The Western

I watched a lot of Westerns growing up. My mom is a big John Wayne fan (I’ve seen The Comancheros a dozen times) and my dad and I would watch the 1940s-50s Westerns on PBS’s Six Gun Heroes on Saturday afternoons. Then, of course, there was the syndicated 1960s TV show Gunsmoke on the local CBS station after school, giving me a daily dose of six-guns and show-downs. These are all classic Westerns, with the white hat, black hat distinction between the hero and villain who fought over a sympathetic third character’s homestead, land, or livestock. Each story a parable on the virtues of taming a wilderness and bringing civilization to the frontier. Good triumphs over evil, order over chaos, and a bittersweet ending for the cowboy who fights for the very culture he cannot be a part of and so must ride off into the sunset. All wholesome stuff, apart from the misogyny and racism, but such was the time.

The Anti-Western

I also grew up after we replaced the Western with the Anti-Western, which I always associate with Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. What’s the difference? If the Western is telling a story of bringing civilization and order to chaos with cowboys acting as knight-errants, the Anti-Western tells stories about civilization’s cost. Individualistic and independent cowboys fight against conforming to society and corporate greed (usually a railroad), living anachronisms in the era of Progress. Rather than knights-errant, they become wandering devils, strangers drifting into town to punish the hypocrisy and cowardice of townsfolk who abandoned the morals that built the West (or so we want to believe). In short, the Western glorifies the cowboy and the Anti-Western shows his downfall.

Where did it go?

If a Western is being made today, it’s always an Anti-Western. Yet we’re still the same humans with the same cravings of earlier generations. So did the Western die? I’d say it moved on into other genres where one can still find frontiers: science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. The characters are often cowboys by other names who are self-reliant individuals who live by their own moral code, want to be left alone and are forced to defend their independence through strength of arms. In science fiction, we have stories like The Mandalorian that wear its Western influences openly. Then there’s Mad Max riding the last of the V8 Intercepts to lead the forces of post-apocalyptic chaos and tyranny away from the new settlers rebuilding a society that will have no need for road warriors.

What Made Me Sit Down

I’ve found those themes running through my work. My characters are typically self-sufficient loners searching for a place to call their own and move on once order has been restored. They’re not the settling type, even if they think they are, and really are happiest when they’re on the move, seeing what lies over the next hill. For all the science fiction and fantasy in my writerly upbringing, the Western has put its own stamp on my storytelling sensibility and style.

Do you have a favorite Western? (I’m partial to High Plains Drifter myself) Leave your vote in the comments, I’d love to compare notes!

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