True Grit - The return of the Western?
With the huge success of the Coen Brother's True Grit, multiple video game of the year victor Red Dead Redemption and this summer's Cowboys and Aliens - are Westerns back?
The iconography of the Western genre is so deeply embedded in our minds that try as many have in recent times; artists have struggled to revive this once all-conquering genre. Perhaps cinema audiences believe they have seen it all already or that the depths of the genre have already been plunged, but for whichever reason, particularly in the movie industry, bar a couple of minor hits (Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma), cowboys and gunslingers have taken a notable break from the silver screen.
That could all be about to change. Released on December 22, the Coen Brother's True Grit has already amassed $126m in US box office receipts and hits Irish cinemas next month. Not only is the Jeff Bridges-starring Western the biggest domestic hit of the filmmakers career, Grit is the second-highest grossing Western in US history when adjusted for inflation. It's also the first in the genre to cross $100m since Unforgiven, released in 1992. With a 95% rating on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and an expected Academy Award Best Actor nomination for Bridges, are audiences finally ready to re-embrace the Western?
It's no secret that when Pixar wanted a toy to represent antiquated childhood playthings in the face of the gleaming, modern Buzz Lightyear character of Toy Story, they eventually plucked for Sheriff Woody, who as we later found out in the series, was based on a popular 1950s TV show called Woody's Roundup within the Toy Story universe. Whether it's cowboy action figures, Halloween costumes or even playing the childhood game 'Cowboys and Indians', interest in the Western genre fell from its childhood core audience originally and has followed upon generation after generation.
In 2007, director Ridley Scott spoke to The Times and proclaimed: "There's nothing original. We've seen it all before. Been there. Done it." Although Scott was actually talking about the sci-fi genre he managed to popularize with Alien, the director could've easily had been talking about Westerns; in fact he added that "Sci-fi films are as dead as Westerns" during the same interview. So four years later, what has changed?
Filmmakers appear to be preparing to give the gunslingers a second chance. One of this summer's biggest blockbusters is set to be Cowboys & Aliens, a mix of Sci-fi and Western genres based on a cult graphic novel. Starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, the hugely budgeted epic is under the stewardship of Iron Man director Jon Favreau.
With such in-demand talent involved, Universal studios are taking a huge gamble that hinges on unknown territory - can you make the western genre relevant by having it collide with another, far more popular genre for today's audiences, Sci-fi? High concept Westerns - Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex - have not fared too well in recent years, though these examples of the genre had the misfortune of being absolutely terrible movies.
Embedding modern sensibilities or political correctness into Westerns (Will Smith's controversial casting as an African-American cowboy for Wild Wild West for example) may be a decisive stumbling block for audiences acceptances of the genre, as Rob Weiner, film expert and Associate Humanities Librarian at Texas Tech University recently told Fox News: “It’s hard for modern audiences to relate to Westerns, especially given how politically incorrect they are concerning Native Americans. Let’s be honest – racism like that is one thing we can’t do in films today.”
Film expert Tom Abrams, an Associate Professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, told the site that he believed True Grit's success is an aberration within a society in which "fantasy is king".
"Sadly, the Western has become your grandfather’s kind of movie... True Grit's success is much less about the fact that it's a Western and more about the fact that it's just a well-made movie and fills a void that people are feeling with the current offerings in the box office"
Not that Disney have been paying much attention - they've signed up Johnny Depp for the role of Tonto in their 2013 Lone Ranger remake. If Disney has been able to resurrect the Pirate movie genre in the last ten years with Depp, surely the Western is a cinch?
Another major development studio backing a forgotten genre with a massively ambitious AAA project was Rockstar Games' sprawling critical and commercial smash hit Red Dead Redemption. Famed for their Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar transposed their signature series gameplay to frontier life, casting players in the role of former outlaw John Marsden. The title has since shipped 8 million units worldwide since May 2010.
Which brings us back to True Grit, a pleasingly retrograde tale of revenge, much like Red Dead. The Coen Brother's latest took the risky venture of attempting to better John Wayne's Oscar-winning role as U.S Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn in the 1969 original and literary adaptation of the same name. Swapping 'The Duke' for 'The Dude' may be a sacrilegious decision to some, yet the universal goodwill towards Bridges has been a potentially imposing hurdle that the Coens have easily overcome.
If True Grit and Red Dead can teach us anything, it's that artists should embrace the Western's familiar tropes yet not feel burdened by them. Increasingly self-conscious, familiar Westerns may be one of the defining reasons why the genre has fallen out of favor yet if studios are willing to remake and reboot previously untouchable, lauded originals (True Grit, Lone Ranger), take left turns with established mechanics (Red Dead Redemption) or say 'Why not?!' and insert aliens into the Old West for the fun of it (Cowboys & Aliens), we may find that this is one genre whose ability to corral audiences hasn't fully diminished.