do with defeating Hitler or a sense of confidence among Americans fighting communism as it has to do with how the genre itself explores notions of what it means to be an American in any decade.

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I couldn't begin to guess as to the WHY of the decline of movie Westerns. 

 

I've always liked them, and actually have NO favorite "period" of their existence.   And to add....I've never heard or read of the more modern day Western movies( such as UNFORGIVEN, TOMBSTONE and SILVERADO ) being referred to as "neo-westerns".  I've often read or heard them called "Revisionist".  As many of them cover the same themes and contain many types of characters in "traditional" Western movies, but delve deeper into both story and main characters' psyches.

 

Examining the difference between what's beenshown in older movies and TV shows that cover the period can be both interesting and a bit disappointing.  Like when, over the years, you learn that the REAL Wyatt Earp DIDN'T carry a pistol with an extra long barrell, or came anywhere NEAR as good looking as HUGH O'BRIEN.

 

Or that the real JESSE JAMES, while actually a clean-cut and pleasant looking guy, STILL fell way short of the good looking and macho physical stature of either TYRONE POWER or even CHRISTOPHER JONES and ROBERT WAGNER.  And nowhere NEAR the heroic figure projected in any movie about him.

 

But the last attempt of the genre I can recall was that abysmally dreadful THE LONE RANGER fiasco with JOHNNY DEPP as a TONTO that looked more like an escapee from the set of APOCALYPSE NOW.

 

And I STILL humorously wonder if AKIA KUROSAWA didn't get the idea for his SEVEN SAMURAI from Brando's THE WILD ONE.  ;)

 

 

Sepiatone

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Looking over this list, I can say that for me, the post-Liberty Valance Western era is the one I prefer. 

 

Me I prefer 50s through early 70's with a few outliers beyond and before. 

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I couldn't begin to guess as to the WHY of the decline of movie Westerns. 

 

I've always liked them, and actually have NO favorite "period" of their existence.   And to add....I've never heard or read of the more modern day Western movies( such as UNFORGIVEN, TOMBSTONE and SILVERADO ) being referred to as "neo-westerns".  I've often read or heard them called "Revisionist".  As many of them cover the same themes and contain many types of characters in "traditional" Western movies, but delve deeper into both story and main characters' psyches.

 

"Revisionist" is a better term, I was just borrowing Dargo's for clarity.

Gene Hackman's scene where he explains the real facts to the dime-novel writer in Unforgiven pretty well lays out what the Revisionist Western set out to do--More of a historical-period detail without orgying on the detail and revisionist-history like Michael Cimino did, or going operatic like Sergio Leone.

 

Examining the difference between what's beenshown in older movies and TV shows that cover the period can be both interesting and a bit disappointing.  Like when, over the years, you learn that the REAL Wyatt Earp DIDN'T carry a pistol with an extra long barrell, or came anywhere NEAR as good looking as HUGH O'BRIEN.

 

Or that the real JESSE JAMES, while actually a clean-cut and pleasant looking guy, STILL fell way short of the good looking and macho physical stature of either TYRONE POWER or even CHRISTOPHER JONES and ROBERT WAGNER.  And nowhere NEAR the heroic figure projected in any movie about him.

 

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James did a good depiction:

A wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid whose gang had part-time work doing partisan train holdups during the Civil War, now grown up into an adult who didn't know any other work, but was conscious of his media-celebrity status now that the newspapers were playing up his symbolic image.  ("The Robin Hood of the west, striking back against those rich Yankee railroad barons!")

 

Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp was...okay, but the movie had Revisionism on its mind for three hours, and Tombstone had already aced the Dodge City territory first.

 

But the last attempt of the genre I can recall was that abysmally dreadful THE LONE RANGER fiasco with JOHNNY DEPP as a TONTO that looked more like an escapee from the set of APOCALYPSE NOW.

 

And since the director, screenwriters and studio were more interested in reminding us of their Pirates franchise once they got their star back, that one didn't count.

(I remember the joke that the scene where the Ranger rides to the rescue on an elephant was the perfect symbolic image of that movie:  Oversized, overdone, unrealistically CGI'ed, too self-consciously clever-by-half on the part of the screenwriters, utterly ruining the William Tell Overture moment, and so completely wrong compared to what the audience was reasonably expecting.)

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You have described the germinal, embryonic and fetal stages of movie westerns in your fine exegesis, Cigar Joe.

Most artists and art movements have a rise, decline and fall. We are now in the moribund stage of the movie western and perhaps this is due to the genre not being as relatable to audiences who have been raised on car action sequences instead of those on horseback.

 

Some significant movements lose their lustre and never return to the esteem they once had. This may be the fate of the movie western.

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Although I claimed a love for Westerns in general, I DO have a tendency to "shy-away" from what I call "display piece" Westerns.  You know---

 

Those Westerns in which ALL the cowboys seemed to dress the same:  matching hats and vests, and shiny pistols that ALWAYS looked brand new.   And the cliched "black hat-white hat" thing.  And EVERY cowpoke, good guy or bad, always had a clean shave and well pressed clothing!

 

 

Sepiatone

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I was watching How the West Was Won recently -- a great, glorious, episodic movie which I had originally seen in Cinerama as a kid. This time watching, it occurred to me that the film seems to say that the great achievement of all that pioneer angst were the LA freeways! After all those glorious scenes of the West, the film segues to the present (i.e. the early 1960s) and shows the highways as the culmination of American civilization.

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I remember seeing one post golden age Western where on a barbed wire fence, instead of round posts, some clueless set designer substituted 2x2" square lath for pots. Even the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, had an already ridiculous sequence where actors are running on the roof peak of a new construction made even more ridiculous by having the stapled bar codes still showing on the roof rafters. 

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Although I claimed a love for Westerns in general, I DO have a tendency to "shy-away" from what I call "display piece" Westerns.  You know---

 

Those Westerns in which ALL the cowboys seemed to dress the same:  matching hats and vests, and shiny pistols that ALWAYS looked brand new.   And the cliched "black hat-white hat" thing.  And EVERY cowpoke, good guy or bad, always had a clean shave and well pressed clothing!

 

 

Sepiatone

You have to separate the kid Westerns from the more adult Westerns as far as the "display piece" Westerns ;-)

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I was watching How the West Was Won recently -- a great, glorious, episodic movie which I had originally seen in Cinerama as a kid. This time watching, it occurred to me that the film seems to say that the great achievement of all that pioneer angst were the LA freeways! After all those glorious scenes of the West, the film segues to the present (i.e. the early 1960s) and shows the highways as the culmination of American civilization.

Right...one of the more ridiculous endings of an epic western film. If it had been made after Kubrick's 2001, the final sequence would have depicted rockets and space shuttles traveling through space, while Spencer Tracy narrated about pioneers now exploring new planets.

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Right...one of the more ridiculous endings of an epic western film. If it had been made after Kubrick's 2001, the final sequence would have depicted rockets and space shuttles traveling through space, while Spencer Tracy narrated about pioneers now exploring new planets.

 

Saaay, whaddaya talkin' about here, TB...oh, and Swithin?!

 

Why, the Four-Level Interchange(aka "The Stack") just northwest of Downtown is a veritable MARVEL of modern engineering know-how, DUDE...err...DUDES!!!

 

(...and besides, I always thought that ending to HTWWW was sayin' that we "won the west" by pavin' it over...and isn't THAT the good ol' "American WAY"?!!!)

 

;)

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