The Western Way To Dusty Death

Spotted a couple of articles on the death of chick-lit

No, not this kind

…and, since one of them spilled over into a larger dimension of genre fiction, I decided to throw my two cents worth in on the demise of the Western in popular entertainment.

I’m a huge huge HUGE fan of Westerns -- there was no keeping me away from the TV set when Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, or Bat Masterson were on when I was a pre-schooler.  Indeed, in my DVD collection today, Westerns are probably the 4th or 5th most represented genre after sci-fi, horror, silent movies, and Those Videos you can only get in Little Tokyo.  (No, not Those Videos, Those Videos…)[1]

So what happened to the Western?  Why did it go from the dominate genre in the first half of the 20th century to a rarity today?

Laura Miller asks:

"Supposedly, the readership for the western turned to urban crime fiction sometime in the 1970s.  Why?  Were they simply tired of cowboys and gunslingers, or had the myth of the Old West been too thoroughly undermined by counterculture critics and Native American activists?"

Only indirectly.  The big change had to do with demographics.

Prior to World War Two, the population of the U.S. was made up primarily of (a) people who lived in rural areas and (b) people who had recently moved to cities from rural areas.

These people knew about land and livestock, they knew about the daily struggle to eke a living out of the soil.  So the cowboy movies[2], no matter how fanciful or sanitized, related at some level to the life these movie goers knew.

More importantly, Westerns were not presented as historical stories (even when explicitly set in the past) but as a living, vibrant, contemporary culture.  Westerns were something that was happening Right Now (which is why it’s not surprising to see cars and airplanes and telephones and radios pop up in so many B-Westerns of the 1920s-40s).

But, by the end of the Depression and the start of World War Two, a significant thematic change started to take over Westerns, starting at first with the big budget A-Westerns.

The sub-text of every major Western from The Ox-bow Incident forward involves the closing of the West, the end of an era (this sub-text was in some films prior to The Ox-Bow Incident but from this film forward, it was omnipresent).  By the 1950s only the cheesiest of B-Westerns and mass produced TV tripe still clung to the image of a vibrant, living West; for everyone else, it was over.[3]

What had happened in a single scant decade?  Most of America’s population was no longer rural based but urban / suburban based.  Their heroes were heroes of the city.  Crime fiction, always a popular genre, moved from Western desperadoes to urban organized crime.  Cowboy knights errant were replaced by private eyes and secret agents accountable to no one.

Their landscape was far more familiar to the average post-WWII reader than the Wild West.

There are two chief culprits dragged up whenever film fans discuss the demise of the Western:  Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Blazing Saddles.

Both films did what spaghetti Westerns had been doing for the better part of a decade: Deconstructing the Western mythos and recasting it with a modern urban sensibility.

A lot of people think Blazing Saddles’ mockery did the genre in, but I’m not one of ‘em.  There had been plenty of Western farces before Blazing Saddles (albeit few willing to go as far for a joke as Mel Brooks & posse’).

No, the real genre killer was Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and primarily for The Bledsoe Scene.

For those not familiar with the film of William Goldman’s screenplay[4], the scene involved Butch and Sundance on the run, coming up with a hare-brained scheme to get out of trouble.  They track down a former outlaw they know, Sheriff Bledsoe, who has now turned lawman and offer to volunteer to fight in the Spanish-American War if he will get the governor to pardon them.

Bledsoe explodes with rage and frustration and ultimately sorrow, sadly telling Butch and Sundance that “it’s over.”

The time for outlaws and rustlers and a free range and an ever widening expanse of possibilities had ended, and with it any tolerance for men like Butch and Sundance.

What the real Butch and Sundance did was the complete antithesis of any Western hero / anti-hero:  They cut and ran to South America, first running a small ranchero in Argentina until it became too boring, then moving into Bolivia to reclaim past glories as “Los Banditos Yanquis”.

Exactly what happened next is open to endless debate, but it seems pretty certain they met their ends in a forgotten backwater of Bolivia, not the dusty streets of Dodge or Laredo or Tombstone.

Goldman’s genius was finding a story where his characters could ask themselves the philosophical question of “why are we doing this?” then acting on it once they realized there was nothing to hold them to their past.

And I think audiences around the world got that message.

The genre didn’t drop dead over night, but it withered, and when good examples are found of it (Open Range, Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove) it has been found in a new context:  The Western As Historical Fiction.

Everything has a time, everything has a season.  “This, too, shall pass” are among the oldest and most truthful words recorded by the human race.

As for us Western fans, there will always be DVDs…[5]

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[1]  It’s a joke, people!  A JOKE!

[2]  And books and pulps and comics and radio shows and serials; people forget the most popular genre of comics were westerns prior to the 1950s, and that over half of all serials produced were Westerns.  One might argue relative cheapness of production favored the huge number of Western serials, but c’mon, have you ever tried to draw a decent looking horse?  Nobody takes on that task unless there’s serious money involved!

[3]  BTW, let me state this is not an original insight of Yrs Trly but one gleaned from several different sources, none of whom I can remember for attribution.  So a tip o’the 10-gallon Stetson to you, pod’nuhs…

[4]  Shame on you!

[5]  …or The Cloud or quantum computer or the phizgink or whatever new media technologies are being cooked up by some teenager in his bedroom right now…

Jan Berenstain (1923 - 2012)

SAVAGE ANGELS -- Update #4