It gives me some pause, as though the western genre is some redheaded stepchild that no one thought would amount to much, and everyone is amazed when one makes a good showing of itself. But there is a history to this narrative, and part of the answer to why everyone is so surprised lies in the very nature of the genre itself.
Way back in the mid 1970s, a literary critic named John Cawelti wrote The Six-gun Mystique (1975), and part of his work was to declare the western dead – he writes that once a genre has been spoofed, it can no longer be taken seriously, and it will no longer resonate with audiences as it had previously. He wrote this shortly after the brilliant Mel Brooks had done Blazing Saddles (1974), and if one watches this film and considers the historical moment in which Cawelti made this prediction, it makes perfect sense. But … he was wrong. So wrong. In fact, he was proven wrong almost immediately with the release of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), a film that much of Hollywood thought would tank because everyone knew the western was dead, and yet it became an instant classic, and remains so today. Oh, great film. He was also wrong in a larger sense, because Mel Brooks went on to spoof the horror genre with Young Frankenstein (1974) as well as the sci-fi genre with Spaceballs (1987), which had zero affect on the success of the continuing Star Wars franchise. So the lingering question is why do so many critics, critics who likely have not read what is now an obscure reference work, seem to fall in line with his thinking?
I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the western genre and its attitude toward, and treatment of death. The western invites ruminations on death and the transience of our worldly existence, and is in fact largely self-reflective about such matters by the very nature that the mythologized “West” was contained inside a historical period of roughly one generation. The heroes of our frontier were born on the cups of a created West, and lived to see it decline and be taken over by civilization – indeed; many of the frontier icons were active agents in the civilization of the west, which is perhaps one of the genre’s best ironies. The world that made people like Buffalo Bill Cody, William “Bat” Masterson, and Wyatt Earp famous was already gone long before their own deaths. Masterson died as a newspaperman in NYC, and Earp positioned himself as a Subject Matter Expert in early films, following the mythologizing example of Buffalo Bill Cody, who became a caricature of himself and turned his own biography into a commodity for Eastern consumption. In some ways, one might argue that he sacrificed his own actual history for the creation of a mythic history of the western frontiersman.
The West was never meant to live on. Its demise was always already deeply embedded within its own story, and this is seen even in some famous examples of the genre. Movies like Tom Horn (1980) and Monte Walsh (1970, 2003) explicitly address the passing of the frontier and the necessity or resistance of characters to change with the times. Sometimes the movies eulogize the passing of a way of life, like the cowboy culture in the aforementioned films, or the codes of the gunfighter in The Shootist (1976), or even an entire way of life, as in Dances With Wolves (1990).
So it makes some sense that the progressivism that superceded the frontier, and even appears in many of the western films that acknowledge it, would be embraced by critics. Surely, the story goes, our contemporary culture is far too sophisticated to bother with such horse operas. And yet, as critics ranging from Slotkin to White have demonstrated, the western is a highly variable genre that manages to both remain true to its benchmark traits while also reinventing itself for new audiences. So ride on, cowboy, ride on.