Westerns

THE WESTERN IN DECLINE

As the Hollywood studio system began to break apart, the regular production of film westerns also declined, though early television relied on the genre to attract its first audiences. Western films had already employed color and widescreen processes to draw audiences away from the small screen, and films set in the modern West, such as Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, 1962) and Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963), or addressing the growing youth market, such as Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971), attempted to update the old form. Nevertheless, the lighthearted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) emerged as one of the most successful westerns of all time, even as the genre seemed to be losing its relevance for younger audiences.

The late renewal of the genre would came from somewhat surprising sources: the director Sam Peckinpah (1925–1984), a veteran of television westerns, released Ride the High Country (1962), starring veteran cowboy stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (1905–1990) in a film that realistically announced the end of an era. Peckinpah's greater impact came with The Wild Bunch (1969), an extremely violent film about a team of outlaws on the run in Mexico that was widely understood as a commentary on the ongoing war in Vietnam. Famous for its intricately edited, slow-motion bloodbaths, the film was both condemned and hailed as a masterpiece; there is no question that it altered the future depiction of violence in cinema. Another, even more unanticipated source for the western's revival was the body of Italian westerns known with some derision as "spaghetti westerns." Drawing upon a long European fascination with the western, the most internationally successful and influential examples, including Per un pugno di dollari ( A Fistful of Dollars , 1964) and Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly , 1966) were directed by Sergio Leone (1929–1989), at first starring the American actor Clint Eastwood (b. 1930). Although they were even more thoroughly stylized than Peckinpah's films, the Italian westerns shared his vision of a largely amoral, relentlessly violent world (though sometimes allowing moments of slapstick comedy). Often poorly dubbed, the Italian films nonetheless changed the sound of the western as well, largely through the unprecedented and distinctive soundtracks of Leone's prolific composer Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), who mixed trumpets, electric guitars, and bizarre sound effects to drastically challenge the folksy conventions of the traditional western soundtrack. At the very least, the Italian western successfully challenged the implicit notion that the genre could only be successful in the hands of American filmmakers.

At the same time, American westerns continued to anticipate the end of the genre's central role in American culture, albeit in a more nostalgic vein. Late John Wayne vehicles including True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972), and The Shootist (1976) conflated the star's own physical decline (the last two films depict his character's death) with the genre's slow demise. In retrospect, in the 1970s the genre was struggling to maintain its relevance through alternately nostalgic and harshly revisionist examples: the same period produced Hawks's traditional Rio Lobo (1970) and the audacious assault on heroism Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), as well as the downbeat McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and the surrealist El Topo ( The Mole , Alejandro Jodorowosky, 1971) Soon thereafter, the outrageous Blazing Saddles

Eli Wallacah, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef in the operatic showdown of Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , 1966).
(Mel Brooks, 1974) took the long tradition of the western parody to gleefully vulgar extremes, perhaps inadvertently rendering the traditional western impossible for mass audiences ever to accept straightforwardly again. A few years later, the ambitious epic and commercial failure Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) made Hollywood itself wary of funding productions in the genre.

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