How the Western Was Won


Like a gunslinger standing on a dusty street in a one-horse town, facing down a posse or, if he’s wearing a tin star, a gang of outlaws, the western has proved hard to kill. Officially, of course, its death has been documented again and again, with regret and, sometimes, with satisfaction.

But as soon as the obsequies have been pronounced and the coffin lowered into the sandy earth, the rumble of hoofbeats sounds on the horizon, and the western rides again. In 1991, for example, the critic J. Hoberman published a thorough and persuasive essay called “How the Western Was Lost,” documenting the waning of a once-vigorous form.

That same year, however, Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, a feat Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” would match two years later. But Hoberman surely had a point. The movie western had retreated from its position as a quintessential and vital form of American storytelling, undone by the same cultural tumult that had put paid to other manifestations of midcentury consensus. The newer westerns, the ones made since Vietnam, were either revivalist or revisionist, seeking to bury the old myths or to exhume them.

(Source: New York Times)

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