1976: the last hurrah of the American western

Posted by · 10:14 am · July 17th, 2009

Jack Nicholson in The Missouri BreaksThe western was not yet dead in 1976 when  four high-profile installments were released to varying degrees of success. Four years later, of course, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” would kill the genre for several years (and United Artists for longer), and though it has seen ups and downs in the years since, for the most part, the western remains one of the least popular genres with studios.

In my opinion, Cimino’s film was never as bad as the critics said it was at the time.  Many of them were lying in wait for a Cimino failure, hoping to ambush him for the lies told during the press interviews for ‘The Deer Hunter,” which won the man an Oscar and was the Academy’s choice for Best Picture. He was not a Vietnam veteran, he had never seen Russian Roulette used as torture, in fact he had never been out of America until he made the “The Deer Hunter.”  This all but ruined Cimino’s reputation, which is somewhat sad because the man had a hell of an eye for detail.

That of course was the issue with “Heaven’s Gate”; though stunning in its detail, the film is insufferably slow and ponderous, with perhaps two truly stunning sequences, the best among them the community roller skating sequence, which pulsates with energy driven by a young man, the film’s composer David Mansfield and his fiddle, as they skate around the rink, veering in and out of surrounding bodies.

There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when 20% of the films coming out of Hollywood were westerns. There were 26 prime time western programs on television, all popular, and John Wayne ruled as the top box office star. By the 1970s, westerns were made less frequently, and Wayne’s box office throne had been usurped by another star of the genre: Clint Eastwood.

In 1976, the American Bicentennial saw four westerns land in theaters, the best of which included John Wayne’s final performance, the haunting and elegiac “The Shootist.”  The film saw the Duke portraying an aged gunslinger dying of cancer in 1901. He has come to see a doctor he trusts, played by old sage James Stewart.  Wayne was superb as J.B. Books in this wonderfully nostalgic film directed by Don Siegel (his best work) that was as much about the death of the old west as it was the death of its lead character.

Somehow the Academy missed Wayne in its nominations for Best Actor, though reviewers were lavish in their praise of the old star for his rich and deeply moving performance of a “dying man afraid of the dark.”

The pairing of Marlong Brando and Jack Nicholson was cause for celebration and on May 21, 1076 (my birthday, in fact) when “The Missouri Breaks” was released, perhaps the most anxiously awaited film of the year. Directed by Arthur Penn, this western featured Nicholson as a horse thief who falls in love with a vicious rancher’s daughter while being hunted by a “regulator,” outlandishly portrayed by Brando. The legendary actor obviously had a great time giving the performance, but critics at the time attacked Brando for sabotaging the film with what seemed to be a wildly inconsistent portrayal when in fact what Brando did works for his ever changing character, who was obviously insane and not quite sure who he even was.

The film meandered, and though it was fun to watch the two leads bounce off each other, “The Missouri Breaks” was not well received at all.  And it was a major flop. It had one genuinely jarring moment (SPOILER ALERT) when Brando’s character dozes off in the forest for a good night’s sleep when he is awakened by Nicholson hovering above him. “You know what woke you Robert Lee,” Nicholson asks.  “You just had your throat cut.”  The dawning horror registers on Brando and he dies before our very eyes. Years later the film plays quite well, much better, I think, than it did back in 1976 when audiences were expecting something quite different.

Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” announced him as a major filmmaker. Revisionist in tone, the film was a very different sort of western than we had seen before, much more realistic in its depiction of the west and those who lived there. Eastwood gave a powerful performance as a man seeking to gain revenge on those who murdered his family in cold blood, and in doing so, becomes a one man army. Time Magazine named the film one of the 10 best pictures of the year, and it was a solid box office success. Years later Eastwood would direct the sublime “Unforgiven,” which is arguably the greatest western ever made, the roots of it on display in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

And finally, the weakest of the lot and the biggest western bomb of 1976 was Robert Altman’s strange “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” which features a dynamic Paul Newman performance as the legendary frontiersman who fancied himself a legend and created one for himself. The film, like so much of Altman’s work, features a myriad of characters moving in and out of the storyline, eventually all connecting somehow to Buffalo Bill. Newman was terrific, as was Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley and Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, the man who essentially wrote the story of Buffalo Bill.

Fours years later, the western had died a terrible and unfortunate death. There would be attempts at ressurection, of course: “Pale Rider” from Eastwood in 1984, the masterful TV mini-series “Lonsesome Dove,” and then a brief renaissance with “Dances with Wolves,” “Unforgiven,” “Tombstone,” “Wyatt Earp,” and “The Quick and the Dead,” as well as the Brat Pack “Young Guns” films.  Kevin Costner directed a very fine installment in 2003’s “Open Range,” which featured wonderful performances from both he and Robert Duvall, while Ron Howard gave us the criminally under-appreciated “The Missing” that same year.

In more recent years, the western has emerged with a modernist tone in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which had a stunning performance from Tommy Lee Jones who also directed and “No Country for Old Men,” which of course won several Academy Awards. The best of the recent westerns was the one which received the least attention: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which is simply a work of art and stands alongside “The Searchers,” “Red River,” “Shane,” and “Unforgiven, ” as one of the finest ever made.

Once the most beloved genre in cinema, there are still great stories to tell about the west, which the populairty of the brilliant HBO program “Deadwood” demonstrated. Here’s hoping we get some more.

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19 responses so far

  • 1 7-17-2009 at 10:57 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    I have faith clint will direct and star in one more western before his time is up

  • 2 7-17-2009 at 1:23 pm

    Zac said...


