A Discovered genre: The contemporary western drama

I think I discovered a genre. It’s been around for more than 60 years and has never been recognized as such. But it’s worth considering. The films in this genre, or at least the ones I’ve seen, have all been excellent. I call them contemporary western dramas.

These are not westerns, although they echo that most American of genres. Like westerns, they’re usually set in Texas, Colorado, Montana, and other states we associate with cowboys and Indians. But they’re not set in the wild west. These westerners don’t ride horses on the open range. They drive cars and trucks, watch TV, and seldom carry sidearms. Unlike conventional westerns, these are not action movies; they’re dramas and character studies.

And yet, traditional westerns are in their veins. Many of the characters, especially the men, try to model themselves to fit the western legend that was largely created by Hollywood. They seldom succeed.

Here are some of my favorites:

A Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Unable to come out of the closet, he can’t openly acknowledge who he really is without rejecting another, equally important part of his identity–the strong, manly cowpoke. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and his wife. One of only a handful of films that significantly changed society for the better.

A- The Lusty Men (1952)

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it. Robert Mitchum stars as a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. When he latches onto a happily-married couple (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward), you know there’ll be trouble. Read my longer report (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).

A+ Lone Star (1996)
This is my personal favorite of these films. Writer/director John Sayles sets the story in a fictitious Texas border county and what appears to be its one small town. The Hispanic majority will soon take over local government. But the Jim Crow past isn’t far behind. Some still pine for the days when people didn’t “want their salt and sugar in the same jar.” And even the more enlightened citizens can’t escape their community’s dark past, and the verbal myths of good and bad sherrifs. Read my full report.

A The Rider(2018)

Brady, barely an adult, has already seen his once-bright rodeo career destroyed from brain damage, and another bad fall will probably kill him. Yet he wants desperately to get back in the saddle. Performed entirely with non-actors, this beautifully shot film puts you in the place of a young man who knows that he can’t do what he was born to do. The most-overlooked treasure of 2018. Read my full review.

A+ The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece just may be the bleakest coming-of-age movie ever made. The two young men at its center, inherently nice guys, have no prospects and no real ambitions. They live in a depopulated town that looks like it will blow away with the next windstorm. College isn’t an option. Even sex is a confusing and often embarrassing experience. Made in 1971 and set about two decades earlier, the film refuses to make the 1950s nostalgic. Read my A+appreciation.

A Giant (1956)

James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really belongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and must find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man.

5 thoughts on “A Discovered genre: The contemporary western drama

  1. A thoughtful and very valid take on this type of film. I guess DAYS OF HEAVEN (set in 1918) might be too early in the time-line.

    And then there are films like THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, RANCHO DELUXE , JUNIOR BONNER that might qualify.

    Reverting to genre I have always been enamored of the 30s-50s B westerns that were pure cowboy movies but had a contemporary setting with automobiles and possibly fighting the axis enemies. Possibly the best were THE THREE MESQUITEERS .

    Dennis Landadio, in his Mesquiteers film reviews, refers to many as being in a “time warp” due to the mixing of horses and stagecoaches with cars, trucks, Depression era problems, etc. Probably the best example is the Wayne-Corrigan-Terhune starrer OVERLAND STAGE RAIDERS (Republic, 1938) which includes planes, buses and trains. World War II was also integrated into the plotlines such as “an escaped Nazi prisoner goes west” in the Tom Tyler-Bob Steele-Jimmie Dodd VALLEY OF HUNTED MEN (Republic, 1942). Time warping and patriotic/espionage/war themes were not unique to the Mesquiteers as Republic used those elements in storylines for Autry, Rogers, others”.
    Or this synopsis of PALS OF THE SADDLE https://books.google.com/books?id=HheBCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA23&dq=%22HOLLYWOOD+WAR+FILMS++1937-1945%22++%22PALS+OF+THE+SADDLE%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwizgeirlc7jAhVpHDQIHT_KDccQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=%22HOLLYWOOD%20WAR%20FILMS%20%201937-1945%22%20%20%22PALS%20OF%20THE%20SADDLE%22&f=false

    1. The Misfits also belongs, but I hadn’t seen it in a very long time and never wrote about it, so I decided to put it on the list.

      I’ve noticed several B westerns that clearly mix 19th and 20th backgrounds. Never heard the label “time warp” for them until I read your comment–probably because I’ve never seriously got into B westerns.

  2. No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water could be added to your list.

    I hadn’t thought about this. In my opinion Western US culture is being subsumed by two forces: anti-government (often racist) extremists and homogenized US culture delivered via the internet. Denver, Dallas or Phoenix are losing their Western identities.

    However, in a similar vein, I have noticed what I call Post-Modern Westerns. They are set in the Old West but the characters have a modern day sense of weariness, cynicism and detachment which is played up for modern day audiences. Prototypes to this genre are The Wild Bunch & Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

    The first entry I recall which garnered critical praise was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Later entries include the remake of True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Django Unchained, Bone Tomahawk and I’m sure there are other that sip my mind.

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