Issue 3

The Decline in Popularity of the Western Film Genre

For a long time, the Western was one of the dominant genres in the American film industry. After getting off to a good start in the silent film era, it declined throughout the 1920s and 30s before experiencing a resurgence in the 1940s. At that point, it became extremely popular in the United States and helped create such iconic stars as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. However, beginning in the 1970s, audience appetite for the genre began to wane. Nowadays, very few Western films are produced. Unlike many other genres, even when a Western becomes popular and is financially successful, it does not necessarily lead to a rush from the studios to make more or a clamoring from audiences to see more. Although, even among the few Westerns that are produced, true financial successes are few and far between. Additionally, the way critics and audiences respond to the Western, and the way studios have begun to regard the genre, has changed dramatically over the last several decades. I am going to look at two films, one, the John Ford-John Wayne film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), from the glory days of the Western, and one much more contemporary film, Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003), to see how two financially successful films from the same genre were received during two very different time periods.

These two films were chosen because they were both considered successful upon release, but are not regarded as classics of the genre. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was made by an iconic Western star and director at a time when the genre was very popular. However, when the film collaborations of John Wayne and John Ford are discussed, it tends to go unmentioned. Open Range was made by one of the more popular Western stars of the last twenty years at a time when the genre is not popular. Due to the small number of Westerns made in this century, and the recentness of the film, it is mentioned often. These two films being opposites (one is not commonly known despite being from a popular era for the genre; the other is relatively well-known despite coming from an unpopular time for the genre) makes the comparison between eras easier to discuss. These two case studies will be useful in examining the history of the Western, its fall from glory and, most significantly, why the genre as a whole has been unable to regain its popularity in recent decades.

The Western has an important place in the history of the American film industry. As Thomas Schatz writes, “from the birth of ‘the movies’ through the classical Hollywood era, the Western played not only a vital role as a popular narrative form – one that would comprise nearly a fifth of all feature films from the silent era through the 1950s – but also in shaping the business of filmmaking itself.”[1] As the medium of film grew, the Western grew right along with it. Writing about the history of the Western in 1952, Eliza Franklin said “At first it was hard to distinguish between the popularity of the Western and the popularity of motion pictures in general. As time went on, however, audiences began to develop a preference in film fare and became articulate in their choice. They wanted Westerns. The public liked its pictures to move a lot, and Westerns moved faster and to more exciting purpose than other films.”[2] The genre was a very popular attraction in the silent era with stars such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix. The coming of the sound era led to the singing cowboy films featuring performers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. During this time period, the Western was mainly relegated to cheap B-pictures which were primarily useful as double-features. However, things did not stay that way for very long.

In the 1930s, movie-going started to become more about going to see individual films and their stars as opposed to just being about the act of going to the movie theater. By the end of the decade, the Western had begun to rise in popularity again behind stars like Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Wayne is the most famous star in the history of the genre, performing in more than eighty Westerns throughout his fifty year career and becoming a legendary American film star. His career really took off with John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach, the first of fourteen films featuring Ford as director and Wayne as star. Their sixth film together, and fourth Western, was She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was released on Saturday, October Twenty-Second, 1949. Its major initial competition at the box-office was the Olivia de Havilland-Montgomery Clift drama The Heiress (Wyler), the Disney cartoon The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (Algar, Geronimi and Kinney) and the Bette Davis melodrama Beyond the Forest (Vidor).[3] The film stars John Wayne as a US Cavalry Captain on the brink of retirement who is sent out on one last patrol after General Custer and his troops are defeated by several Native American tribes. This was the second of the so-called “cavalry trilogy” that Ford and Wayne made together, following 1948’s Fort Apache and preceding 1950’s Rio Grande, and the only one of the three to be shot in color. The three films are loosely connected by plot and character; mainly, they are connected thematically as each film took place among the United States Cavalry around the same time period. By the time it left theaters, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had earned $2.7 million domestically on a budget of approximately $1.6 million.[4] (Fort Apache had made $3 million domestically on a budget of approximately $2.5 million[5] and Rio Grande would go on to make $2.25 million domestically on a budget of approximately $1.2 million.[6]) All three films were among the more financially successful in their respective years.

