Statue At John Wayne Airport, Orange County, California.
We're after men, and I wish to God I was with them.Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch
Is it true that Westerns are dead ... or has Hollywood just grown tired of this American genre? We've grown beyond Gene, Hoppy & Roy, so why does Hollywood still attach a stigma to Westerns? When the Western slipped into theatrical oblivion in the late 1970s, many of the best examples of the genre began appearing as made-for-television films.
In 1930 Fox and MGM each released wide-screen Westerns. Starring a young John Wayne, Fox's The Big Trail captured realistic shots of wagons floating across swollen rivers and being raised over steep cliffs. MGM's Billy the Kid served up a faithful recreation of outlaw life in New Mexico. These tales, however, arrived at the beginning of the depression, when audiences were looking for escapism not hardship. In addition, exhibitors refused to install new wide-screen projection equipment. (They had only just installed sound systems.) As a result, the movies flopped at the box office. John Wayne reverted to B Westerns and wasn't seen in another major studio production for nearly a decade.
Part of the allure of the Western was its very simplicity. As critic Richard Schickel said, because "everyone wore a six-shooter, complex moral conflicts could be plausibly resolved in clear, clean violent action". This decisiveness allowed the West to take on mythical dimensions, to become a place where great legends could be born. These myths and legends were embodied by Western heroes such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid.
Equally important, especially in the first half of the 20th Century, was the immediacy of the American West. When Hollywood first set up shop, the last great frontier was so close at hand that gunslingers/lawmen like Wyatt Earp drifted to Hollywood to serve as consultants on movie sets. This closeness to the West made the Western myths tangible and all the more powerful.
The Western provided infinite variety on a relatively small stable of situations and plots, with conflicts often growing out of several archetypal situations: ranchers vs. farmers (Shane and Man Without a Star), Indians vs. settlers (The Searchers and Hondo), and outlaws vs. civilization (My Darling Clementine and High Noon). Robert Warshow in his influential essay "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner" described the Western as "an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order".