The 1960s was the last decade of significance for the Western film genre. Sure, there have been Westerns since then but the game changed forever. To understand the change and to appreciate how the Western changed, let’s look at one film from each year of the decade. The films I have chosen are significant for one or more reasons. These may not represent the most successful Western of that year, but each of these films was a statement of where the film industry was at the time and showed an evolution in the genre and the tastes of American film audiences.
By the end of the 1960s, the Western became a museum piece, a genre we had almost used up, an innocence that became as jaded as the hopes and dreams of the years of Camelot. By the end of the decade it was tough to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the body counts increased, blood was everywhere, stories got more complex and psychological, small budget overseas films spiked our interest, we became conscious of how we treated Native Americans and immigrants, Westerns got funny and reflective, production of Westerns greatly decreased, and the genre noticed the passing of time.
I am a product of the 1960s, and while I didn’t spend many Saturday afternoons watching Westerns at the theater, we saw many Westerns at the local drive-in theater and of course, on television. Western series were popular on television until the end of the decade, when they nearly disappeared. Bonanza and Gunsmoke lasted several more years but audience tastes were changing and maybe most of the stories had been used up. Film Westerns were more realistic and violent, something television had a problem keeping up with. In upcoming years, television violence would be studied and actions to restrict violent content to later viewing hours would gain traction.
Westerns, with themes of good versus evil, the new frontier, tales of bravery and simpler times, would morph into the burgeoning science fiction genre. The Western genre is inherently American, but the genre was exported to Europe, where spaghetti Westerns proved that fresh blood and arid landscapes could inject new energy into the genre. New stars, revisionist ideas and edgier direction proved popular and probably hastened the inevitable decline of the genre.
Westerns, like the 1960s themselves, started out wide-eyed and optimistic, and ended up violent and disillusioned. The Western reflected 1960s society, and 1960s values. Did the Western change, or did we? Let’s take a look.
1960 The Magnificent Seven. Adapted from the Japanese film, Seventh Samurai, this film had blockbuster all over it. It spawned three sequels and one remake. The film spawned or accelerated several careers. From the opening notes of it’s amazing theme, you know this is going to be big and bold. Seven men take on a gang of bandits who have taken over a town and imprisoned its male population. Facing great odds, the seven confront a force of superior strength, but good always triumphs evil, right? Stay tuned as we work through the list.
1961 Savage Guns. Significant as the first spaghetti Western, and the first Western filmed in an area of Spain where many more films would take place. Although not successful, it established a production and distribution pipeline that would be well-utilized over the next decade as Westerns were filmed in Spain, Italy and other places. The film starred Richard Basehart, not exactly your first guess as a Western star.
1962 Ride the High Country. Decades later, buddy films would be all the rage, but this story, about two flawed and aging cowboys, signals a change in the Western genre. Good guys don’t always stay good guys, and being an aging cowboy, you don’t always ride into the sunset. One of the first films by Sam Peckinpah.
1963 McLintock!. A big budget, comedy Western, and one of John Wayne’s best light comedies. The film, while not the first, but maybe the largest, began a series of films that embraced the cruelty and racism displayed toward Native Americans. As a comedy, it did not dig too deep on this theme but to get John Wayne behind it is a big deal. Westerns could be a lot of fun, which this one is.
1964 Cheyenne Autumn. The last Western directed by John Ford, and an elegy to the Native Americans for the mistreatment they had suffered as they were driven from their homelands and nearly starved out of existence.
The story follows the Cheyenne going from their reservation in Oklahoma to their traditional grounds in Wyoming. Ambitious but wandering, lacking focus but earnest in many ways. Not the best Western of the year, but significant for its intent.
1965 Cat Ballou. Not the first comedy Western but one of the most successful, and first to lampoon the genre. Lee Marvin won a Best Actor Oscar for his duel performance. Comedic Westerns, such as McLintock! and 4 For Texas, were fairly traditional but Cat Ballou signaled things to come. And there was music.
1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. By now, Clint Eastwood had made several Westerns in Italy. Buoyed by popularity and cultural acceptance, the size and scope of his spaghetti films increased. Eastwood has playing in the big leagues now. Spaghetti Westerns had been around for five years, and they were violent, gritty and often had simplicity at their core. This film, intended as a satire by Leone, was criticized for it’s depiction of violence, something Sam Peckinpah would take to the next level.
1967 Hombre. Like Stagecoach, this film explored the diverse world of a group of travelers across dangerous territory. Paul Newman portrays a half Native American, half Anglo who tries unsuccessfully to fit in the white man’s world. The film confronts racism against Native Americans and Mexican-Americans. Those well-educated and privileged are not always the most trustworthy or possess the highest morals. The film has a very downbeat ending, something the late 1960s and early 1970s would embrace, but not common at this point. Hombre is often hard to watch, but well worth it. Is this a revisionist Western?
1968 Once Upon a Time in the West. This film is labeled a spaghetti Western, but it has many aspects of a big studio production. Director Sergio Leone worked with a big budget and a host of stars including Jason Robards, Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. This sprawling film has four intersecting stories, each with distinctive theme music by Ennio Morricone. The film did not live up to box office expectations but is considered one of the best films of all time. It tackled several familiar Western themes like revenge, the modernizing frontier, the lone hero and the corrosive nature of wealth. Visually, this is a seven course feast. The film does not ties everything together in a happy ending.
1969 The Wild Bunch. This film was an event, as much for its visual violence as for its storytelling. More than forty years later, the film is still grim, in your face, and unapologetic. Made today, the four members of the gang would be played by much younger actors. The fact that Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine and William Holden played these unsavory characters adds to the impact of the film. These mostly over-the-hill characters exemplified that the traditional Western was over. The West itself was no more, in its place was a different kind of society, where the long held virtues of Western folklore, no longer existed, if they ever did. Peckinpah makes sure you understand that, up close and in slow motion.