A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

26
Post-Western Cinema

Neil Campbell


Dead Westerns

In 1996, Lee Clark Mitchell called the last chapter of his book Westerns, “Last Rites,” commenting that almost at their inception in 1913 producer Thomas Ince stated to cowboy actor William S. Hart that westerns “were on their way out” (Mitchell 1996: 257). In 1998 Jim Kitses opened his introduction to The Western Reader with a single statement: “Someone is always trying to bury the Western,” going on to claim that if all these proclamations of ending had headstones, they would “overflow even Tombstone’s cemetery” (Kitses and Rickman 1998: 15). Most recently, in 2006 Alex Cox, British director of “punk” westerns Straight to Hell and Walker, wrote that, “this genre … has, to all intents and purposes, died.”

The genre, which had once been a celebration of traditional American values of self -
reliance and individuality, had forked. Its reactionary tendency – the films of Burt
Kennedy and [John] Wayne – had hit a brick wall. Its revolutionary tendency was
postmodern, respecting neither genre nor linear narrative: the cowboy version of punk.
Hollywood was wasting money on the former, and afraid of the latter. (Cox 2006: n.p.).

Cox’s “forked” explanation reduces the western to binary streams, “reactionary” and “revolutionary,” failing to recognize that far from being dead these generic negotiations signify its reinvention and survivance (its “living on” in new or altered forms). In between Cox’s binaries westerns survived as they always had, traveling across generic boundaries, poaching and borrowing from many different earlier traditions,

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