popularity of western on TV: "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (1955-61) John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Wyatt Earp's legend was also the inspiration for Oakley Hall's famous novel "Warlock" (1958) but Wyatt Earp has become a disturbing, tragically flawed, killer.
1945-60 was the golden age of the western, and it's not a coincidence that this was the time of the Cold War. In the late 1950s television was flooded with western series. The quest for realism and historical accuracy (and for social and racial undercurrents) killed the western because the whole point of the western was to abstract from reality and from history, to tell timeless stories that could not be contradicted by archeology. When reality and history contaminated the genre, the western losts its reason for existing. The Far West was supposed to be a) "far" and b) exciting. It was meant to happen far away in time and space from the audience (which was mostly living not in the western states) and it was meant to show a lifestyle full of suspense and adventure, with none of the tedious chores of daily life. The quest for realism turned the western into a documentary, showing that life in the Far West was remarkably similar to life in the near east, just very poor, very dirty and very dangerous. The purpose of the western was not to discover what truly happened in the West, but to transfer primal emotions to a landscape halfway between uncivilized and civilized, neither jungle nor metropolis, something in between where fighting for justice, the code of honor, the yearning for order and other fundamental psychological needs still make sense; where surviving rattlesnakes, Indians, outlaws and crooks (the four fundamental forces of chaos) required mostly courage and determination. The western mostly existed as a way for the individual to escape from the combined nightmares of history and urban life. The wide open spaces contrast with the narrow crowded spaces of the city. The horse and the cow contrast with the industrial machines. However, these wide open spaces are often hostile: canyons with dead ends, deserts with no oases, cliffs ideal for ambushes, mountain passes battered by snowstorms... not to mention the wildlife. The landscape is often a coprotagonist, so much so that the western can be viewed as a dialogue between the hero and the landscape. Faces matter. Honest white men are not afraid of showing their faces. The Indians paint their faces and the outlaws wear masks on their faces. The western was also largely a male genre. It reflected a universal male culture, the culture of sparring and bullying that males reenact from the playground to the workspace. The western appeals to white men (who have become workers) afraid of losing their masculinity. The western projects their consciousness into the stereotype of the cowboy, a very masculine figure. Even outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid can be role models as long as they display that lost masculinity. In fact, a western movie is, first and foremost, a fauna of dysfunctional males.
The twilight of the western movie started with George Stevens' Shane (1953), Anthony Mann's existential films, Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950), Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954), John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962).
There were erotic overtones in Howard Hughes' The Outlaw (1943), the film that made Jane Russell a sex symbol, and in King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946).
Hollywood finally depicted the Wild West from the point of view of the "Indians" in films such as Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950). The sympathetic depiction of Native-Americans became prevalent, culminating with Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970). They were no longer bloodthirsty savages but either ordinary people or even noble savages.
The western is no longer heroic but simply a testament of incurable melancholy with protagonists who are dysfunctional anti-heroes: Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), John Huston's The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972), Walter Hill's The Long Riders (1980).
La smitizzazione del West prosegue con i western "autunnali", che ritraggono eroi al tramonto, provati da una vita di sparatorie e di saloon, delusi e sbandati, scavalcati da un mondo che dirige ormai verso l'industrializzazione. Il processo porta finalmente ad umanizzare i personaggi, a prendere come protagonisti non gli eroi delle ballate, ma umili cow-boys senza nome, lavoratori sconosciuti che sono alle prese con problemi domestici, esistenziali ecc.
Western psicologico e western umano elevano il genere a spettacolo "adulto", non piu' limitato alle platee infantili. La nuova etica porta a definire un western realista e disilluso, che si contrappone a quello classico di Ford. Violento, psicologico, brutale, volgare, amorale (Peckinpah, Fuller).
Negli anni Settanta questa rivoluzione ha l'effetto di rilanciare il genere commercialmente. Fino al 1976 i titoli western si moltiplicano e John Wayne tocca l'apice della propria fama.
La varieta' di temi e situazioni che hanno ora a disposizione i cineasti favorisce d'altronde il proliferare dei film. Inoltre l'ambientazione realista e l'atmosfera di auto-critica si sposano bene all'America del watergate e del Vietnam. Dal 1977, invece, l'America trova altre valvole di sfogo e il western si va lentamente spegnendo.
Se il western sublima l'individualismo utopico che e' alla base della civilta' americana, il passaggio dall'epos su canovacci mitologici al realismo umanistico sulla tradizione folcloristica segna la presa di coscienza dell'America del dopoguerra, i cui abitanti non sono piu' tutti eroi- pionieri alla ricerca dell'Eden terrestre, della terra promessa, bensi' una varieta' cosmopolita di affaristi sanguinari, di rozzi allevatori, di militari imbecilli, di cercatori falliti ecc. Il western da rituale feticista di auto-esaltazione si trasforma in rituale di auto-esame.
The western genre dominated Hollywood. Between 1910 and 1960 about 25% of all Hollywood movies were westerns, with about 100 westerns produced every year. The western then flooded the airwaves: in 1958 seven out of the 10 top rated shows on US television were westerns. However, a rapid decline brought to just seven westerns made in 1977. The failure of Heaven's Gate (1980) seemed to doom the genre forever. It was just difficult to find something interesting to say about such an abused canon and expensive to produce. In reality, the western had started mutating with Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), away from the morality play and towards a more amoral universe. The Italian westerns revived the genre precisely by abandoning moral integrity as the core of the story. The Far West of the Italian westerns was eerily similar to the anarchic moral landscape of medieval Europe. The hero was increasingly a nihilistic and asocial loner, and the traditional ideological scaffolding was collapsing.