Westerns were at the peak of popularity between the early 20th century and into the 1960s, when Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart would ride horses bareback across barren deserts, duelling with enemies and protecting their land. The popularity of the Western has spawned a multitude of sub-genres, including the Spaghetti Western (Westerns made in Italy, such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”) and the Meat Pie Western (Westerns set in the Australian outback), but the traditional Western began to die as film technology improved and sci-fi became the next trendy genre.
The death of the traditional Western gave way to films such as Star Wars, which, whilst set in a galaxy far, far away, actually followed the narrative of a traditional Western. It has been noted that although the gunslinging midwestern tropes of Westerns may have taken a break between the seventies and the early 21st century, the successful narrative structure was transplanted into many successful films. In the early part of the 21st century, we have seen a resurgence in the traditional Western, to varying degrees of success.
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Gaming has greatly benefited from the traditional Western genre. The vast landscapes depicted in the films lend themselves beautifully to open world formatted games. Also inspired by classic Westerns, Paddy Power has released their 21 Duel blackjack game, which requires all the bravery and skill of a gunslinger, which is available here. If you want to immerse yourself in a traditional Western environment, Red Dead Redemption II released in October to record-breaking sales. Critics have praised its incredible visuals, has lauding it as a “masterpiece”, stating that much like the original, it has pushed the boundaries of endless open-world gaming.
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Epic Westerns such as Django Unchained have managed to revive an interest in the form and at the same time incorporate a modern take on the traditional form. Tarantino’s trademark violence and dark humour was a perfect fit for the genre, which during its peak in the 1950s would have been subject to strict censorship laws, prohibiting the violence Tarantino employs in his films. The Revenant, for which Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar, was also based on this new style of epic Western, and as interest in the genre begins to grow, we are seeing a year on year resurgence in the form. This interest is yet to transfer into box office numbers, as seen with Jake Gyllenhall’s The Sisters Brothers, which received positive reviews at the Venice Film Festival, per this link, before taking a nose dive in cinemas.
Whilst modern Westerns allow directors to do more than the old school films ever did, new enthusiasts should first look to John Wayne movies to get a taste for the traditional Western. It is here that you will begin to notice the narrative structure which frames most action films in modern cinema. The Western may not be the public’s first choice of film, but it is the base point for most of the cinema that we watch.