Film genres phase in and out of relevancy. They rise and they fall. One such genre that has dissipated into lesser popularity is westerns. But are westerns dead? Have modern filmmaking techniques rendered them irrelevant? Have the audience’s tastes drastically changed? Has this previously predominant genre faltered into nothing but a shell of its former self?
Well, the answer is complicated; yes and no. I would say James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is evidence that it has not, at least not in terms of achieving being a great film. But I will say, westerns are not what they once were with film lovers. I’ll get into that a little bit later.
There have been considerably fewer westerns in the last two to three decades. You’re lucky to see even two critically-acclaimed western films in just one year alone. However, even with this, most of the films I can think of have been absolutely spectacular. Most of them fly under the rade with limited releases or straight to VOD. I may be slightly biased because I am a sucker for the wild west, mostly due to the third Back to the Future, and the video game franchise Red Dead Redemption. Probably the biggest western movie release in 5 years was The Magnificent Seven, and I would argue that it wasn’t even close to being one of the best during this period. Movies like 3:10 to Yuma delve deeper into their story and characters.
Even with it being a remake released 13 years ago, it is fantastically well-made. I think now is no better time to make a western because of how far filmmaking has come. While traditional westerns will forever remain classics, the action, cinematography, locations, and most importantly the performances rise above what has been made in the past.
Every person in this film is fantastic in their portrayals, especially Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as leading men. Both actors feel like they belong to this world, living, and breathing their roles. Their respective charisma is played into their contrasting personalities. Even when you think Evans, played by Bale, is getting boring or Wade, played by Crowe, is completely malicious, you still can’t help but love them.
This is also a testament to James Mangold as a director. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know who Mangold was until Logan, which he directed in 2017. After watching that movie and seeing the distinct western direction he took, I was far more intrigued by his work. He owns his more traditional filmmaking style, as seen in these two movies and most recently, Ford V Ferrari.
The problem is that, with the exception of Logan (since it falls into the superhero genre), most people don’t really go see these types of movies anymore.
One of my favorite westerns as of recently is Hostiles, which coincidentally also stars Christian Bale. This movie was exceptional, but it lost over 3 million dollars. Its budget was roughly 39 million, while it only made 35.7 million in return.
Audiences don’t go see westerns, even when they’re superb films. I’ve come to the conclusion that westerns are in their prime regarding their quality but are the complete opposite when it comes to their popularity. They’re not what they used to be to audiences.
This is simply due to the fact that we are past the age of westerns. Very few are interested in the genre, and they aren’t the powerhouse they once were. We live in the age of superheroes and spectacles. If a western is concealed under a superhero skin, like Logan, it will succeed far more. A western simply on its own just isn’t the same.
While I am just one voice, I encourage everyone to please check out some of the great western flicks made in the past 20-30 years. Even if they don’t immediately intrigue you, I promise that these films are worth diving into.