America's perception of Westerns echoes our understanding of ourselves. After World War I and World War II, Hollywood churned out Western films: John Ford's Stagecoach, Howard Hughes' The Outlaw, John Sturges' Gun Fight at the O.K. Corral, and Fred Zinneman's High Noon are some enduring examples. During this "golden age" of Westerns, good guys fought bad guys -- outlaws, bands of thieves -- or the othered "Indians." Bad guys wore black hats. The sheriffs wore white. Native Americans were portrayed as savages. There was no moral ambiguity in these early Westerns.
But as the United States continued to grow in power, our image of both the cowboy, once a foundational American archetype, and the land of the West changed. It became contested, complex. After intense societal turmoil and cultural reckoning -- the Civil Rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, economic decline -- our cowboy started to act differently. He looked different too. Enter, the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and beyond, populated with dubious, gun-toting antiheroes.
Although The Searchers was directed by John Ford, a pioneering figure in conventional Western filmmaking, this 1956 movie marked a surprisingly deeper engagement with Old West scruples. The Searchers starred Western favorite (and frequent Ford collaborator) John Wayne in an atypical role. Set during the Texas-Indian wars, Wayne played Ethan Edwards: a hardened Confederate veteran searching for his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is abducted by Native Americans. Ethan Edwards hates Native Americans. He hates them so much, he wants to kill his own niece once she is indoctrinated into the Comanche tribe.
Edwards' displays of utter racism, though not entirely off-brand for Wayne, represented a new shade in on-screen character development. He was so unkind, so brutal, that his flaws were compelling to viewers -- especially in the whitewashed world of 1956. Wayne was still playing the hero, but cracks in that masculine identity were beginning to show. The films that followed would offer comparably nuanced depictions of leading men, race, and Native American life. The Searchers stands out as a mid-century transition point.
The Italian director Sergio Leone grew up in Rome, watching American Westerns. But he did not love what they represented. As the Variety journalist Hank Werba wrote in 1968: "To Leone, the westerner was a predatory creature at every level. There were no clear ethical or moral reference lines. The plainsman acted and reacted violently, generally motivated by such basics as greed, revenge, or self-survival. It represented a complete switch from the law-virtue syndrome of the past." From his international perspective, Leone could direct Westerns with no patriotic angle. And during the 1960s, that challenging ethos was in vogue.
In 1964, Leone made his Western debut with A Fistful of Dollars. Starring Clint Eastwood, who was a B-list television star at the time, Leone's picture crafted a radically new understanding of the American West. Filmed in Italy and Spain for cheap, Leone utilized Spanish-style scenery to a realistic effect. More studied shots -- notably dramatic close-ups -- also stylized the visual dynamics of the film. But of course, it was the odd story which stuck out most. Eastwood played a man with no name who rides into town and exacts vigilante violence -- for money, not justice. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, the unnamed stranger does not act like any recognizable hero. In fact, he hardly looks different from the cinematic villains! Eastwood wore a Spanish poncho and black jeans as well as old props from Rawhide to play the part.
A Fistful of Dollars spawned two sequels: For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Leone would also direct another trilogy, the Once Upon a Time trilogy -- Once Upon a Time Once Upon a Time in America, and Duck, You Sucker! -- which bounced between period settings but were thematically linked. That latter trilogy was filmed mainly in Hollywood, but the success of Leone's Dollar films inspired countless European copycat flicks: Spaghetti Westerns. (They were named so for their abroad shooting locations.) These continued to demythologize the American West -- in part due to the Italian heritage of the directors. Famous Spaghetti Westerns include Django, My Name Is Nobody, and A Bullet For the General. Most Spaghetti Westerns spawned various sequels of varying quality -- which explains why the revolutionary subgenre is sometimes derided.
'The Wild Bunch' and 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'
The Wild Bunch is another iconic contribution to Western revisionism. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, it premiered in 1969 to both acclaim and controversy. The Wild Bunch follows a gang of aging outlaws along the Mexican-American border in the year 1913: a tense period of industrialization, and therefore, decline for the American West. Throughout the film, this posse of misfits kill women and civilians and themselves encounter brutal torture at the hands of a corrupt Mexican army. The crude and gratuitous violence in The Wild Bunch was shocking to some viewers. To others, it felt like a symptom of the times. Regardless, it was well situated within the trends established by Sergio Leone.
By that point, layered antiheroes were the Western norm. The Wild Bunch was in fact produced by Warner Bros. to compete with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was already in the works at 20th Century Fox. That film, directed by George Roy Hill, was inspired by real American legends: the outlaw buddies Butch Cassidy and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid. Historically, Cassidy's criminal squad was actually called the Wild Bunch! Both films were relevant in 1969, but returns for The Wild Bunch paled in comparison Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That picture, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and made $100 million at the box office.
Read More: Did Billy the Kid Really Die in a Shootout?
