CinÉireann / Issue 9 29
betrayals. Perhaps the public were wary of the foundational myths espoused by the western.
After all, the western is inherently a colonial narrative. It is the story of white settlers who “discovered” a continent on which indigenous people had been living for twelve thousand years by the time Columbus arrived. It is the story of how these new arrivals claimed the land for their own, oppressed the people living upon it, and built a mythic identity upon the bloodsoaked foundations.
On the press tour for his revisionist slavery western Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino had nothing but anger for the western as filtered through the lens of John Ford. “Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies,” Tarantino argued. “It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms.” Tarantino’s argument certainly has merit; consider the portrayal of Native Americans in Stagecoach or Drums Along the Mohawk.
At a time when the United States was expanding its political influence overseas through interventions in Asia and Central America, it makes sense that popular culture would be ambivalent about heroic myths of the settlers who tamed the North American continent and almost wiped out its original inhabitants. This perhaps explains the volume of cynical and ambiguous westerns that surfaced during the genre’s decline during the sixties and into the seventies; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Hang ‘Em High.
Just as the West eventually reached its end at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the myth of the western seemed to crash upon the rocks of reality.
Of course, the western never quite went away.
It bubbled in the background for a few decades. There were always westerns produced, just with a slightly different emphasis. The prestige westerns of the nineties, for example, suggested a greater awareness of the cracks in the surface of the myth. Films like Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans tried to fold Native American experiences into the frontier legend. Unforgiven picked at the romance built up around these mythic figures.
It is no coincidence that these nineties revisionist westerns arrived in the midst of a simmering culture war about issues including American history; how best to approach the teaching of and talking about atrocities like the genocide of the Native Americans or the horrors of slavery. These brutal realities that were an important part of the history of the United States, but were often obscured by the myth of “how the west was won.”
To a certain extent, the twenty-first century has seen the re-emergence of the western. The genre obviously is not as ubiquitous as it once was. There are not hundreds of westerns being released each year. However, the genre is a larger and more dynamic part of the cultural conversation than it had been at any point in recent decades.
True Grit was nominated for ten awards at the Oscars in 2011. Django Unchained won the Best Original Screenplay and Best Support Actor Awards at the Oscars in 2013. The Revenant won the Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography Awards at the Oscars in 2016. Among this year’s crop of potential nominees are The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. On television, Westworld has been nominated for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy for two consecutive years.
However, there is something very revealing in the kinds of westerns that are being made, and the way in which they are approaching the genre. There are undoubtedly old-fashioned and traditional western movies being made, such as the decidedly old-fashioned Bill Pullman vehicle The Ballad of Lefty Brown. However, these more traditionalist westerns are not the ones that dominate conversation or which garner the most attention.