The State of the Western in 2013
The State of the Western in 2013
Disney’s The Lone Ranger cost a reported $215 million to make. Since its release earlier this year it has earned just $89 million at the US box office. When the film’s international haul of $171 million is taken into account, the situation appears to improve to the tune of a $40 million profit. However, when the portion of this money which is taken by cinemas and movie houses -at least 50% of the total- is taken into account, dreams of profit die once again. When the film’s marketing budget, which apparently cost as much as $150 million, is added to the equation, the scale of this disaster becomes apparent. The Lone Ranger, critically mauled and the subject of racial controversies, has lost at least $200,000,000 and though DVD sales and TV rights should bring down the size of that loss, it is difficult to imagine any scenario where The Lone Ranger costs Disney anything less than $150 million. Where, then, does this latest cinematic disaster leave the western as a genre, is there still any broad interest in fanciful tales about a mythologized version of America’s frontier past or is the genre as anachronistic as it sometimes feels?
Before exploring the western’s future, we must consider an ethical question. Should we tolerate material that commercialises a period so steeped in tragedy, racism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide? By watching films or consuming media that, generally, suggests that the expansion of the US across North America was a positive thing are we, as an audience, somehow endorsing the worst events of that period? To put that question another way, by watching positive portrayals of the American West are we buying into an image of positive colonisation? One could rebut such a sentiment easily enough by reminding us that most recent westerns have not featured any Native Americans, that films like True Grit make buffoons out of their main characters in a way that hardly seems to fit the model I appear to be setting up. And yet, even in a film like True Grit, notions of honour and of justice are placed front and centre. A buffoon, Rooster Cogburn may be, but he is an honourable, just, and noble one. Perhaps more importantly, he is ultimately defined not by his (often) ridiculous actions but by the nature of his much more nuanced inner character. True Grit may not glamorise the American West, but it hardly damns it either. Considering the scale and scope of the western tragedy, can we really accept that Hollywood seems so reluctant to properly explore the issue when it appears to be willing to explore so much else about the American experience? Can we really enjoy films like True Grit and (even) Django Unchained when they appear to ignore one of the most important catastrophes in American history?
Perhaps such an argument appears overzealous, perhaps a critic might remind us that the Indians are not present in films like True Grit, and that such films make no attempt to pass comment upon the issues which arise when one seriously thinks about the history of the American West. Such a critic might go on to inform us that these are not films that should be saddled with post-colonial baggage, that they are movies which happen to set in the West rather than being films which are about the West. In short, we might be informed, westerns which do not utilize the Indians should not be judged on the stories they don’t tell. There is much that is compelling about such logic, and yet even when the Indians are not depicted the impact of western expansion upon them was so great that they remain (or at least they should remain) a constant presence, often unseen, that silently looms over the genre. True Grit may not deal with the Indians, but it does deal with the world which displaced them; with a world which deemed itself to have a greater right to exist than theirs; with a world in which the presence and success of one group implies something much worse for the Other. By not depicting Native Americans directly, Hollywood has been able to sidestep the issue of how they should be treated in a post-John Ford world but their solution is, at best, a temporary and incomplete fix. It is ignoring the problem and, judging by The Lone Ranger’s attempt to deal with the Indians, it has no real idea how to rectify that issue. The problem here is not the existence of films like True Grit (which I rather enjoyed), but rather the non-existence of films which deal with more weighty issues regarding race and ethnic cleansing in America’s frontier past. True Grit has every reason to exist in the form that it does, every right to deal with the themes and characters that it does, but it should be only one part of a film making landscape that explores various aspects of America’s troubling western legacy.
Probably the best example of this occurred on HBO’s gritty western drama, Deadwood. Like virtually every modern western, Deadwood tended to sidestep the Indians with little more than the occasional reference made to acknowledge their existence. Had the show done only that it may have been enough – the complex, nuanced, and often repulsive nature of the show’s characters worked to effectively deconstruct the perceived heroism of the period. In spite of a sophisticated subtext that did not require direct action, a Native American was nevertheless featured in a type of glory-less fight with the show’s main protagonist. In so doing, his death was linked to the growth of towns like Deadwood and the complicity of all of those involved in the frontier project was thus established. Few characters in Deadwood have any contact or interest in the Indians but, this show reminds us, they were all a part of the same problem whether they realised it or not.
