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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Is it High Noon for the western?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

The western movie is 100, but it is in truly appalling health. Hollywood released no cowboy films in 2002, so will audiences flock to the spate of big-budget westerns due out soon?

The end came not with the swoosh and crack of a six-shooter being drawn and fired, but with the rumble of bulldozers.

This summer, Laramie Street - the dusty film set of saloons, sheriffs' offices and shacks featured in countless Hollywood westerns - was levelled to make way for more useful movie backdrops at Warner Brothers studios.

The flow of westerns coming out of Hollywood was once a mighty torrent. Since the 1970s, it has slowed to a trickle. Now the gulch is all but dry.

Warner Brothers said it regretted losing Laramie Street - built in 1930 and graced by the likes of Errol Flynn, James Stewart and Paul Newman - but couldn't just leave the western set "sitting there fallow".

Indeed, Laramie Street had been used for just five days of filming in last five years. Warner Brothers is not alone; no studio released a western movie in 2002.

The first proper film ever made - proper in that it told a story - was a western. In late September 1903, Kit Carson - a retelling of the adventures of the real life scout and Indian fighter - had just wrapped. The Great Train Robbery - an account of Butch Cassidy's exploits and the project some experts regard as the first "proper" film - was about to begin shooting.

But exactly 100 years on, has Hollywood abandoned the very genre that kick-started the movie industry as we know it?

100 years of the cowboy film

"The westerns have become space movies," says Martin Kelly, who fell in love with cowboy movies in the 1940s and has a collection of more than 3,500 in his own film archive.

He says contemporary directors have taken the basic skeleton of the good old western and clad it in a sci-fi skin to appeal to younger audiences who clamour for spectacular special effects.

"I blame Blazing Saddles [Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy]! It spoofed westerns so badly, that almost no one could watch westerns seriously again."

However, there is a glimmer of hope for admirers of the western. Kevin Costner, whose 1990 directorial debut Dances With Wolves was predicted to revive the genre, is giving the cowboy film another try with his new epic Open Range.

"The general consensus is, don't make westerns, no one wants to see them," said Costner, who had to back the project with his own money.

I believe very much in westerns. I like 'em.
Kevin Costner
He need not have worried about Mr Kelly turning out to see the picture. "It's excellent! I've seen it twice already. It's a real morality play. You know who the good guys are and you know who the bad guys are."

Mr Kelly says Open Range is playing to packed houses at his local cinema in Iowa City, "though you can tell which ticket line is waiting to see it, it's the one with all the greying, middle-aged men".

Costner hasn't got the range to himself, either. Ron Howard is also making a western, The Missing, though he is reluctant to call it a cowboy film. He prefers not to "categorise" it, and will only describe it as "a suspenseful story".

Anthony Minghella is working on a 50m western, Cold Mountain - the most expensive film yet made by Miramax. A remake of The Alamo is also in production in Texas. There's even a Disney animation about cows in the works, called Home on the Range.

Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall
Is Open Range a return to the cowboy tradition?
With a proud cowboy-boot-wearing Texan in the White House (well, okay, George Bush was really born in Connecticut), is America becoming more willing to re-embrace its wild west heritage?

"It's difficult to read much into this 'resurgence'," says Professor Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half-Century.

"Before Open Range was released in September, the most recent theatrical western was 2001's Texas Rangers, a film with the lowest per-screen box-office take in industry memory. It's clear from the previews of Ron Howard's The Missing that producers are wary of even revealing that their films are westerns."

The western genre relied so heavily on macho white men killing indigenous peoples that it is tainted perhaps more than any other type of film in the public mind as harbouring racist and misogynist attitudes. But is this fair?

"It's misogynist in the sense that the western has always had trouble with women, both in attracting them as audiences and in representing them on screen - 'Women ain't reliable, cows are,' as silent cowboy William S Hart once said. As for racism, it comes in so many different variants that one can find it in every older film, not just westerns," says Mr Simmon.

It is tempting to look at the events since September 2001 for a reason for this flurry of new westerns. Could it be that America at war (and at odds with many former allies) is looking back to its heroic wild west past for inspiration and comfort?

Michael Gambon in Open Range
Do cinema goers want moral clarity post 9/11?
"Open Range's plot includes Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner launching a 'pre-emptive strike' at a the despot's henchmen, before the good guys can be attacked again," says Mr Simmon.

"Westerns have always told this story: If a despot is threatening, it's best to take out your guns and have a showdown and the problem is solved. The genre has seldom had interest in what happens after the showdown. Perhaps this old story just feels more resonant in the post-9/11 world."

No one is yet suggesting that the western can be revived to the rude health it enjoyed in the 1930s and 40s, however, those who insist cowboy films are long overdue a burial in Boot Hill could be wrong too.

One film critic wrote "all the old Western expedients are frayed to a frazzle and audiences have become familiar with them to the point of contempt". Another declared that "women especially, always the friends of the moving picture, are utterly tired of them".

Mr Simmon points out that both these obituaries for the western were written in... 1911.


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