While not the most popular films Ford and Wayne would make together, the cavalry films were all well received by both critics and audiences. In his review written upon She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’s release, Bosley Crowther praised the film as being an exciting and true look at life in the United States cavalry. Even more so, he commented on the brilliance of director John Ford. He wrote “For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman.”[7] Robin Wood, in his 1971 essay about the late career films of John Ford, called She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the “greatest of the cavalry trilogy and one of Ford’s most deeply satisfying movies.”[8] The vast majority of reviews about this film discuss it not only in terms of its place among John Ford and John Wayne’s filmographies, but also in terms of how it matches up with other Westerns being made around the same time. In more recent years, though the film is generally not considered to be a classic of the Western genre, it is regarded as a solid Western and a respectable part of the legacy John Wayne and John Ford built together. It is currently rated 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (though out of only seventeen reviews). Its average critic score is 8/10 and its average user score is 3.7/5.[9] On the Internet Movie Database, its average user score is 7.4/10.[10] Though these ratings are by no means definitive, they do show the appreciation that the film still receives 67 years after its initial release.

The 1940s had been a good decade for the Western and things were only looking more promising. The genre really hit its peak in the 1950s, producing some of the most well-regarded Westerns ever made such as High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952), Shane (Stevens, 1953), and The Searchers (Ford, 1956) (these three films are ranked second, third and first in the American Film Institute’s 2008 list of the top ten greatest American Westerns ever made[11]). During the 1950s, eleven Westerns finished in the top ten at the box-office in their respective years.[12] One of the most well-known American genres had now reached its peak of popularity.

The 1960s saw the release of a couple of well-known traditional Westerns (The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962)). However, more significantly, the end of the decade saw the success of darker, more violent revisionist Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). These films were a huge departure from the Westerns that had been successful just a decade earlier. There was no longer a clear distinction between good and evil. The Old West was far more unpleasant and violent. “Everything about these movies changed the way audiences viewed Westerns. Good and evil were now ambiguous states.”[13] Shades of grey had taken over the Western landscape. Thirteen different Westerns finished in the top ten at the box-office throughout the 1960s. On the surface, that sounds like an improvement over the 1950s. Unfortunately for the studios producing Westerns, three of those years (1961, 1963 and 1967) did not feature any.[14] As Thomas Schatz wrote, “By the 1960s, the Western had peaked as a viable Hollywood commodity, in part brought low by a combination of market saturation and generic exhaustion.”[15] This would turn out to be the beginning of the end of the Western’s reign as a dominant American film genre.

The decline of the Western at the box-office was much more pronounced during the 1970s. Only two Westerns, Little Big Man (Penn, 1970) and Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974), finished in the top ten during their respective years.[16] Interestingly, both of these films are comedic takes on the Western with Blazing Saddles being an outright parody of the genre. It was becoming clear that audiences were no longer interested in straight Westerns.

From 1975 all the way through to the end of the century, only two Westerns finished in the box-office top ten for their year (both in 1990) and one of those was Comedy/Science Fiction/Western hybrid Back to the Future Part III (Zemeckis).[17] The Western in its original form held little to no appeal for general audiences. Andrew Sarris, referring to the Western as box-office poison, wrote “Film historians in the twenty-first century and beyond may mistakenly assume that the Western died in one fell swoop at a disastrous screening of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), but Cimino was probably damaged more by the genre he chose than the genre he chose was damaged by him.”[18] Even though the genre’s box-office success had all but disappeared, the 1990s and 2000s did end up providing a few films that have been received as great Westerns. They were films that mixed the violent and sometimes ambiguous heroes of the Westerns of the late 1960s with the traditional narratives of the classic Westerns. They are films like Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992), Tombstone (Cosmatos, 1993) and Open Range.

Open Range was directed by Kevin Costner and starred Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Bening. The film, which takes place near the end of the period referred to as the Old West (1865-1895), is about a battle between a group of open range cattlemen and a vicious land baron. While its plot and cinematography could have been lifted from a Western made in the 1940s, its conflicted characters (particularly Costner’s morally complex killer, Charley Waite) and bloody shootout are more closely related to modern action films.

