Westerns: Are they still valid modern times?

Courtesy Timothy Olyphant stars as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens of Kentucky, a character created by novelist Elmore Leonard in the FX series “Justify.” Givens is a tough federal lawman, enforcing his own brand of justice in his Kentucky hometown.

Editor's note: Editorial Page Editor Roy Maynard and Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith recently got into a discussion about the viability and modern relevance of the Western genre. Here's Maynard's perspective on the subject, so be sure to check back next week for Smith's counterpoint editorial.

We can all agree that "The Lone Ranger" was a Disney-fied disaster. But was it also the death of the Western?

That's what one writer in The Atlantic contends.

"As superheroes, sequels, and international appeal influence Hollywood studios, films from the frontier are riding off into the sunset — just when America needs them most," Michael Agresta wrote recently.

He's right about what America needs just now. The superhero falls short. The sequel tells us what we don't need to hear –- again. And "international" efforts miss the uniquely American story that a Western can tell.

But the Western isn't dead. It may be spending a season in the wilderness, as the great followers in Hollywood chase "The Avengers" and the "The Hangover" franchises. For we still live on a dangerous frontier, and the Western remains one of the most useful lenses to view it through.

Let's get specific about what we mean by "Western." It's setting, of course, but not just setting, and sometimes not even setting. The Westerns we grew up with all mostly took place in a brief few decades — from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century — and in a limited geographical area of as-yet-unincorporated North America.

But such a setting was incidental. The best Western currently on the air is FX television's "Justified," set in modern-day Kentucky. What "Justified" has that makes it a Western is far more important than setting. It's tone.

That tone isn't a simplistic black-hats-versus-white-hats formula. It's the complex hero, who at times, takes the role of anti-hero. It's Jesse James and Wyatt Earp. It's a dangerous John Wayne and a dark James Stewart.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times once wrote that the Western protagonist is "the stranger, who's mostly on the side of good…but isn't part of the society of decent, law-abiding people he's defending."

He added that the hero is often "haunted," as Shane was, as the John Wayne character was in the greatest Western — perhaps greatest film — made yet, "The Searchers."

Of course, he's complex. He has to be; he's riding through a lawless world he doesn't completely belong to, and that, he senses, is passing. That's not an imperiled Pauline tied to the railroad tracks; it's the cowboy's and the drifter's way of life.

Each generation must reinterpret the Western for itself. That's fine. Telling stories anew takes nothing away from the stories of old. But the stories aren't necessarily equally successful. Today's Hollywood is struggling to deconstruct the Western and rebuild it as an historical hair-shirt. It's something to be borne, as punishment for our past sins.

For The Atlantic's Agresta, the genre is useful in that it provides filmmakers a way to explore "thorny issues of American history and character."

"It's the task of Westerns to address that history, even as decade by decade that history becomes more and more embarrassing to us," he writes.

And indeed, this is where "The Lone Ranger" went astray. Its treatment of our nation's relations with Native Americans was nearly as bungled as the relations themselves.

But that's missing the point. It's the miserable Modern looks inward on a stony soul. The Cowboy instead looks outward upon a land of promise.

Stories vary, and at times storytellers falter. There are those who say our story has gotten too complicated and too gray to be told through the vehicle of the Western.

They're wrong. The world remains dangerous, and civilization remains tenuous at best. There's still a place for that man of conviction, whose word is sure and whose hand is quick.

And when we need him most, he'll come over that horizon. Bet on it.





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