Where have all the cowboys gone?

Published 11:38 am Friday, November 3, 2017

By Rick Baldwin

Greetings, dudes and dudettes of Winchester!

As the sun sets earlier each day and we are forced to duel with Mother Nature and her onslaught of decreasing temperatures, living room movie viewings will be on the rise.

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Not being a fan of the cold and dreading the obligatory chores which call me outside of our toasty abode, I warm my soul by consuming a large array of film each winter as nourishment.

There are many films I must check out, revisit and hopefully stumble upon by chance this winter.

As I currently look at the forecast of films to be released in the coming months, I fret at the fact that westerns are almost an extinct creature roaming among the cinema landscape.

The American western was once the most popular of the genres in cinema and on TV up until the mid-1960s.

Starting with “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and gaining real speed over the years with showcasing such stars such as Tom Mix, John Wayne and Roy Rogers along with talented directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, westerns were the No. 1 source of entertainment.

Kids played cowboys and Indians, the Lone Ranger was the hero of the day, and the Wild West was romanticized to the fullest by Hollywood.

Until the mid-1960s, westerns focused on the hero fighting against his flaws, all odds and against a nefarious villain before saving the day.

The locale was usually one that was hot, dusty and at times unforgiving to its inhabitants and served as a central character within itself.

John Wayne was the epitome of American values, an example of what a man was, and exuded everyday sacrifice for the good of your neighbor during this era.

The long-term effects from the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, and the baby boomers’ rebellion would change the rules in American society and cinema forever.

With old values being pushed aside as our nation explored new social mores, there was also a new take on the classic Old West film.

The Spaghetti Western made Clint Eastwood a huge international star as the opportunist stranger who lived in a world of gray values in Sergei Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966).

This middle-of-the-road approach for a protagonist was new in American western cinema and was a sign that the times were a changin’.

The Spaghetti Westerns were known for their grittiness and violence and were more realistic to believe as the world and America seemed to be falling apart at the time.

Art imitates life and the cold brutal realities of violence were never better showcased than in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969).

The 1970s saw several westerns that stood out as solid films on their own but were unlike any westerns seen up until that time.

Moody titles such as “El Topo” (1970), “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973), were dark westerns which were filmed because out-of-touch studios and producers were desperate and allowing up and coming talent free reign to film features for young eager-paying audiences.

The 1980s welcomed a small resurgence because fans still wanted their westerns and were rewarded with “Pale Rider” (1985), “Young Guns” (1988), “Back to the Future III” (1989), and the popular “Lonesome Dove” (1989) series.

The 1990s birthed two of the most memorable westerns to date with Clint Eastwood’s award-winning, “Unforgiven” (1994) and the highly entertaining and easily quotable, “Tombstone” (1993).

Sure, westerns still get made in 2017. But not many. They pale in comparison to the same stale schtick that is released every Friday.

Most of the time, new westerns are remakes, direct-to-video releases or produced solely for online streaming services.

The latter is perfect for when you are warming your bones and wanting to visit the Wild West for two hours from the comfort of your own Ponderosa until spring returns.

That’s where I’ll be, wondering where have all the cowboy films gone?

Have a rootin’ tootin’ filmtastic day.

Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker and film/music historian. He is president of the Winchester-Clark County Film Society (facebook.com/WCCfilmsociety). Find more from Rick on Facebook at facebook.com/ricksrhetoric/ and online at theintestinalfortitude.com/category/reviews-editorials/ricks-rhetoric. He is on Twitter @rickbaldwin79 and can be reached by email at rickbaldwiniii@hotmail.com.