I recently came across a Far Side cartoon (unfortunately there’s no point linking it because they disappear after a few days and they don’t allow any kind of embedding) which was subitled “Cattle Drive Quartets”. In it four tough-looking cowboys are sitting around a campfire playing stringed instruments. One of them is saying to another:
Gus, what the hell you doin’? This is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” third movement, minueto allegreto, you brainless horned toad!
Part of the humor is, of course, based on familiarity with the tropes of Westerns. These are four tough, grizzled men. They’ve spent many years able to survive on their own or in very small groups, hundreds of miles from civilization. They’ve braved outlaws, desperados, wild animals, and all manner of things. And they’ve endured enormous amounts of solitude.
For a long time, this was standard cultural knowledge. But when I had to explain some of this after showing it to my son, I realized just how much westerns are no longer part of the broader culture. In one sense this is normal enough; trends in entertainment come and go. There are various things that made Westerns especially popular in movies and TV during the 1950s and 1960s—how cheap they were to film near Hollywood, for example. And yet they were no flash in the pan. Something I learned in the biography of William Gillette (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) was that westerns were popular in plays long before they were popular in movies, and their popularity did not abate before they became popular in movies. They were popular in radio before they became popular in television, as Gunsmoke can attest. Bonanza, which ran from 1959-1973, was commonly available as re-runs on television when I was growing up in the 1980s. For a decent time afterwards, all sorts of shows would feature a western episode, with the characters riding horses in some sort of cowboy getup.
Narrative entertainment hasn’t entirely lost its taste for westerns. In the 1990s you had films like City Slickers and Tombstone. Even as late as 2007 there was 3:10 To Yuma. Though not a western, per se, 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about westerns, if to some degree about their demise.
Though they’re not gone, Westerns are certainly no longer ubiquitous. I can’t help but think that’s in no small part because the sorts of virtues they make it easy to explore, people are no longer interested in. I suspect that, even more than that, Hollywood is no longer interested in them.