One of Clint Eastwood's most beloved projects came 28 years after his first work with Sergio Leone: Unforgiven. Being Clint Eastwood, the actor was already deeply embedded in the mythology of American antiheroes. So his new addition to the genre was highly anticipated. As well as producing and directing Unforgiven, Eastwood played the central character: William Munny, a reformed criminal who returns to the game for one last kill. In this case, cowboys who maimed a prostitute, in exchange for an unofficial bounty.
Although the project was, naturally, compared to his work on the Dollars trilogy, Unforgiven actually utilized a more classical Western storytelling approach. As Munny, Eastwood delivered a performance that was informed and evolved. Though characterized by a murderous past, Munny essentially resolves to a "good guy" role, defending downtrodden prostitutes in order to provide for his family. Still, violence is inescapable and alienating for Munny. Certainly, the grim setting and gnarly premise of Unforgiven reflect the impact of the previous decades' revisionist Westerns. (The villain, in this case, is a sheriff.) But Eastwood sent up many modern patterns in his tortured portrayal. At the time of its release, the Time magazine critic Richard Corliss accurately called Unforgiven: "Eastwood's meditation on age, repute, courage, heroism--on all those burdens he has been carrying with such grace for decades."
Other critics have heralded Unforgiven as the final western. Given its unparalleled success -- $159.2 million in earnings plus an Oscar for Best Picture -- Unforgiven appeared as something of a "last word" on the old genre. A resting place before heading into the 21st century. But we know the cowboy has not hung up his hat. Not yet.
Revisionist Westerns Today
Despite the popularity of Unforgiven, comparatively few revisionist Westerns were made throughout the 1980s and '90s. The utter flop that was Heaven's Gate exemplified the changing of the tides. That 1980 Western epic starred Kris Kristofferson and cost $44 million to make... but pulled in just $3.5 million! The large-scale project received disastrous reviews and even faced embarrassing charges of animal cruelty. According to the Atlantic writer Michael Varesta, coming out of the '70s, there was "a sense of disappointment to the decade that followed, as if the era of revisionist Westerns had failed and a less nuanced patriotism would have to carry the day." In comparison to the generalized American antipathy post-Vietnam, it became Reagan's America. (One notable arthouse exception from 1995: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.)
However, the gritty subgenre is making a comeback. The aptly titled True Grit premiered in 2010, was a smashing success, and revisionist to its core: the Coen brothers had remade the sunnier, campier John Wayne film now ascribed with hyperrealism. (Their take, interestingly, was much truer to the novel. The 1968 book by Charles Portis fit into the literary trends of its time. Thanks to his contemporary Cormac McCarthy, tales of the wizened West were dominating written fiction.) Comparing the two films provides an excellent picture of the tropes present in both traditional westerns and their hardened successors. 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has a similar effect in the context of previous films about the outlaw Jesse James.
Now the revisionist western is taking on new and unconventional forms. The video game Red Dead Redemption is one immersive example. The action video game was released in 2010 but set in 1911, around the decline of the Old West. (Logically, this is a familiar starting point for revisionist Westerns.) Players travel on horseback as gunfighters to earn levels of "honor" and "fame." The resounding critical success of Red Dead Redemption indicated a younger audience's new appreciation for such stories.
More recently, Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood was an aggrandized interpretation of the so-called revisionist Western. Following the story of an actor and his stuntman during the 1960s, the film unfolds like a love letter to not only Hollywood but the Spaghetti Westerns which so inspired the director Tarantino. (Read all about Tarantino's obsession with Sergio Leone here.) Saloon shootouts and other glamorized cowboy dealings unfold through theatrical, meta settings: film flashbacks and behind-the-scenes movie sets. Instead of reflecting on cowboys, in the present day, we reflect on cowboy actors. That feels pertinent.
It's also important to note that Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is -- first and foremost -- a revisionist history. (Meaning, it contests the mainstream interpretation of a historic event. In this case, the murder of Sharon Tate.) When the two macho heroes beat the living hell out of the Manson Family murderers, obviously, the semi-historic plot departs fully from real life. However, it's a fascinating comment on the ever-evolving Western genre: this true "Hollywood" ending. After all, the title of the film directly calls back to Leone's own Once Upon a Time trilogy. At this point, modern filmmakers are less influenced by the ole Westerns of yore -- John Ford, John Wayne, and the like -- and react instead to the decades of Western revisionism.
For Your Viewing Pleasure
A list of further revisionist Westerns:
Ride the High Country (1962) dir. Sam Peckinpah
Little Big Man (1970) dir. Arthur Penn
The Hired Hand (1971) dir. Peter Fonda
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) dir. Robert Altman
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) dir. Syndney Pollack
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) dir. Clint Eastwood
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) dir. Robert Altman
Tombstone (1993) dir. George P. Cosmatos
Deadwood, the series (2004-2006)
3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. James Mangold
Django Unchained (2012) dir. Quentin Tarantino