Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

True Grit and the disappearing Western

Here’s an interesting statistic. With a take of around $25 million, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has just secured the biggest US opening weekend for a proper Western in cinema history. (If you allow in Wild Wild West, which is …

Tue, Jan 4, 2011, 20:48


Here’s an interesting statistic. With a take of around $25 million, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has just secured the biggest US opening weekend for a proper Western in cinema history. (If you allow in Wild Wild West, which is more of an atrocity than an oater, then it still occupies the number two spot.) Two and a ¬†half truths are hidden within these numbers. Firstly, it’s been an awfully long time since westerns figured at the box-office. Secondly, release patterns have changed significantly since those days. Second and a halfly, though the western was once among the key genres, individual westerns rarely made a great deal of money.

Let’s treat these in reverse order. Though cheap serial westerns did very well and the odd star-heavy oater hoovered up the bucks, the genre never really delivered Event Pictures that appealed across the demographics. We have proof. The golden era for the western was surely the 1940s. Have a glance at the top ten for that decade:

1.Bambi (1942)

2. Pinocchio (1940)

3. Song of the South (1946)

4. Samson and Delilah (1949)

5. Fantasia (1940)

6. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

7. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

8. Duel in the Sun (1946)

9. This Is the Army (1943)

10. The Jolson Story (1946)

What (apart from the extraordinary power of Walt Disney) do you notice? There is only one western in the list and that film — Duel in the Sun – is something of a special case. Labelled Lust in the Dust by disapproving tabloids, the picture was a notoriously steamy shocker. No wonder it appealed beyond the core audience.

As regards release patterns, when the western was in its prime, movies were released on a steady rollout. Half a dozen screens would take the picture in the first week. If it worked you’d expand by another 20 or so. The blanket opening weekend, drawing figures from thousands of screens across the country (and, often these days, the world), did not become commonplace until Jaws ate America in1975.

Then, of course, we have the strange decline in the western. Whose fault was that? Mine, that’s who. Sorry, not just mine. I should say “ours”. The generation born in the early 1960s became the first kids to reject the western as a mainstream entertainment. It was, for our lot, a strange situation. We were still given cowboy guns for our birthdays. Series such as The Virginian and The High Chaparral were still on TV. But cowboys and indians rarely excited us. In my recollection, the only western I was taken to see in the cinema as a boy was the jokey, anachronistic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. War films were regarded as far more exciting. Older uncles would hop up and down when a John Ford film came on the telly, but, to us, the stories seemed slow, decrepit and rather musty. As a result, for movie nuts of my generation, the western became something of a mature pleasure. Rather than growing up watching Ford, one came to him later — just as one came later to Bergman, Tarkovsky and Antonioni (pardon my pretensions).

At any rate, the news is happy intelligence for Coen fans and belated western enthusiasts. Sadly, we’ll have to wait a while to assess the thing. The release has been kicked back to February 11th.

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