A rowdy Wild West saloon, complete with grubby prospectors, gamblers and some cheerful ragtime music in the background. Suddenly, the saloon doors swing open. A man in black with a gun on his hip strides across the wooden floor towards the bar. The piano falls silent, the patrons slowly lower their drinks and the gamblers stare over the top of their cards, every set of eyes fixed on the mysterious stranger. He sets a dirty nickel onto the counter and grunts “Whiskey.”
Welcome to the western, a genre as old as American cinema itself. In the silent era, they were considered the dramatic equivalent of a Jason Statham movie, but by the late 1930s they were starting to flourish into a true art form, thanks to one man. John Ford was the indisputable master of the genre: from 1917 to 1964 he directed over 50 westerns; many of them featuring John Wayne, whose aura of gruff determination would come to symbolise not only the Old West, but, for many Americans, the United States itself. For over 20 years, John Ford and a few like-minded contemporaries would craft the public’s perception of the Wild West as a place where savage Indians, corrupt cattle barons or sneering outlaws were ultimately vanquished by the power of American ideals. It was a simple concept, but the beauty of the story was in the telling – lush vistas, strong characters and charismatic actors were what made the western a staple of the Classic era.
The end of the Fifties saw the western in decline as television serials such as Bonanza satisfied the American public’s cowboy craving. However, the Wild West continued to fascinate European audiences, giving rise to the ‘spaghetti western’, which saw directors like Sergio Leone put their own spin on the genre with films such as the Dollars trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood. American directors were also starting to shake up the status quo, with Sam Peckinpah’s shockingly gory The Wild Bunch (1969) and Robert Altman’s grimy McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) challenging the sanitised version of history portrayed by their predecessors. A lull through most of the 1980s and 1990s had many predicting the death knell of the genre, but the recent explosive resurgence exemplified by True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country For Old Men has finally seen the western back at the top of its game.