Westerns: The End of the Trail?

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How many good Westerns have been released since 1976?  Fewer than you might things. That’s more than 40 years.

Prior to 1970, a dozen or more Westerns were released most every year, after that, the number of Westerns decreased.  By the end of the decade, mostly they were large-scale productions with a top star or director, or low budget.

Movie studios cut back on production, as movie budgets increased, as audience tastes changed, and as the traditional Western no longer seemed to interest the changing American audience.

 

After 1970, television Westerns decreased to a few long-running series. Westerns, the bread and butter of the 1950s and 1960s, had run their course. Western films had become more mature, edgy and graphic. Audiences began looking for something else.

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In the first half of the 1970s, Westerns were still being made, with familiar stars (John Wayne, James Garner, James Coburn, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood), as the genre reflected society and cultural norms of the decade. But the subject matter began reflecting new mores and new stars were on the rise.

 

McCabe_&_Mrs._MillerWhile the pipeline of Westerns was still full, that would change. Here are the more significant films of the genre: Big Jake (1971), A Fist Full of Dynamite (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Skin Game (1971), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), They Call Me Trinity (1971), Bad Company (1972), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Chato’s Land (1972), The Cowboys (1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid 1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Joe Kidd (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Cahill (1973), High Plains Drifter (1973), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), My Name is Nobody (1973), Oklahoma Crude (1973), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Train Robbers (1973), Westworld (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Bite the Bullet (1975), Rooster Cogburn (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), The Missouri Breaks (1976), The Outlaw Josey Wales, (1976), The Shootist (1976).

 

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After 1976, fewer Westerns were produced. In the late 1960s and 1970s, studios were changing hands, they were gobbled up by bigger corporations and production slates overhauled. The philosophy of busy production houses with high overhead was gone. Westerns were not safe money-making projects but if a top star was attached (Jack Nicholson, Gene Wilder, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner) or a unique variation garnered interest (Quigley Down Under, Far and Away, Shanghai Noon), the film could find financing. Many had very familiar themes, while others took significant latitude with the traditional Western, and we were introduced to the remake.

 

Goin_southFrom 1977 onward, the production of Westerns slowed considerably: Goin’ South (1978), The Frisco Kid (1979), The Long Riders (1980), Tom Horn (1980), Death Hunt (1981), The Man From Snowy River (1982), The Shadow Riders (1982), Pale Rider (1985), Silverado (1985), Lonesome Dove (1989), Dances With Wolves (1990), Quigley Down Under (1990), Far and Away (1992), Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993), Maverick (1994), The Quick and the Dead (1995), Wild Bill (1995), Ride With the Devil (1999), Wild Wild West (1999), Shanghai Noon (2000), Crossfire Trail (2001), The Last Samurai (2003), Open Range (2003), The Alamo (2004), The Legend of Zorro (2005), Broken Trail (2006), Seraphin Falls (2006), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Appaloosa (2008), True Grit (2010), Cowboys and Aliens (2011), The Lone Ranger (2013), A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), The Hateful Eight (2015), The Magnificent Seven (2016).

 

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The Western as a traditional genre is gone but the trail of Westerns did not come to a complete end. The genre never disappeared completely, just appeared more selectively. Gene Roddenberry described Star Trek as Wagon Train to the stars and Star Wars had elements of the Saturday afternoon Western serial.

In recent years there have been remakes of old Western films and series, revisionist Westerns that took folklore in very different directions, contemporary Westerns that moved the Western lore in modern times, and Western satires that only used the genre as a backdrop to lampoon the cowboy.

 

While the production of new Westerns is few, there are many old trails to explore.

 

 

 


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