I can name for you every western I’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be hard. That’s not even close to true about any other genre: I always feel I came relatively late to horror, but the idea of listing all the horror films I’ve seen seems absurd, a job it would be impossible to finish. But I’ve seen, like, fifteen westerns – I’m a total novice, fumbling around in the dark in a genre in which I have yet to grow roots.
But as I slowly, stumblingly get into westerns, I’ve become acutely aware of the gap between the way people talk about westerns and what they’re actually like. The western – especially for people my age, who didn’t grow up watching them on Saturday afternoons – is treated less like an artform than a rhetorical device, and this means, necessarily, reducing a huge, varied film genre to a static set of characteristics. It means assuming that everything westerns were, are or can be fits in a little box.
So here’s what westerns are supposed to be like, reverse-engineered from two decades of listening to people talk about westerns before I actually saw one: they are racist, sexist, right-wing propaganda, a conservative genre for old white men, justly killed by the rising tide of progressivism. They exist(ed) to justify manifest destiny, exalt the conquering white man, and vilify the Native American. They are the product of America’s most corrosive foundational myths, and they repackage and disseminate those myths for mass appeal: rugged individualism, white supremacy and masculine violence, personified in the image of the lone gunslinger. John Wayne is invoked as the epitome of a certain form of masculinity so often that the reference requires no further explanation, by progressives and nostalgic reactionaries alike.
And it’s not that any of those things are unilaterally untrue. There’s no part of it that I can point to that isn’t true of at least some and maybe a lot of westerns, at least some and maybe a lot of the time. But these kinds of broad statements on the ideology of a genre are always weird and awkward: debates about whether horror movies are feminist or whether superhero movies are libertarian or whatever require lumping genre films together and flattening out any details threatening to deviate. But the details are where political perspective occurs in a piece of art. Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho is literally shot-for-shot the same, but where Anthony Perkins plays Norman shy and awkward and with a kind of offbeat, disarming sweetness, Vince Vaughn plays him as a fucking creep the whole time. So even though those two films are deliberately identical, they do not have the same perspective on mental illness. How, then, could entire genres have the same ideological meanings?
To get around this flattening, sometimes westerns are sorted into two camps. There’s the classic westerns, which are racist, sexist, conservative, individualist and pro-violence, and then, from the late 1960s, revisionist westerns, which are about how racism and sexism are bad. The classic westerns created a mythological space that the revisionist westerns set out to destroy, to expose as artifice. These trends are certainly there: if you asked me to make a bet on the politics of a western, the period it came out would be as good a marker as any. Contemporary westerns are much more likely to be something like Django Unchained or Netflix’s all-female western series Godless than a cowboys-and-Indians story about the righteousness of the white invasion. But it still requires lumping together and neglecting details: a fair description of Hollywood trends is subsumed into the Whig interpretation of history, the belief that the arc of history bends inevitably towards an ever-better world through the development of human reason. This means presupposing the stupidity of people in the past and the cleverness of people in the present, and renders us chronically unable to engage deeply or even coherently with art old enough to be recognisably of a different era.
There is a tendency in some film and TV criticism to try and outsmart older works: you see it in clickbait takes about 1990s sitcoms being homophobic for gay farce plots, or blaming Halloween for the stigmatisation of the mentally ill, or the seasonal bloom of “the old Disney princesses were bad, the new Disney princesses were good” thinkpieces, which has gone on long enough now that some of the original new good princesses are now the old bad ones. It’s not that homophobia in 1990s sitcoms or depictions of mental illness in the Halloween series or the gender politics of Disney princesses aren’t worth talking about. It’s that so many of these takes are deliberately uncharitable, less interested in the works themselves than declaring that everything from the past is worse than everything from the present. It’s designed to feed historical and artistic ignorance, and we end up celebrating the same milestones over and over because a genderswap remake of Ghostbusters seems like a much bigger deal when you don’t know that 9 to 5 was the second highest grossing movie of 1980.
Grand pronouncements of what whole genres or artforms are like feel less like authentic cultural criticism than posturing. “Is I Spit on Your Grave actually a feminist film?” is already a question impossible to definitively answer without zooming out to “are rape-revenge movies feminist?” or, God forbid, “are horror movies feminist?” The only thing you can say for definite about the politics of an entire genre – especially a genre as extensive as westerns or horror – is whether it can have a particular political outlook. “Are horror movies feminist?” is a stupid question; “can horror movies be feminist?” is an easy one: yes (to the extent that any piece of art can be).
