With Friday’s theatrical release of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” next week’s arrival of the superb movie “Hostiles” and “Godless” shootin’ up the ol’ Netflix, we’re a seeing an encouraging revival of the Western that . . .
Tarnation! I can’t do this again. I’ve written stories about the return of Westerns every few years since the 1980s, and it’s giving me saddle sores. Look folks, what had been Hollywood’s most reliable action/mythic/sociological metaphoric/guys-in-hats-singing genre from the dawn of the sound era to 1980 bit the dust more than three decades ago, and all the “Dances with Wolves,” “Unforgivens,” “Deadwoods,” “Django Unchaineds” and “Revenants” since then have not resuscitated it as a regular, viable thing.
Maybe that’s for the best. Great as the best Westerns were and always will be, the category as a whole rested on dubious assumptions, like it’s OK to steal others’ land, white makes right, and everything can be solved with guns.
Not saying that meant Westerns deserved to end up on boot hill. Films reveal a lot about the cultures they come from, and whether they intended to be instructional or not, horse operas revealed more about America than any other kinds of movies. The current ones each do a fine job of that in their own ways, and it’s significant that each is built around a particular aspect of the closing of the Old West in the run-up to the 20th century: Imposing corrupt political order on the new states/formerly wild territories (“Lefty Brown”), coming to terms with the animating hatreds that conquered the frontier (“Hostiles”), armed women who ain’t gonna take all of your cowboy crap anymore (“Godless”).
All of which gets me to thinking: Which Westerns were responsible for killing the Western? The ones that exploded the genre’s underlying assumptions, of course, and/or lost their producers a trainload of money. These also tended to be some of the best Westerns ever made, naturally; they were driven by ideas more than action, though the good ones delivered plenty of the latter too.
Here are five movies that shot the genre where it hurt. All of ’em – even the last one if you’ve got the time to waste on the director’s cut – are worth seeing for much more than that.
1. The Searchers: Weird that a film from 1956, near the pinnacle of movie Westerns’ popularity and at the start of their decade dominating television, should be looked at as the…