Long Live the Cowboy: The Return of the Western in the 21st Century
Long Live the Cowboy: The 21st Century Renaissance of the Western
Even a brief look over the current pop-culture landscape should be enough to convince anyone that the western is essentially dead. Compared to its Golden Age in the mid-20th century, the role of the Wild West on film and in television programs has diminished to the point where it is now easily lost amid a sea of alternative genres and settings. Of course there are exceptions; Deadwood, Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma, and Open Range; but these entries into the western canon are the exceptions rather than the rule. In the 1950s a person might reasonably expect to experience a wide range of media set on the fictional Wild West. In 2012, people experience the western genre only occasionally and with little consistency from year-to-year. The iconography of the Wild West may well remain a part of our cultural experience, but it can hardly be described as the pop-culture phenomenon it once was. Children who once carried crude replica pistols and wore holsters with an array of plastic bullets now carry plastic light sabres and their favourite (movie) superhero accessories. The poor box office returns of films like Appaloosa seem to underline the point – not only are few people interested in making westerns, few people seem interested in watching them. The cowboy, it seems, is dead.
And yet, this pessimistic (and undeniable) trend is turned upon its head when one glances at the world of computer generated environments and interactive experiences; westerns may do poor business on the big screen but on the Xbox, and other computer game consoles, they are doing much brisker business. In fact, a new western themed game has just been announced for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the fourth instalment in a series collectively known as Call of Juarez. Tellingly, this new title shuns the path taken by the last game in the series, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which eschewed the original western theme for a modern day setting. In stark contrast to the fate of the Wild West in film and television, this new announcement seems to suggest that the western, in its traditional, 19th century guise, remains a vibrant force in a more interactive context. For long time observers of the videogames industry this news should hardly come as a surprise – Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games was released in 2010 and has sold somewhere in the region of thirteen million copies. Moreover, it seems certain to spawn a sequel sometime in the next few years. Also launched in 2010, FrontierVille (now The Pioneer Trail) brought the western to users of Facebook, courtesy of the company who brought them the seemingly ever present FarmVille.
In the field of interactive media, then, the western seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. Millions of gamers across the world have been given the opportunity to engage in complex (and simple) depictions of the western genre, tuned and sculpted for modern tastes and sensibilities. On an optimistic day one might be tempted to suggest that this resurgence portends some greater return; if people are willing – and indeed eager – to consume western iconography and environments in an interactive medium, might a return to the big and small screen naturally follow? Such a possibility certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility but any broader resurgence in the western seems to be undermined by the sheer lack of new film and TV projects which would give weight to such a thought (with one notable exception which will be discussed shortly). Yes, the Coen Brother’s 2010 remake of True Grit was a hit and scored a number of Oscar nominations but this film (which I enjoyed) seems the exception rather than the rulel and the future box office receipt of any further films in this vein are hardly guaranteed. When I saw it at the cinema, Kevin Costener’s 2003 film Open Range seemed to hint that future westerns – if handled with sincerity and a degree of artistic finesse – could indeed work but a significant wave of spiritual follow-ups have yet to materialise. 2008’s Appaloosa may have broken even but it hardly justified its $20 million budget. The 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma fared better, bringing in healthy returns but, again, its success was modest, particularly when its budget of $55 million is taken into account. Probably the most successful western (in terms of audience turn-out) since True Grit’s release was Cowboys and Aliens which, for obvious reasons, was more fantasy than historic drama. It has also struggled to recoup its huge budget of around $160 million.
The obvious exception to the current western malaise in Hollywood is the forthcoming reimagining of The Lone Ranger from Disney. Starring Arnie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto, this film might – might – do for westerns what the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did for pirates but that film’s fate is far from certain. Following the relative failure of Cowboys and Aliens (that movie did bring in a lot of money, but not enough to offset its massive budget) Disney were notably reluctant to take a similar risk of their own with their Lone Ranger remake though that project has since entered production. At least some executives in Hollywood seem cautiously optimistic when it comes to the potential of new western films but even Depp’s star power is not enough to guarantee strong returns and the potential failure of this film may well cripple future attempts to revive westerns on the big screen. Of course only time will tell whether Disney will land a hit with this movie in 2013; until then the big screen western will likely remain in an uneasy limbo with little chance of a major resurgence from other fiscally minded film studios.
Still, even if Disney fails to demonstrate that big budget westerns are viable in the twenty first century, the videogames industry seems likely to quietly carry on bringing western fantasies to the masses. Hints have recently been dropped (though none were needed) that a future entry into the Red Dead Redemption series is in development and, should this title repeat the success of its predecessor, other western games will likely appear from competing game developers. Perhaps this development will render Hollywood’s failure to revive the western moot. Whether or not the genre can regain any significant traction on the big screen, a future for highly fictionalised depictions of the American west seem to be assured – at least in the interactive arena. The cowboy is dead. Long live the cowboy.