We’ve watched every episode of Yellowstone, we enjoyed 1883, the first of the Yellowstone prequels (which apparently is returning for a second season), and we are caught up on 1923, the newest Yellowstone prequel. We figure 1903 can’t be far behind, and there are many more tales to be told of the rambunctious Dutton clan and their constant battles to hold on to their beautiful spread in the wilds of Montana. (Don’t be surprised, for example, if there is a 2063, about future generations of Duttons.) With the success of the Dutton shows, you have to wonder: will westerns finally be making their TV and movie comeback?
It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days of television, westerns dominated the network programming. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel, and The Rifleman dominated the nightly programming and the ratings. Westerns were so popular for so long on television that variations on traditional westerns, like Branded, about an unjustly accused soldier, and The Wild, Wild West, with its newfangled gadgetry, were introduced. During those same decades John Wayne and other stars were churning out westerns at the cinema, producing classics like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the movie industry also made its share of non-traditional westerns, like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
It’s not hard to see why westerns dominated popular entertainment during those years. The western genre was very elastic, and accommodated simple good guy versus bad guy tales and much more nuanced and complicated stories that left you wondering about who really was the hero. Westerns were cheap to make, with the sets for most TV westerns found on a Hollywood studios back lot, and even “on location” shoots occurring within only a few hundred miles of studio headquarters. And, in America, there always has been a certain romance about the west, and a fascination with the gunslingers, sheriffs, and train robbers, the wars with native Americans, and the many hazards and rough justice of frontier days.
At some point in the late ’60s, though, westerns suddenly vanished from the TV screen, and movie westerns largely disappeared only a few years later. Perhaps Americans had just had their fill, or perhaps westerns just didn’t fit with the then-prevailing notions about the world, or perhaps science fiction films and TV shows co-opted the standard western plots and threw in some cool special effects, besides. Since the demise of the western genre, there have been predictions about its renaissance–in the wake of TV shows like Lonesome Dove and movies like Young Guns and Silverado–but those forecasts have proven inaccurate.
Could now be the time when American viewers are ready to return to the western, and an era when problems seemed less complicated and a simple showdown on a dusty street was seen as a way to actually solve a problem, once and for all? With Beth Dutton’s two-fisted approach leading the way, who knows? We may see a lot more horse operas in the future.