Open Range opened on Friday, August Fifteenth, 2003 in 2,075 theaters. It grossed a little more than $14 million on its opening weekend, which was good enough for third place at the box office. That weekend, it finished behind horror franchise mash-up Freddy Vs Jason (Yu) in its first week in release and the Colin Ferrell action film S.W.A.T. (Johnson) in its second week and just ahead of family film remake Freaky Friday (Waters) also in its second week. Its budget was approximately $22 million and it grossed over $58 million domestically (that number rises to more than $68 million when foreign grosses are added in). It would finish third, third, fourth, seventh, then tenth before falling out of the top ten in its sixth weekend in release. It peaked at 2,268 theaters in its fourth week in release. It is the fifth of five Westerns that Kevin Costner has made to this point and is the second highest grossing of those films behind only Dances with Wolves (Costner, 1990) which, at $184.2 million, is currently the highest grossing Western of all-time. Open Range is the fourteenth highest grossing Western (at the time it left theaters, it would have been sixth). It is Kevin Costner’s ninth highest grossing film as an actor and third highest grossing as a director.[19] On Rotten Tomatoes, it is currently ranked as the 29th greatest Western of all-time with a freshness rating of 79%, an average critic rating of 6.9/10 and an average user rating of 3.5/5.[20] On the Internet Movie Database, its average user score is 7.5/10.[21]

Kevin Costner’s take on the action Western was generally well received by critics upon its release. Many of the positive reviews concentrate on Costner’s apparent celebration of the traditional Western. In his appreciation of the film, Jim Kitses wrote “Costner loves the West and has faith in its conventions. His film displays the same respect its heroes live by, etching with enormous care and imagination a fabled West in the rich images of cinematographer James Muro.”[22] Todd McCarthy also wrote favorably about the film, using direct comparisons to classic older Westerns and their directors as a way of judging Kevin Costner’s version of the west. He specifically references well-regarded John Wayne films like Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959) and Red River (Hawks, 1948). McCarthy goes on to say that “while Kevin Costner may not be Howard Hawks, John Ford or George Stevens, he has evidently absorbed enough from them and others to create a reasonable facsimile of a typically likable and well-carpentered Western.”[23] While the film was generally liked, many of the positive reviews for the film sounded more like nostalgia for a forgotten genre. They placed the film in the context of Westerns from the 1940s and 1950s instead of thinking about it in terms of its place in modern film.

Not every review of the film was favorable. Some critics did not appreciate Open Range’s deliberate pace. A.O. Scott disliked the film, writing that “Mr. Costner’s relentless, root-canal humorlessness turns what might have been an enjoyable B-picture throwback into a ponderous drag.”[24] Moira Macdonald criticized the film for its “sometimes overwhelming slowness and some painfully stilted dialogue.”[25] These reviews only briefly reference the classic Westerns that the positive reviews seem to focus on. They mainly discuss the film in relation to Kevin Costner’s career and what they believe to be a failed attempt to revive it.

The Western may not be a popular genre any more but, even in the 21st century, it is still occasionally found at the multiplex. Including Open Range, from the beginning of 2001 to the end of 2010 eleven Westerns were given wide releases in the United States (for the purposes of this essay, a wide release is a film that is being shown in at least 1,000 theaters). Of those eleven, five made more money at the box-office than they cost to make. From 2011 to the beginning of December 2016, nine Westerns were given wide releases and only one of them did not make more money than they cost. Just based on those numbers alone, it appears that things are looking better for the Western in this decade. However, those numbers are somewhat deceiving. Of the eleven wide release Westerns made between 2001 and 2010, seven of them are what can be described as traditional Westerns (the other four are all hybrids of different genres: a Disney cartoon about cows, a romance set mainly in the 1960s, a martial arts film and a science fiction comic book adaptation). Of the nine wide release Westerns made between 2011 and 2016, only three of them would be classified as traditional Westerns (the rest include a cartoon about a lizard, a science fiction comic book adaptation and a raunchy comedy). On top of all of that, even though more than half of these films made profits when compared to their production budgets, when additional costs like marketing are factored in many of them still lost money.[26]

Even though studios do seem to be making more Westerns, they are mainly focusing on Westerns that can easily be marketed as something else. In his editorial on the disappearance of the Western from movie theaters, Gary Hoppenstand talks about viewing the DVD of the movie The Missing (Howard, 2003). He says “the production feature, ‘The Last Ride: The Story of The Missing’ has a Ron Howard interview in which he says that he ‘was involved in a lot of Westerns,’ and that The Missing took ‘a more modern direction.’ One of the movie’s producers, Brian Grazer, stated that he had an ‘allergy’ to Westerns, that The Missing ‘‘felt more modern,’’ and that it was actually more of ‘a thriller set in the West.’”[27] The director and, even more so, the producer are at pains to make sure that their film is not exclusively considered to be a Western because they are concerned that the word “Western” will turn off a large group of potential moviegoers.

