The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Return of the Western

With the Coen brothers’ latest venture coming to Netflix later this year, an anthology series set in the wild west and starring Tim Blake Nelson, now seems as good a time as any to step back and look at what exactly makes the Western genre so dang popular. Whether it’s long shots of the mountain ranges in the background, the sheer manliness of the cowboys helping the poor folk around them, or a tense showdown with revolvers that feels even more suspenseful than a game of Russian Roulette. The Western has endured throughout the years and with good reason!

Starting in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery, the Western proved an immensely popular new type of film that gained solid ground throughout the first few decades of its existence, becoming increasingly popular and getting a sizeable boost after World War II with John Wayne standing proud as an icon of American manliness and assertiveness. It’s estimated that in the fifty years between 1910 and 1960 that about 25% of all films made featured cowboys, and the TV landscape looked much the same in broadcasting terms.

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The American attitude towards the Western began to change in the 60s, as the Vietnam War drew its detractors, and suddenly the larger than life macho figures of John Wayne were no longer quite as appealing. Instead, flawed anti-heroes began to capture the publics imagination with characters like Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s legendary trilogy now feeling like the characters who defined a generation. The genres immense popularity eventually led into deconstruction with movies intentionally playing with the established tropes for laughs. Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos both did extremely well at the box office and were perhaps signs that the genre was going into a bit of a decline.

Throughout the 80s, America now had new heroes in the form of John McClane and Rambo, larger than life action heroes with guns and catchphrases that stood apart from the classic cowboys of yesteryear. There were a few notable exceptions that popped up throughout the end of the decade, including Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. The revival came not from a movie but from TV with Deadwood, a classic that encapsulated all the best things about the genre and led to a number of follow-up films all carrying the same air of Western brilliance. Since 2001, a reeling America began to take solace in Westerns and helped redefine how they viewed their country with movies like No Country for Old Men, Django Unchained, and 3:10 to Yuma all evoking the cowboy life with irreplaceable style.

It’s perhaps easiest to explain the appeal of Westerns as tied to the way America views itself, with a focus on the heroic aspect and the conquering of a wild frontier, the modern films take a more understated approach and show awareness of the tropes. The recent Hateful 8 and The Revenant show how the Western is a constantly evolving genre — it has the hats, it has the horses; everything else can change to fit what story you want to tell. That in particular might explain their enduring popularity.

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