The western never died – it just went underground

True Grit is going great guns at the American box office, making it the Coen brothers' highest-grossing movie ever.

The western never died – it just went underground Some might see this as a sign that the western is making a comeback. But, honestly, I don't think it ever really went away.

Observers have been predicting the genre's demise for a hundred years; Edward Buscombe, in The BFI Companion to the western, quotes a trade reviewer who in 1911 dismissed it as "a gold mine that had been worked to the limit". But by 1953 westerns were making up more than a quarter of Hollywood's output, and much of television's, too; my generation was weaned on The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and Rawhide.

In the 1960s, that figure went into a slump from which it never recovered, though there were still landmark oaters such as The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven. But the dramatic emphasis changed from righteous armed struggles against lawlessness, might is right and the triumph of civilisation over savagery, to psychological portraits of outlaws or gunslingers, revisionist studies of the hero's role in the modern world, acknowledgements that Native Americans were people, too, and allegories of Vietnam.

But if the number of westerns fell, the genre never really disappeared – it just went underground. Just as westerns were a peculiarly American variation on old-world tales of mythological heroes or wandering knights, so, from the 1970s onwards, the cowboys, gunslingers and bounty hunters of yore passed the baton to cops and detectives, hitmen and astronauts. Henceforth the western disguised itself as the road movie, the action film or science fiction. Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel bridged the gap with Coogan's Bluff, while John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 was a modern urban reworking of Rio Bravo. Many of Carpenter's other films, like those of Walter Hill, are westerns in all but name.

Sci-fi films such as Westworld, Outland or Battle Beyond the Stars barely bother to disguise their western roots, but, essentially, any movie in which the characters pass through hostile territory or rid the community of its bad guys is cleaving to the western tradition, whether it's Arnold Schwarzenegger in Central America, Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy in LA, or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover skipping the paperwork real cops would need to tackle in favour of the latterday equivalent of galloping around on horseback and yelling "Yeehaw!"

This sort of genre slippage allowed westerns to move with the times. In science fiction, for example, Native Americans could be replaced by unstoppable killer robots or invading extra-terrestrials, with no need to worry about political correctness (unless we're talking about Jar-Jar Binks, or deliberate allegories such as District 9).

These days, you can spot the influence of the western in everything from The Expendables to There Will Be Blood to Predators. Avatar is pure "Cowboys and Indians". Even Lotso, the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3, is a successor to Burl Ives in The Big Country, or one of Anthony Mann's monstrous patriarchs. But if there's one genre that hews to western convention more than any other, it's movies about comic-book heroes.

The comic-book hero, like the cowboy, has a distinctive costume and behavioural code. His weaponry and mode of transport are fetishised. He often has a sidekick (Kato = Tonto). His stories climax in an OK Corral-type showdown against the villain. And the female characters are as marginal as in any western; the function of Mary Jane Watson or Rachel Dawes is essentially to be rescued.

The one big difference is that comic-book hero stories are almost always urban, with gothic cityscapes taking the place of Monument Valley or the Tabernas desert, but their topography is just as recognisable as that of John Ford's wide-open spaces. And superhero movies are already following the western pattern of moving from popular escapism into the darker, more introspective territory of The Dark Knight or Watchmen.

The western never went away. Now it's everywhere you look.

Powered by article was written by Anne Billson, for The Guardian on Thursday 3rd February 2011 22.29 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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