In the enduring examples of the genre, the real threat to the homestead, we learn, is an economic system that is being rigged for the wealthy, or the search for the bad guy becomes a search for meaning in a culture of violent retribution, or the treasure of the Sierra Madre is a diabolical mirage of the American dream. After World War I and leading into World War II, Hollywood specialized in tales of heroes taking the good fight to savage enemies and saving defenseless settlements in the process.
In the Great Depression especially, as capitalism and American exceptionalism came under question, the cowboy hero was often mistaken for a criminal and forced to prove his own worthiness--which he inevitably did. Over the '50s, '60s, and '70s however, as America enforced its dominion over half the planet with a long series of coups, assassinations, and increasingly dubious wars, the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated.
Miller , the spaghetti westerns, etc.
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By the height of the Vietnam protest era, cowboys were antiheroes as often as they were heroes. The dawn of the s brought the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the box-office debacle of the artsy, overblown Heaven's Gate. There's a sense of disappointment to the decade that followed, as if the era of revisionist Westerns had failed and a less nuanced patriotism would have to carry the day. Few memorable Westerns were made in the '80s, and Reagan himself proudly associated himself with an old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam cowboy image.
The Modern Cowboy: Second Edition (Western Life)
But victory in the Cold War coincided with a revival of the genre, including the revisionist strain, exemplified in Clint Eastwood's career-topping Unforgiven. A new, gentler star emerged in Kevin Costner, who scored a post-colonial megahit with Dances With Wolves. Later, in the s, George W. Bush reclaimed the image of the cowboy for a foreign policy far less successful than Reagan's, and the genre retreated to the art house again. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, there has been a short-lived Western revival that would seem to match America's tentative new moral authority.
If the genre in this era can be said to have a unifying aim, it's to divest itself and its audiences of a strictly white, male, heterosexual perspective on history, and by extension on present day conflicts. It's worth pointing out, however, that all of these examples except Brokeback Mountain were directed by white men, and The Lone Ranger has Tonto played by an actor with only the slightest claim to American Indian ancestry. Although end-of-year prestige movies like True Grit and Django Unchained have broken through to achieve critical acclaim, Oscars, and substantial return on investment, the Obama era has not been kind to newfangled Westerns that aimed for large audiences.
Exacerbating the problem is the rejection of cowboy movies by international audiences, particularly the Chinese. So even as filmmakers have become more interested in incorporating a diversity of viewpoints, they have hit against what appears a global demographic ceiling. It's another reason why The Lone Ranger will probably be the last attempt to build a true summer tent-pole in the genre.
Nobody likes a weak ending, and this is especially true for cowboy movies. A sad outcome we can accept, even the death of a genre, but at least let our hero meet his challenge, fulfill his destiny, stand his or her ground. Watching The Lone Ranger slink off into the sunset, it's hard to feel any sense of resolution for the Western. It's always difficult to diagnose the reason for a movie's success or failure. Did the audience dislike what The Lone Ranger tried to do, or the fact that it executed its aims poorly?
Since it bombed definitively on opening weekend long before China got a look at it, too it seems safest to base conclusions in part on the movie's advertising and the media storylines surrounding its release. Three contributing factors stand out. First, there was some coverage of an outcry about racism in Depp's portrayal of Tonto, which conceivably made audiences less comfortable laughing along with the pidgin English.
Second, advertising leaned heavily on the association with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, touting the movie as a family-friendly adventure yarn, but word quickly spread that The Lone Ranger was not safe for kids. Finally, the minute runtime can't have helped. The irony is that the very factors that helped make The Lone Ranger a bomb also helped make it much more interesting than typical summer fare.
Mild spoilers follow. The runtime ballooned because the filmmakers wouldn't dispense with a time-consuming framing story that shows Depp's Tonto, in old-man makeup and a historically inappropriate headdress, wilting away inside a Museum of Natural History-style display called "The Noble Savage in His Native Habitat. The character of Tonto came to the filmmakers with heavy racist baggage, and, rather than tossing him out altogether, they took on the challenge of trying to carry that baggage while walking the tightrope of commenting on a stereotype through the performance of that same stereotype.
This is not to say that any of these bold moves are executed adeptly. The framing story never goes anywhere; the Indian genocide scenes are distastefully incidental to the plot, especially one scene of mass slaughter that provides the heroes cover to get out of a pickle; Depp's winking performance is still fundamentally problematic, as if he or any other white actor had done a modern Mr. Bojangles, blackface and all, and tried to get actual laughs out of it. Still, in simple terms, The Lone Ranger went there.
And there. And over there. The Lone Ranger did not fail for being timid. In this cautious, sequel-dominated era of summer movies, that's a recommendation in itself. Even if they weren't particularly clever about it, Verbinski and his collaborators deserve credit for engaging critically with the history involved, both the 19th-century Indian massacres and the legacy of racism from the early 20th-century source material. This is also a tribute to the genre. The ground rules of the Western more or less forced Verbinski and company into that treacherous territory. If your book order is heavy or oversized, we may contact you to let you know extra shipping is required.
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Everybody Wants a Piece of Black-Cowboy Culture
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How the Western Was Lost (and Why It Matters) - The Atlantic
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