So: westerns can be racist, sexist, conservative, individualist and pro-violence. Their depictions of Native Americans can be especially terrible. (Although it is worth noting that the centrality of Native Americans to the western is kind of overstated – the role of the “other” just as often goes to Mexicans, and occasionally just to other groups of white people.) They can disseminate America’s foundational myths like maybe nothing else. But that’s in no small part because they’re about those myths like nothing else: westerns take place in spaces that simultaneously did and did not exist, wrangling with a mythologised past to speak to both present and universal concerns. That can mean reaffirming American mythology, tearing it down, or – often – something in the ambiguous in-between.
Here’s how you can tell for sure that the classic vs. revisionist western dichotomy is bullshit: Stagecoach exists. In the 1930s, westerns were out of fashion, relegated to low-budget B-movies. Then, in 1939, John Ford directed Stagecoach, one of the best films released in one of the all-time best years for film. It’s about a group of very different people on a stagecoach together, going on a dangerous journey through Apache territory. It’s the structure of almost every disaster movie after it: these people are forced into close proximity through an external danger, and the experience transforms them. It feels both intimate and epic: most if it takes place in confined spaces like the stagecoach and inns with low ceilings, but you can always feel the wild expanse of the world just outside. The portrayal of the Apache people isn’t great: they exist solely as a threat, not as characters, and you could replace them with a hurricane and not have to change much. Although even this is nuanced a bit when we meet an innkeeper whose wife is Apache, and who laughs when the white visitors are shocked and confused. It’s a funny and moving and very beautiful film, and gave audiences their first real introduction to John Wayne (and it’s one hell of an introduction). Orson Welles said he saw it 40 times.
Stagecoach is unquestionably a classic western, because it’s the classic western. It’s the grandfather of all that came after it. And yet it doesn’t fit into the political dichotomy at all. In Stagecoach, an escaped convict and a sex worker are our noble heroes: the Ringo Kid (Wayne) has escaped prison to avenge the murder of his father and brother, and Dallas (Claire Trevor) has been run out of town by the Law and Order League. The film is no small part about their falling in love, and Ringo treats her with such respect and kindness while the other passengers look down on her.
In fact, it is the powerful and well-respected who must learn the error of their ways, or be damned. Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer, is especially cruel to Dallas, but learns to see her as a person and not just a prostitute when Dallas aids her in childbirth. (In that strange, uneven self-censorship of the early Hayes Code, it is extremely obvious that Dallas is a sex worker and not obvious at all that Mrs. Mallory is pregnant.) Henry Gatewood, a banker whose dialogue is 80% right-wing talking points (“What this country needs is a businessman for president!”), gets arrested for embezzling. Marshal Curly (George Bancroft), who got onboard to go capture Ringo, ends up serving a higher justice than the law and lets him go.
How justice can be served comes up a lot in westerns: they’re set at (what feels like) the edge of the world, far from the structures of “civilisation”. This is one of the reasons violence is so prominent – because the state cannot maintain a monopoly on violence when there is very little that resembles a state. In 2010’s True Grit, fourteen-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) herself, along with a US Marshal she hires out of her own pocket, go to capture her father’s murderer. When there is so little authority around, authorities appoint themselves, and a lot of westerns are about just what that means: both who do we become when there is nothing to stop us? and what do those with power become when we can do nothing to stop them?
High Noon is an allegory for McCarthyism: Marshal Kane (Gary Cooper) is going to be attacked by a group of outlaws arriving on the midday train, and not a single person in town will stand up for Kane despite this obvious wrong being done to him. He has to decide whether to fight or flee, a conflict the director, Fred Zinnemann, said made the film “a cousin to A Man for All Seasons.” The historical / generic remove of the western allows it to speak to contemporary issues in a way contemporary dramas aren’t always able to: I can’t imagine a Hollywood film against the blacklisting of communists and alleged communists being released in 1952 without being a western or a genre movie, let alone making 12 million dollars (that’s 114 million adjusted for inflation, or more than 16 times its budget).
Westerns are about America, which has made them particularly efficient disseminators of pro-American myths, but also makes them particularly good at critiquing America – not just the big, foundational myths, but contemporary policy. And when we throw all westerns into the one bucket, we lose those stories, and lose those vital, subversive critiques. It distorts cultural and political history, cutting us off from a wellspring of art and knowledge and ideas and making us less capable of understanding the present political moment and how art can engage with it. This is especially troubling in an age when many people – particularly young people – are uninterested in or unwilling to engage with art much older than themselves. Even when they do, they take their cues on what’s worth revisiting from the very contemporary clickbait and hot take pop culture writers whose misrepresentation of older art is what needs to be overcome. Or worse, they turn to a review aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes.
