First of all, I want you to know that I truly enjoy a good western. I haven’t always felt that way. Growing up with a father who read westerns and wanted John Wayne movies, I saw my share of schlock. And that, I think, is what has led to the demise of the genre.
The fifties and sixties showed an overabundance of western stories in literature, on TV and in movies. But what happens when a theme is popular? It becomes an invitation for mediocrity and cliches. You see the same thing happening in my other favorite genre, science fiction. In the fifties and sixties, every science fiction movie dealt either with radiation or space exploration. After a while, they all started looking the same.
When Star Wars came out in 1979, there was a sudden flurry of look-alike stories–all of them space opera. Star Wars isn’t good science fiction; in a lot of ways it shouldn’t even be considered part of the genre. Really, it’s fantasy. And when people who don’t know the genre begin writing or directing in the field, you get schlock. Or people lean on the tried and true and you get cliches.
What westerns need is one good story that will be accepted by the mainstream. The last good big budget western movie that I can think of is “Silverado.” Another one that I really like is “Hidalgo,” with Viggo Mortensen. But neither made that big of a splash.
Science fiction, for the most part isn’t about science, just as westerns are really about the west. They are about people. Characters in science fiction stories have to deal with issues related to technology, just as we have to deal with technology every day. Westerns are about dealing with conflict on a very basic level–and that’s what I like about them. They are usually not sophisticated at all, in fact, they shun sophistication. The true western hero is very honest and very direct. He may be rough around the edges, but he gets the job done. And he often has a talent for seeing through all the bull that others are blinded by.
It’s been my pleasure to write a western steampunk novel, Tom Horn vs. The Warlords of Krupp, which unites alternate history with the western. It was a lot of fun writing it, and I plan on writing a sequel soon. For me, Tom Horn embodies all of the joys of the good western with the new twist that comes with alternate history.
I’d like to hear if you have any favorite western stories. Or if you disagree on what killed the genre.