Today, the Western is seen as appealing mainly to older viewers and studios try very hard to court consumers in the 18-35 year old demographic. As Anne Thompson wrote in the early 90s, “The Western may have lost favor with movie audiences and definitely has with the studios. One might think that a string of Western hits would change people’s minds. But these movies are regarded as exceptions to the rule. Memories are notoriously short in Hollywood, and many see any affection for the Western as a nostalgia for the past glories of the genre.”[28] Instead, producers believe that by disguising a Western as an action thriller or a science fiction adventure or a comedy they can coerce several different demographics of moviegoers to buy tickets. Whether that is true or not, the hybrid Western has been relatively successful in recent years, especially at the foreign box-office. Since international box-office has become incredibly important to Hollywood in the past decade or so, it is also possible that studios believe that a genre as American as the Western would be a far easier sell internationally if it could be convincingly marketed as being a part of another genre.

The Western was popular during the early days of the American film industry before going through a decline during the early sound years. However, the Western had a strong resurgence in the 1940s and 1950s and reached a whole new level of popularity. By the end of the 1960s, that popularity had all but disappeared. The Western’s moment was over and, even with a hit here and there in the last forty plus years, it has been unable to make a comeback. Audiences have moved on to other genres and the Western is generally regarded as a genre from the old days of Hollywood. It is dusted off occasionally to put a spin on another genre, to appeal nostalgically to older audiences or to gather accolades during awards season. Otherwise, it is thought of by the studios as something incapable of drawing the masses to multiplexes on opening weekend. It is probably unfair to say that the Western is dead since the studios are currently on pace to make several more wide release Westerns this decade as compared to last decade. However, the genre is very far from its glory years with no real signs of a legitimate comeback in sight. The Western will never entirely disappear because Hollywood will always have use for the past as a way of selling more tickets in the present. Maybe one day a couple of Westerns will become popular enough to reignite the genre. Until then, the Western will serve as a cautionary tale to studios that lean too heavily on specific genres about the fleeting nature of box-office success.

[1] Thomas Schatz, “Cowboy Business” The New York Times November 10 2007

[2] Eliza Franklin, “Westerns, First and Lasting” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television Winter 1952

[3] “Movies Released October 1949” Movieweb.com

[4] “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” imdb.com

[5] “Fort Apache” imdb.com

[6] “Rio Grande” imdb.com

[7] Bosley Crowther, “’She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,’ at Capitol, Stars John Wayne as a Cavalry Captain” The New York Times November 18 1949

[8] Robin Wood, “Shall We Gather at the River? The Late Films of John Ford” Film Comment Fall 1971

[9] “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” Rottentomatoes.com

[10] “Yellow Ribbon” imdb.com

[11] American Film Institute “Top 10 Western” AFI.com

[12] Teako170.com

[13] CJ Perry, “The Evolution of the Western Genre” Film Slate March 6 2015

[14] Teako170.com

[15] Schatz, “Cowboy Business”

[16] Teako170.com

[17] Teako170.com

[18] Andrew Sarris, “Death of the Gunfighters: Fred Schepisi Writs ‘The End’ of the Western” Film Comment March-April 1982

[19] “Open Range,” Boxofficemojo.com

[20] “Open Range,” Rottentomatoes.com

[21] “Open Range,” imdb.com

[22] Jim Kitses, “Forgiven” Sight & Sound April 2004

[23] Todd McCarthy, “Open Range” Variety August 10 2003

[24] AO Scott “Good and Evil Shoot it Out” The New York Times August 15 2003

[25] Moira MacDonald “Laconic ‘Open Range’ has Quiet Appeal” Seattle Times August 15 2003

[26] “Western” Boxofficemojo.com

[27] Gary Hoppenstand, “Editorial: Gone With the Western” The Journal of Popular Culture 2004

[28] Anne Thompson, “Beyond-the-Pale-Riders” Film Comment July-August 1992