The Godfather: Peter Corris on the decline of the Western
We know that video killed the radio star, but what killed the Western genre? Up until the 1960s the Western, in novels, pulp novelettes and short stories, was immensely popular, possibly as popular as crime fiction is today.
I never saw my father open a book, but I’m told he read Westerns in the early years of his marriage in the 1930s. This was probably in defence against my mother, who read all the time. Later he tinkered in his shed.
Zane Grey, who wrote more than 80 Westerns, was the first writing millionaire. There have been more than 100 adaptations of his work for film and television. He was not alone; Frank Gruber wrote scores of Western novels and about 100 short stories. He claimed to be able to produce a book in 14 days. The splendidly named William Colt Macdonald was similarly prolific.
Dashiel Hammett said that the hard-boiled crime novel, a genre he helped to pioneer, was an adaptation of the Western story. It is significant that Elmore Leonard began his career writing Westerns, some of which, like Hombre and 3.10 to Yuma, have been filmed with star casts. Leonard switched to writing crime in the 1960s.
The last successful, highly productive Western writer was Louis L’Amour, whose books remained popular into the 1980s. The Western survives as a minor genre in the United States where Western writers have a Society and award themselves Silver Spurs and such things. But the readership is way down on that of years gone by and, one suspects, consists of older males, a dying demographic.
The television Western suffered a similar decline. As a kid I watched Gunsmoke, Wanted Dead or Alive, Rifleman, Rawhide, Bonanza and others. Crime shows were also available like The Untouchables, 77 Sunset Strip, M Squad, Hawaiian Eye and others, and crime eventually displaced the Western in films and television.
The occasional good Western film still appeared like Tom Horn in 1980. But Steve McQueen seems to deliberately strip away the glamour when he says, “Do you know what a raggedy ass place the old west was?” The exception to all this of course is embodied in Clint Eastwood, with his spaghetti westerns and the superb Unforgiven.
Taste became more sophisticated in the 1960s and the crime story offered a greater range of characters and situations than the Western. The gunslinger, the rancher, the drifter, the schoolmarm couldn’t compete with the high-tech cops, the drug lords, the smart lawyers. There was more scope for spectacular special effects and music. You can’t have rock playing while droving cattle, and people were more familiar with cars than horses.
Good western novels continue to be written, like Dee Brown’s Creek Mary’s Blood, Marilyn Durham’s The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, but they are rare. If anyone is aware of others of that standard please let me know.