Alec Marsh

Revenge and retribution: why we’re still watching Westerns

Revenge and retribution: why we're still watching Westerns
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)
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What is it about Westerns? They are the Chinese takeaway of film – they’re no one’s first choice, they haven’t been fashionable in living memory, and yet you never have to look too hard to find one.

One might also compare Westerns to cockroaches or sharks; pre-Jurassic survivors who have seen off much mightier beasts time and again scuttling from the dark shadows after the latest apocalypse. So here’s a prediction: Hollywood’s finest will be dusting off their chaps and six-shooters in years to come, long after the present glut of comic-book led mega franchises have hung up their CGI leotards for good.

But already a glance at the film schedules might indicate that Westerns are experiencing a bit of a bounce: Paul Greengrass’s adaption of Paulette Jiles’ novel, News of the World starring Tom Hanks was a streaming sensation of the lockdown and garnered eight Oscars and Baftas. Before that we also had John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in Sisters Brothers in 2018 (adapted from Patrick deWitt’s novel) and then in 2017 Christian Bale returned to the genre for Hostiles, an uncompromising a Western as they come. This month, meanwhile, sees the release of Jane Campion’s new film, adapted from The Power of the Dog, a drama with a Western setting (1920s Montana), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.

The secret to the Western's endurance, I believe, is in its ability to adapt – especially if you consider where it began, with black and white pictures where galloping Indians were shot down with the sort of craven bloodthirsty zeal usually reserved for Zombies in eighties horror flicks. It's astonishing, but also telling, that cancel culture hasn't come for them yet. The Western presents a world where the usual rules don't apply. 

And the overt racism and the celebratory triumphalist ‘winning of the West’ schtick obviously died off long ago now – as society moved on. Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances With Wolves, based on Michael Blake’s novel (he got the Oscar for the adaptation too), gave us a highly sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, although well before that, in 1970, A Man Called Horse, in which Richard Harris plays an English aristocrat who becomes part of a Native American tribe (and undergoes an unforgettable initiation ceremony), again attempted a sympathetic and game-changing portrayal, albeit controversial to some.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Westerns is their embrace of violence and gangsterism – that’s only deepened, and become darker – and arguably taps into the fundamental frisson of the genre, which is the permanent proximity of jeopardy and even death to the protagonists. Life is cheap on the frontier.

As well as being cheap, there’s a black and white simplicity to it, which provides a balm to the relativist reality of modern life. When Clint Eastwood wields the pick shaft in Pale Rider (1985), it doesn’t matter that his violence is frankly disproportionate, because it’s overdue justice, and he’s also serving up a reassuring dose of macho wish-fulfilment. We’d all do the same too if we had to – outside Aldi.

We're taught to view the violence in Westerns like The Outlaw Josie Wales as cathartic. The genre offers the sort of visceral retribution that contrasts sharply with our own glacial criminal justice systems. In Westerns, the application of justice is deliciously direct and timely. 

Yet the direct application of justice is a world away from Christian Bale’s cringing everyman in James Mangold’s 2007 crime Western 3:10 to Yuma, itself a remake of the 1957 film based on the Elmore Leonard story. Here Bale brings a dose of reality to a violent landscape and provides a human foil for Russell Crowe’s delicious, semi-baroque villain. 

While the Western permits us to entertain certain dormant traits it can also show us the truth of our incapacity to go through with it, which ups the horror.

And then, there’s the fact that the Western genre defies limitation. It does war, it does revenge (True Grit) , it does crime (take your pick but No Country For Old Men is a classic modern Western by any other name); it does sci-fi – think 1973’s chilling Westworld, based on Michael Creighton’s novel, or Cowboys & Aliens of 2011, which saw Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and Harrison Ford battle an extra-terrestrial foe. The Western also stretches to musicals – Oklahoma!, which hit Broadway in 1943 and the big screen in 1955, still taps feet, and who could forget Jane Powell and Howard Keel in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? And of course it does romance, of which the most notable recent example is the ‘neo-Western’ Brokeback Mountain.

So the Western has legs, dramatically.

And more than this, it’s a fundamentally embedded species of mass entertainment – potentially one of the oldest. When Colonel ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody brought his West West show to London in 1887 they made more than 300 performances and sold more than 2.5 million tickets – equivalent to more than five per cent of the population of the entire country at the time. There were also private performances for the Princes of Wales and Queen Victoria. After London the Wild Westers toured Birmingham, Manchester and even played a night in Hull before setting sail months later. They returned year after year.

And Buffalo Bill’s was not the only show to offer dramatised scenes of life and battles from the days of the old West. For nearly 150 years, the Western, whether as a book, a live ‘theatrical’ event, or a film or musical has been embedded in our cultural psyche.

After watching Buffalo Bill’s twice show in 1884, Mark Twain famously wrote to him and said: ‘It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctively American. If you will take the Wild West show over there, you can remove that reproach.’

And that’s probably part of the appeal. The Western is the only truly North American genre, and since we in Britain, as well as in France, Germany, Ireland and many other countries had a big hand in creating America – politically, demographically and economically – that makes the stories of the old West almost part of our story too. And yet, there's a sense of otherness too - a world where the old constraints of law, order and tradition don't apply.

So don’t change the channel the next time you see Rio Bravo on the box. John Wayne still has his swagger. Just like the Western.

Written byAlec Marsh

Alec Marsh is editor-at-large at Spear's magazine and is the author of Rule Britannia and Enemy of the Raj.

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