December 1st was be the 112 Anniversary of the release of the first western film with a storyline, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It is also the film that, in a roundabout way, introduced us to the first western screen hero, Maxwell H. Aronson aka Gilbert M. Anderson aka Broncho Billy Anderson.
When I think about big screen westerns of the last 30 years Open Range, Tombstone, Silverado, 3:10 to Yuma (remake), and Appaloosa are a few that come to mind. You probably have your own opinion about each of these titles (I do) but one thing is for sure. They tried in their own way to stay true to the spirit of the west.
Last Saturday at our monthly get together at the Scottsdale Museum of Western Art, I was asked a question that I hear a lot – “Why aren’t more westerns made for the theater?” The answer is simple and yet may be hard to comprehend for us western lovers. We just don’t support the ones that make it to the local silver screen complex.
How many western purists saw Cowboys and Aliens? Or the recent Lone Ranger? Or Will Smith’s Wild Wild West? I know, I know, you’re saying, “Those aren’t the type of westerns we want to see!” But, as I told the audience on Saturday, you need to realize that the studios aren’t run by people who care. They look at facts and figures. They weren’t around when westerns were in vogue and dominated before the dreaded “Demographics” began to dictate what they began telling us we ‘wanted’ to see.
These fact and figure corporation types look at the bottom-line – which is necessary to stay solvent since the demise of the halcyon days of the studio system - I had to look ‘halcyon’ up by the way. Let’s take The Lone Ranger for example, if it had been a hit it would have been another feather in the cap of the team of Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer. There would have been a sequel which would have been another western, so to speak. But the film set westerns back. Not because it was a bad film – I actually enjoyed it on its own terms, you have to go in not expecting Clayton Moore (even John Hart) and Jay Silverheels.
But too many western fans refused to support it because of its presentation. It failed miserably although it did well on video, but so do dozens of westerns released directly to the video medium each year. Therefore it wasn’t a win for Depp and Bruckheimer, but a loss for westerns! Disney looked at it as a lack of interest in a big screen western. In other words, theater goers love Depp, but they hate westerns! Everybody loves Depp as a pirate, they should have loved him as Tonto, right?! That’s their thinking, just like Wild Wild West wasn’t successful because of Robert Conrad’s casting, so wouldn’t it be great to give the part of James West to Will Smith and tinker with the plot of a 1960s TV show that was very popular in its day? “Well,” I can hear the studio brass thinking, “It couldn’t have been the casting of Will Smith or the plot! It has to be that no one wants to see westerns anymore.”
We may hate what they do with our westerns but unless we take the castor oil they try to spoon feed us then we’ll just need to be satisfied to stay home and watch some of the quality TV westerns we have coming our way. Now I guess I’ll go finish watching Jonah Hex and then follow it with a chaser of Audie Murphy in Whispering Smith to make ol’ Jonah go down easier.
Charlie LeSueur is AZ's Official Western Film Historian, Encore Fellow @ Spirit of the West; Scottsdale's Museum of the West.