Ever since the actual days of the Wild West, there's been a fascination with anything involving that period in American history. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was so popular at the time that he traveled around the country and even Europe with sharpshooters and Native American chiefs, symbols of the days when cowboys and outlaws were all over the West. After the days of the West were long gone in the early 20th century, western films were being made to fulfill that sense of wonder in audiences. Wild West hero Wyatt Earp even served as a consultant on early westerns in Hollywood, offering his real-life experience to add some authenticity as actors reenacted his glory days on screen. Like every fad, westerns have had surges in popularity over the last century. Right now, people can't seem to get enough of them. But it took quite a while to get there.
The early peak of the Western
Since the beginning of Hollywood, various types of westerns have emerged over the years based on what was trendy at the time. In the '30s and '40s, the singing cowboy archetype reigned supreme (as did musical films in general). Actors like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter became Hollywood heroes in stories inspired by the songs cowboys sang out on the range. Then John Wayne and frequent collaborator, director John Ford, swept in to dominate the '50s and '60s with their dramatic tales of good vs. evil in films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The popularity was even apparent on television at the time, with shows like Gunsmoke, Maverick and The Lone Ranger dominating. Westerns were everywhere, from screens to radio programs, and the world couldn't get enough of them. It was the most popular action flick at the time, with some of the TV shows setting records for their high viewership and number of seasons. The western trend really took its first big break when TV studios decided they wanted to focus on big city stories and less on small-town America and cowboys.
Folks still liked westerns, and they definitely didn't go anywhere, but the craze had definitely slowed down after decades at the top. It really wasn't until Kevin Costner rebooted the trend in the early '90s that a love for the Old West returned in a big way. His directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, swept the Oscars in 1991, making history with a whopping 12 nominations and 7 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director. After that, Hollywood naturally kept up the momentum. Movies like Tombstone, Unforgiven and City Slickers created a new sense of excitement around the genre for longtime fans and the children of the folks who grew up loving John Wayne and Gunsmoke. It was a place for drama, comedy, or action, and it seemed like everyone wanted to tune in.
A slow and steady rise
There have been a handful of modern western TV shows that have performed well in recent years as well. HBO's Deadwood was met with high acclaim, bringing new life to famous western heroes Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in a more gritty version than we'd ever seen them before. Justified and Longmire offered a modern-day twist, developing steady fan followings for multiple seasons. Even filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who is highly regarded as one of the greatest of his time, is heavily influenced by westerns, particularly, spaghetti westerns popularized by the Italian director Sergio Leone. He's used the style in a few of his films, eventually making two of his own westerns, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, earning multiple Oscar nominations between the two. Django earned the filmmaker Best Original Screenplay.
What's interesting is despite their obvious popularity, it's kind of hard to get westerns made. It took Jeymes Samuel nearly a decade to get anyone to make his western The Harder They Fall, which eventually found a home at Netflix and hit number one on the platform's most viewed movies. Netflix also took a chance on Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, which swept the Oscars with nominations in nearly every major category and earned Campion Best Director. It was just as infrequent to see westerns on television, but it seems all of that changed in recent years thanks to one show. Or one writer, I should say.
The Influence of Yellowstone
When Taylor Sheridan, a working TV actor, decided to write his own scripts, he decided to write what he knew best. Having grown up on a Texas ranch, he used his childhood and the unique cowboy culture that still reigns supreme in parts of the country to inspire new stories all about the modern west. Hell or High Water earned him an Oscar nomination, and Wind River was incredible, giving current audiences a look at some of the injustices Native American women face on reservations. His writing, and directing for that matter, were so good that he got tapped by Paramount to help them launch their very first network on television. His debut series was Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner as a modern-day rancher trying to maintain his massive Montana ranch despite those who wish to bring his empire crumbling down. Over its four seasons, the series has become a massive success, steadily drawing in record viewers season after season, leading Sheridan to sign an overall deal with the network that resulted in multiple Yellowstone spinoffs as well as a couple of new series. He's become one of the most renowned creators on television in just a few years, proving he really did strike gold by betting on the west.
Now, even more western stories are making their way to other networks. Josh Brolin is currently starring in Amazon Prime's modern western Outer Range, and Epix created a new historical series about the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. Despite the new surge in popularity, Taylor Sheridan told Variety his competitors are really just chasing the views, not necessarily the content.
"So I don't know that it's flattering, because I don't think they're doing it because 'Yellowstone' is good. They're doing it because 15 million people watch it. And they're like: 'A lot of people watch Westerns. Let's make Westerns.'"
The Western Appeal
What is it about westerns that made audiences get so interested again in recent years? Was it just the magic of Yellowstone or something about the genre itself? Some could argue that a lot of it is due to the COVID pandemic. For two years, folks were stuck at home, watching way more content than they probably ever had before as one of their sole modes of entertainment. The western offered a welcome escape from our harsh reality at the time. A time full of riding horses around the untouched American frontier was, and is, incredibly enticing. Even modern westerns are appealing because they gave people a glimpse of what life could be like away from all the chaos of the city.
It's not surprising that once things started slowly opening again after COVID's peak, people started leaving the big city. Certainly not everyone, but actors all over Hollywood realized they wanted to give their children a more relaxed lifestyle, and they left Los Angeles in droves, headed for farms everywhere from rural Tennessee to upstate New York. Cities like Nashville and Austin have become more popular than ever for people wanting to settle down outside of town at a slower pace while still being close to modern amenities. Thanks to the more frequently available option to work remotely, you can have it all. You can raise your kids around farm animals out in the country, letting them play outside from sun up to sun down while doing the same thing you did in the expensive city.
Will the western go out of style again? Probably. It's taken a while to get to where it is today, thanks to creators like Taylor Sheridan, Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner paving the way. Right now, it's pretty remarkable to see how the genre resonates with everyone from Gen Z to Baby Boomers, and we're excited to see what new content comes along with Hollywood rolling with the current trend.
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