Did the Western make a comeback in 2007, with 3:10 to Yuma (371 screens), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (294 screens), and last spring's Seraphim Falls? That's a tough question, but the better question would be: did it ever go away? Those three movies earned a lot of attention this year, and it showed that, if nothing else, filmmakers and actors are eager to make Westerns once again, as they did back in the 1950s. How much more of a indication do you need when Pierce Brosnan, Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt don cowboy hats and mount horses? Other actors, such as Matt Damon and Colin Farrell have suggested how much fun they had while making recent Westerns. Unfortunately, audiences don't seem so interested, and conversely, producers don't want to put up the money for actors to play if audiences don't want to share in the fun.
Director James Mangold told me that no studio would touch 3:10 to Yuma, and that he had to secure financing from a bank. It opened, happily, in the #1 box office slot, but after eight weeks, it has started to slide, and is still just shy of recapturing its $55 million budget. And this is a terrific, crowd-pleasing movie with a great performance by Crowe. It's directed with energy and clarity, with an innovative use of an authentic Western soundtrack. It has exciting gunfights and chases and escapes. And if aesthetes and elitists wish, they can see bonus allusions to Iraq in the film, even if they're not actually mentioned or hammered home. It's unpretentious in every way. (Paul Haggis could take a few notes from this movie.) So why has the box office slowed down so drastically?
It's much worse for Jesse James. I suspect that Warner Bros. has a crafty awards-season campaign in mind, and they intend to keep slowly rolling it out to more markets as it gets closer to December. But as of now, after six weeks, it has only grossed just under $3 million on a $30 million budget. Even though Brad Pitt won (and deserved) the Best Actor award at Venice, this movie is a much harder sell. It's closer to something by Terrence Malick than to John Wayne; it's very slow and contemplative, and it uses its landscape to underline the characters' emotional state rather than for action. There are more scenes of people sitting around in rooms talking than shooting one another, but I think it's one of the year's great films. Oddly enough, the country's most powerful critics have dismissed it, calling it boring and whatnot, but its current IMDB score stands at a very high 8.3. Apparently the small band of ordinary, everyday moviegoers that have actually seen it, love it, while the film community's supposed elite didn't get it.
Most of today's working critics were raised watching movies during the 1970s or 1980s, when the Western's popularity had faded. During the hippie days, it was seen as an outmoded genre, uncool, with nothing left to say. Mel Brooks' ridiculed its conventions in his massive hit Blazing Saddles (1974), and that is perhaps the only point of reference that today's critics have. They're very simply not familiar with the codes and tools for watching a Western. To go further, those critics who have gone back to watch "classic" Westerns probably started with the most acclaimed, pre-approved examples, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, none of which have much to do with the Western. These are all what Andre Bazin termed "Super-Westerns." They're more interested in making statements that exist outside the genre, and are generally made by filmmakers who have no interest in the genre.
To truly bone up on the Western, viewers must delve into the pleasures of the "bread-and-butter" Western, or films by those who lived the genre: Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill and Clint Eastwood. These men were sometimes accused of making the same Westerns over and over, but by doing so, they achieved a kind of purity, something separate from other genres and closer to art. In these films, one can find a new visual language, with empty spaces and simple objects standing in for dialogue. It's an unspoken genre, where words mean very little (except, for other reasons, in the new Jesse James). In a way, it's a physical genre, and belongs closer to the horror film than to more prestigious genres.
Happily, certain filmmakers and films have been able to tap into the public's consciousness and to hang on throughout the years. All of Leone's films remain very popular, as do Clint Eastwood's Westerns. (I'm still reeling that a film as great as Unforgiven actually managed to win an Oscar!) And John Ford's complex, polarizing masterpiece The Searchers (1956), with its sticky issues regarding racism, continues to grow in stature every year (it's one of the few films that gets better the more times you see it). These are a great place to start learning the language, or the non-language, of the Western. When you're ready, if you hurry, you can still catch 3:10 to Yuma and Jesse James on the big screen. And then you might begin to understand the allure of playing cowboy.