Heaven’s Gate has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 57% – the same as Michael Bay’s Transformers – and makes Wikipedia’s list of Films Considered The Worst. It’s one of the most infamous box office bombs in history, essentially singlehandedly sinking the studio United Artists. It’s nearly four hours long and Roger Ebert called it one of the ugliest films he’d ever seen. I love it more than anything.
Heaven’s Gate was released in 1980, after going way over time and budget, as director Michael Cimino’s follow-up to Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. I can’t say that it’s about Reagan, but it’s not not about Reagan: it’s kind of about everything, in the way four-hour epics tend to be. The main plot is about the wealthy cattle barons drawing up a list of 125 settlers to have killed. It’s supposed to be for being “thieves and anarchists,” but really it’s because they’re poor and, in most cases, immigrants. It’s a film about class and immigration and dehumanisation, and it’s got an extremely long scene of people at a roller skate rink. Every frame looks like an old photograph – it’s not that it’s sepia-toned, exactly, so much as it uses colour and light in a very particular way. And if it’s not not about Reagan, it’s not not about Trump: the criminalisation of immigrants in the pursuit of ever greater self-enrichment feels like an urgent story to revisit, and the intense, heart-wrenching slaughter serves as a stark warning.
Shane, released the guts of thirty years earlier, is also about wealthy cattle barons screwing over the working class. Shane is a mysterious gunfighter who gets taken in by a local family and given a job on their farm. Their young son Joey is infatuated with Shane, and with his gun, even as Shane is trying to make a new life for himself not saturated in and defined by violence. It’s one of the most powerful meditations on violence I’ve seen on-screen. It’s not just about the effect of having violence inflicted upon you, but the effect of inflicting violence on others: how it disfigures the soul, and locks a person into inescapable patterns. “There’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back,” Shane tells Joey, “Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
But it’s not like westerns are all weighty political treatises or something. There are, broadly speaking, two types of film violence: serious violence, that’s intended to feel real and urgent and unsettling, and fun violence, which is over-the-top in ways on a continuum from slapstick to choregraphed dance. Quentin Tarantino usually traffics in the second kind, but you can see both in Django Unchained: the violence against the slaves is serious and unsettling; Django’s violent revenge against the slaveowners is a blast, both cathartic and funny.
Heaven’s Gate is definitely serious violence. But then you have a film like A Fistful of Dollars, which is an absolute, unmitigated joy. Considering that it’s an unauthorised Italian remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (a lot of westerns are remakes of samurai films), it’s kind of weird that it’s the film that made Clint Eastwood a star. It’s about a man (Eastwood) who comes to town, and then literally everyone dies. In many ways, it’s the film I imagined westerns to be before I watched any – not politically, but aesthetically: that Ennio Morricone score, the rattlesnake and whipping sound effects, and an ending straight out of Back to the Future Part III. A couple of months after I saw it for the first time, an autistic woman was kicked out of a screening at the BFI in London for laughing, and a lot of heartless Daily Mail commenters made fun of the idea of Fistful of Dollars being a laugh riot. But the joke’s on them, because it’s hilarious. Clint Eastwood gives a whole speech to the antagonists about how his mule is very upset. He says “hello” in a perfectly neutral fashion when he bursts into a room to shoot everybody. The sheer number of bodies that pile up in the third act is pitch-perfect absurdity.
This should all be leading to some grand declaration about what westerns were or are or can be. But I’ve got no clue. I’m just scratching the surface. So here are my dispatches from the surface: watching westerns has so far been wonderful. Firstly that’s because it’s always wonderful to see great films for the first time, and there’s a particular kind of wonderful in seeing something great that’s nothing like anything you’ve seen before, like you’re on a voyage of discovery – like when I saw Casablanca for the first time at thirteen and realised that old black-and-white films could blow your hair back like that.
But it’s also made me understand film more. Westerns, even more so than other genre movies, feel like a discrete thing, something set apart from film in general. But watching westerns makes me see them in everything: how Taxi Driver draws on The Searchers; how Assault on Precinct 13 is exactly like a western other than being set in a city in the 1970s, or Inglourious Basterds is exactly like a western other than being set in Nazi Germany; how Star Wars is a product of the western as much as or more than of sci-fi serials and World War II movies. How Stagecoach’s low ceilings inspired Citizen Kane. Westerns as a genre are a fundamental component of the landscape of cinema, spanning from low-budget B-movies to blockbuster epics to experimental film, with roots not just in Hollywood but Italy and Japan. All art is in conversation with what came before it, and when decades upon decades of popular cinema was dominated by the western, you can’t put westerns aside without making yourself deaf to so much of that conversation.