The overly simple Westerns that the genre’s famous for need to give way to new Westerns of depth and polish.
Never been a fan of Westerns? Or are you a traditionalist who hasn’t discovered modern additions to the genre? A genre defined by gripping tales of vengeance doled out by saints, sinners and mysterious strangers, Westerns gave us the very best of Clint Eastwood, one of cinema’s great names, in films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and later Unforgiven, but in recent years the Western has seen a marked decline. Westerns rank amongst some of the very best films, but could their endearing simplicity ultimately be the cause of their decline?
Certain Westerns, like the Dollars films, have created a stigma amongst critics of the genre because of their relative simplicity
Of course, we’ve had horror Westerns and contemporary Westerns, even science-fiction Westerns (remember Cowboys & Aliens? Yeah, we’ve tried to forget too), but the traditional tales of outlaws and brutal quests for revenge have lately been few and far between. One highlight of recent offerings was 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma remake, a fantastically executed example of the kind of plots and characters that make traditional Westerns great, and more than a simple ‘shoot-em-up’ thrill ride. Christian Bale plays the part of the film’s unfortunate underdog perfectly, while Russell Crowe’s portrayal of a ruthless and flamboyant outlaw complements the modesty of Bale. They together draw you in, with complex character development alongside the adrenaline pumping white-knuckle moments any great Western needs.
While Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns are often remembered as the real figureheads of the genre, they are arguably the films most culpable for giving the genre its label of overly simple plot-lines and one-dimensional characters. Sergio Leone’s masterfully stylised direction and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic soundtrack make their Western trio (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More and A Fistful of Dollars) a genre unto itself. However, between them – Westerns like these, and the myriad spin-offs and alternatives (ie John Wayne’s less stylised all-American romps) – have created a stigma amongst critics of the genre because of their relative simplicity.
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“When actors of Neeson and Brosnan’s quality stoop to material so obviously beneath them, a lashing at least might be in order” - so said Ruth Stein in her piece on Seraphim Falls for the San Francisco Chronicle. This exemplifies the stigma that exists against traditional Westerns perfectly. 2006’s Seraphim Falls was definitely a modern Western for traditionalists, the plot involving one large chase in search of revenge (with the odd twist). But many critics agreed Seraphim Falls was a good movie, and implying that it was “below” Neeson seems ridiculous (especially when we take into account his appearances in Taken 2 (the sequel no one remembers) and the aptly named The Grey).
If Tarantino venturing into the genre does anything to combat the genre’s stigma, Westerns could be in for a deserved resurrection
Western fans have to acknowledge the criticisms of ‘over simplicity’ levelled at the genre, but films like 3:10 to Yuma could be the future of the genre, shaking off the stigma it’s currently burdened with. Hopefully Tarantino’s explosive venture into the Old West with Django Unchained will attract attention and interest back to the genre (alongside the success of 2010’s True Grit remake), opening the door for more modern Westerns capable of achieving critical acclaim. Modern Westerns have shown the ability to harness typical Western plots and combine them with the polish, production values and quality we expect of modern cinema.
3:10 to Yuma and Django Unchained have been the leaders of a pack of films capable of shaking off the genre’s negative labels. It’s these films that show us why we need Westerns back. While Westerns were commonly B-movies in the past, these modern Westerns have all the slick charms of their big budget rivals, and if Tarantino venturing into the genre (and the growing tide of rumours suggesting he may still do so again with The Hateful Eight) does anything to combat the genre’s stigma, Westerns could be in for the resurrection they deserve.
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Featured image: Lionsgate
Inset image: Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment