Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Can True Grit Revive the Western?

Wait! I know what you’re thinking. Oh no, not another piece speculating on whether the Western genre might come back as a result of one high-profile release! And you’re right: This recurring notion that [insert title of successful and/or much hyped Western here] might revive the mostly dead genre is somewhat cliché at this point. But here’s why True Grit is different.

Many, if not most, of the American Westerns released since the 1960s have fallen firmly into the revisionist camp.* That includes everything from epic flops (The Missouri Breaks, Heaven’s Gate, Wyatt Earp, etc.) to momentous successes (Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, The Wild Bunch, etc.) Heck, even John Ford’s final two feature Westerns – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn -- were revisionist. Yes, there are some honest-to-god American genre Westerns in there. Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider comes to mind. As does the original True Grit, which features John Wayne in one of his most iconic roles.

The new True Grit doesn’t really have anything like John Wayne. It’s got Jeff Bridges -- yes, a beloved star in his own right, but never much of a box office draw. It’s got the Coen Brothers – genius directors, but not exactly known for helming financial juggernauts. It does also have Matt Damon. And Barry Pepper. Great. It doesn’t even have a particularly original story, or a particularly original take on a classic story. (These aren’t criticisms, by the way.) It looks and sounds great, sure, but tell that to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

And yet the new True Grit is making a boatload of money. People are going to see it, and they’re not going to see it because they fear it’s going to be an awards juggernaut or something, either. This is why the film’s many awards snubs might actually be a good thing – it’s shaping up as a kind of people’s choice contender. That it’s a good movie helps, certainly, but the box office graveyard is littered with good movies.

No, people seem to be going to see True Grit because they honestly seem to want to see a real Western -- not an ennobling history lesson, not a tired old “reversal of genre tropes,” and not an Oscar winner. They want to see good cowboys going up against bad cowboys.

Or do they? There is, actually, an interesting comparison point for this: 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, another remake of a classic genre Western. That one didn’t do nearly as well at the box office, especially since it starred two of the biggest stars on the planet – though, in retrospect, it actually did a lot better financially than most of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale’s other non-franchise films since then. I actually like 3:10 to Yuma a lot – I was kind of tepid on it at first, but have seen it a couple of times since and have come around to it.

Of course, there were a lot of complex reasons for the near-death of the Western in the first place – among them, the demise of the concept of the B-movie, the rising cost of period production, etc. etc. And studios (or anyone else, for that matter) will probably never churn out Westerns the way they once did -- horror movies are a lot cheaper and superhero/comic-book movies more lucrative. So I don’t ultimately know what any of this means. Since Hollywood has the attention span of a flea, and has probably already forgotten about Yuma, hopefully it means some more Westerns getting made. And if some of those are actually good, and make money, maybe we can see the revival of a long-dormant genre. At least until some clown tries to remake The Searchers and ruins it for everybody.

* Spaghetti Westerns complicate this calculus somewhat, since they fall into some kind of middle ground -- many of them are actually pretty daring in subject matter and politics, although they were often consumed as lowest common denominator product at the time of their actual release.

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