- - Thursday, January 25, 2018

John Wayne might not recognize the westerns hitting screens large and small of late.

The modern western isn’t just white hats and black hats. The violence is meaner (“Bone Tomahawk”) and the women more progressive (“Godless”), and the stories share sensibilities beyond 19th-century mores (“Hostiles”).

The question for hard-core genre fans is clear: Is this an improvement over the westerns of yesteryear or a sorry sign of the times?

An example of the “new” western: Christian Bale’s “Hostiles,” released this month, finds his circa 1892 Army captain protecting a Cheyenne chief against every instinct in his bones. The story spins on understanding one’s enemies and their cultural perspectives.

Netflix’s new drama “Godless” teems with classic western tropes as well as feminist heroines in a town where the men died in a mining accident.

The 2015 indie western “Bone Tomahawk” features the kinds of grisly deaths you would expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. And let’s not forget that director’s “The Hateful Eight,” which ladled on the gore as well as some woke lessons about racism.

Even 2016’s “Jane Got a Gun” showcases a female protagonist ready to defend her turf by any means necessary.

Veteran film producer/director Lionel Chetwynd (“The Hanoi Hilton”) said Hollywood has been “revitalizing the western ever since it was a staple of American entertainment.”

“The western has always been a morality tale. That’s what made it such a wonderful piece of entertainment,” Mr. Chetwynd said. “The morality has always been very clean.”

He said films such as 1950’s “Broken Arrow” began to depict American Indians in a sympathetic light, allowing a more nuanced approach to the western.

The 1960s, a decade of moral equivalence, changed the western dramatically, Mr. Chetwynd said. The genre “had a lot of trouble perpetuating itself” following that period.

That shift occasionally complemented the oater, as in 1970’s “Little Big Man.” More often, it didn’t, the filmmaker said. Applying modern sensibilities to the genre bleeds out some of that vital western DNA.

In a way, “they’re no longer westerns in the traditional sense but stories of 21st-century people dealing with issues of the 21st century in costumes,” he said. “The flaws in that construction should be pretty obvious.”

The man synonymous with the late 20th century western, Clint Eastwood, helped spark a new period for the genre with his 1992 classic, “Unforgiven.” The movie found Mr. Eastwood considering the western’s history of violence in ways that made audiences and Oscar voters cheer.

Christopher Irving, a humanities professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, notes that other western-themed tales also stretch the genre in contemporary directions.

Think about “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “No Country for Old Men” and even, with some creative liberties, AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Mr. Irving said.

More recent films such as “Meek’s Cutoff” and the “True Grit” remake “were true to form but revisited the lawlessness of the genre with fresh eyes,” he said.

The evolving western is a natural byproduct of how little we really know about the era, Mr. Irving said.

“So much of how we understand the West is based upon hearsay, myth, legend and downright lies,” he said. For example, “10-pace pistol duels were almost unheard of back then.”

That maturing vision is reflected in the stories we read and see.

“The vast majority of the cinematic and literary genre that we understand as ‘the western’ bears little resemblance to its historical influence,” Mr. Irving said. That’s why “we can’t ever push the revisionary envelope too far.”

Eric M. Blake, chief entertainment/culture writer for Western Free Press, argues that Hollywood remains stuck in a “post-‘Unforgiven’ mindset.”

It’s wrong for subsequent storytellers to cling to that Oscar-winning template, he said.

“Filmmakers seem to have it grounded into their heads that in order for a western to be taken seriously in our modern era it must be gritty, it must look dirty, it must have bad lighting, it must have an ugly browned-up or grayed-out color palette and, heaven forbid, it has an actually memorable score,” Mr. Blake said.

Hollywood often is ruled by copycat sentiments — one reason we see superhero stories from every possible outlet. Mr. Blake said a similar sentiment is holding true with the western.

“We really need to stop aping ‘Unforgiven’ as though it’s the one template for a modern western to build on,” Mr. Blake said. “All the beautiful and sweeping romanticism of the classic John Wayne era has stripped away for harsh reality. And they wonder why no one goes to see westerns anymore?”

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