There is still a case to be made that shows like Deadwood do little to address the big issues at the heart of the genre, but by at least pointing a finger and raising an accusatory eyebrow it brings questions and issues to light that might otherwise have languished below the surface (it is doubly tragic, then, that so many critics seem oblivious to such a gesture, that most of the conversations generated by that show revolve around the historic (in)accuracy of the swearing and cursing it features – critics and commentators, please take note, it is time to up your game). That is not to say that every western film or TV show needs to follow suit, that they must all raise questions about a difficult frontier past, but when one considers that they are ideally positioned for such a task, and the fact that the Indians are barely even mentioned in most films, this complete lack of engagement seems all the more striking. Hollywood was an enthusiastic consumer and purveyor of negative Indian stereotypes and with the exception of only a few examples, has done little to counter its own racist legacy. The western does have a right to exist but the failure of the genre to deal with the big, important, and controversial issues which sit at its heart means that it has done very little to earn that right. This should not be a genre which promotes outdated stereotypes and over-simplified hero-villain dynamics. This should be a genre in which old images are deconstructed, where past wrongs are explored and reflected upon, and where deep-rooted racial issues are exposed. In such a context, silly action-comedies starring Johnny Depp (in an appropriately cast role) could be released and enjoyed without the sneering irony and dissatisfaction which currently (and justly) accompanies such endeavours. Not every western need deal with the weighty issues of America’s past – but the genre as a whole should.
In its twenty first century guise, the western could be a dynamic cinematic space that sparks reasoned discussion and debate even as it entertains. But before such an (admittedly blue-sky) ambition can be realised the genre needs an audience with whom it can communicate. In the past there was no question that audiences were receptive to the western setting but in a post-Lone Ranger world nothing about the genre can be taken as a given. Taken at face value, the failure of that film could indicate a disastrously limited audience but if Disney’s latest flop is set aside the situation seems to improve. As of the beginning of 2013 the western appeared to be experiencing a minor resurgence in popularity. Last summer’s Django Unchained brought a racially charged and angry western spectacle to cinema-goers, earning a Lone Ranger-shaming $160 million in the process. Two years prior to that True Grit brought in over $170 million at the US box office in addition to its ten Academy Award nominations. Perhaps more importantly, both Django Unchained and True Grit made substantial profits. Taking The Lone Ranger out of the equation, the western has been proving its potential in recent years, bringing in accolades and money, proof of some ongoing relevance. Though the genre has been afflicted with a number of high profile flops in recent years (add 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens to the same category as The Lone Ranger) it has also shown its worth. The second and third highest grossing westerns of all time (True Grit and Django Unchained) appeared in 2010 and 2012 respectively. If one were to add James Cameron’s Avatar to this list (and, frankly, there is no reason why that should not be the case), three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released in the past four years.
Even those western films which have flopped in recent years have done so not necessarily because audiences have rejected them but because of an imbalance between production budgets, delusional studio expectations, and realistic audience sizes. To put it another way, Cowboys and Aliens flopped because it made only $100 million on its $160 million+ production budget. In raw financial terms, the movie was a failure but that should not over shadow the fact that the film took over $100 million at the box office, a huge amount of money that was undermined only by the film’s bloated budget. Cowboys and Aliens lost money not because there is not an audience for westerns, but because the size of that audience does not match the super-budgets that have recently come into fashion. In the past half-decade, budgets between $150 and $250 million have become increasingly common. Whilst such huge sums of money allow for special effects filled extravaganzas, they also require films to become worldwide box office hyper-sensations in order to turn a profit. With Marvel’s The Avengers and Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight having both broken the $1 billion mark, a new bar has been set for the summer action film which Hollywood has been relentlessly chasing. The result has been an increase in budgets which is actively starting to undermine the creative processes. Take Warner Bros’ recent Superman film, The Man of Steel. In spite of having made over $600 million worldwide, it appears that the film might not have been as profitable as such a high taking seems to imply, a reality which appears to have played into Warner’s decision to turn the film’s sequel into a Batman movie.
By lumbering most modern westerns with excessive budgets and questionable levels of sensitivity and sophistication, Hollywood has placed the entire genre on the endangered species list. Audience numbers, if not profit margins, have proven that the genre still has pulling power but a focus upon the summer box office season and a seeming indifference towards the issues which sit at the heart of the genre has only served to undermine its commercial, its artistic, and its intellectual potential. The solution to the first issues seems to be quite simple – bring budgets under control. True Grit cost just $38 million to make and brought in more than $170 million. Bravo, brothers Cohen. The second problem (dealing with the moral and ethical issues raised by any exploration of America’s frontier past) is a much trickier issue. The Lone Ranger reminds us that much work needs to be done.