    The jig is up. Now we know who the inspiration for Bilbo Baggins is. Happy belated 933rd birthday! :)

    I wonder what caused the western to fall out of favor with Hollywood and audiences. Was it the shift of American life from agrarian dominance to one of manufacturing that caused the shift? Simply a matter of tastes differing from one generation to the next?

  • 3 7-17-2009 at 1:36 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’m of the mind that it was over-saturation mixed with the changing societal face of the country. I can’t imagine too many immigrants care about western ideology. The genre needs to, in my opinion, embrace that shifting landscape and commit to a wider range of ethnic plots and particulars to maintain relevance.

    But that’s a recently completed 5,000-word thesis I’d rather not dig into again right this second. :)

  • 4 7-17-2009 at 3:57 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I, too, love westerns. My father–a huge western fan, having been raised on Bonanza and Rawhide–raised me on many. I grew up loving ‘The Searchers’, ‘Shane’ (a huge personal favorite), ‘Red River’, ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, ‘High Noon’ (perhaps the greatest of all time, I feel) among many others. But of late, not many have been out. But I have been thrilled lately with a new vigor with the genre. I loved ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’, ‘The Missing’, ‘Open Range’ and ‘No Country for Old Men.’ But I also thought ‘3:10 to Yuma’ but Mangold was incredible. As was amazed by the brilliant ‘The Proposition’, which I felt did not get enough credit. Severly underrated. And I’m thrilled, John, that you mentioned the great ‘Lonesome Dove’ miniseries and the brilliant ‘Deadwood’. I do with Eastwood would made another western ‘Unforgiven’-style. But did I not hear that ‘Gran Torino’ was his final on-screen performance?

  • 5 7-17-2009 at 3:59 pm

    Zan said...

    Bravo on the article, John. That little anecdote about Cimino lying to the press is interesting; I never knew that.

    2 questions:

    1- What did you think of the recent revival of “3:10 to Yuma” or “The Proposition,” the debut from “The Road” director John Hillcoat?

    2- I’ve seen a share of Westerns, and most of them I feel immersed in the dusty, mountainous isolation, like “Unforgiven” or “Shane,” but I have never understood the fascination with “The Searchers.” I know it’s routinely regarded as one of the classics of the genre and even praised as one of the top films ever made, but for the life of me, I don’t understand what makes it so great. Wayne seemed a bit over the top, and the ancillary actors really couldn’t hold down the rest of the film. The themes came on too strongly, and after watching it a couple of times, I couldn’t see what all the hulabaloo was about.

  • 6 7-17-2009 at 3:59 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Yikes…rereading my post I see many spelling errors. Sorry. I wrote in a rush. I hope you can still read it correctly!

  • 7 7-17-2009 at 4:00 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Eastwood may or may not do something again. If the script is right and the part suits him. Gran Torino was brilliantly perfect, the ending too!

    I recently saw Appaloosa and I must say to me it ranks with the best of last year. The sheer pleasure and professional craft of that film is impeccable. It’s got everything the great westerns had and it adds a little more. It’s a perfect homage. What a brilliant film.

    I recently purchased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I can’t wait to wathc that one as well. The Western will never die.

  • 8 7-17-2009 at 4:13 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Since we’re on westerns, I thought I’d just throw a few out here. One of my all-time favorites is ‘Ride the High Country’. Peckinpah made some great ones. Obviously ‘The Wild Bunch’ standing in it’s own category. I also loved ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ with one weird-ass turn for Bob Dylan. But ‘Ride the High Country’ I felt was the epitome of a western, visually and viscerally, and Peckinpah’s finest hour.

  • 9 7-17-2009 at 4:15 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Oh, I cannot believe I forgot ‘Appaloosa’! Great film! Ed Harris should direct more often. He’s definately got a talent there.

  • 10 7-17-2009 at 4:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Gran Torino was brilliantly perfect, the ending too!”


  • 11 7-17-2009 at 5:13 pm

    P-Dawg said...

    Double that wowsers. Actually, triple that shit. At least Altman had “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” cause I’ve never seen or heard of “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”. Sounds terrible. I would give honorable mention to interesting takes on the genre such as Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”.

  • 12 7-17-2009 at 5:16 pm

    P-Dawg said...

    Oh yeah, and I was pretty disappointed with “Crappaloosa”, talented director or not.

  • 13 7-17-2009 at 6:55 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Indeed “Ride the High Country”, ‘Appaloosa” and “Dead Man” are terrific — I loved the remake of 3:10/Yuma” — agree Jonathan that the western will never die because we will see it in variations for the rest of time — even if they never made another film with men on horseback, what was “Star Wars” but a western in space or “Outland” but a remake in space of “High Noon” — they will always be there, literally, or metaphorically — I prefer literally…my favorite genre of all time.

  • 14 7-17-2009 at 6:58 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Never heard of Buffalo Bill and the Indians?? Check it out. It’s gloriously bizarre.

  • 15 7-17-2009 at 7:03 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***May 21, 1076 (my birthday)***

    Yes, very impressive indeed!

  • 16 7-18-2009 at 12:04 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Kris, I was referring to the lead role for Eastwood. Not the film as a whole, which is enjoyable but Clint makes it special.

  • 17 7-19-2009 at 11:50 am

    Flosh said...

    Buffalo Bill and the Indiana (or: Sitting Bulls History Lesson) is waaay out there. I love it, though. One of my favorite Altman films.

  • 18 7-19-2009 at 11:50 am

    Flosh said...

    er, Indians. Not Indiana.

  • 19 1-15-2012 at 12:06 am

    JT said...

    You forgot to mention The Last Hard Men with Charlton Heston & James Coburn. It was also released in 1976