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Why Western Movies Stopped Being Popular In Hollywood (After Being Huge In The 1960s)

Despite the arrival and bulldozing successes of the spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s and 1970s, the wider Western genre thereafter declined and grew less popular in Hollywood. The thematically black-and-white romanticist Western remains the definitive heartbeat of the first few decades of cinema, spearheaded by John Ford and John Wayne as they brought the Old West to the big screen in a blaze of heroism, fundamentalism, and moral clarity. They defined American filmmaking, and although they were criticized for their often naïve and simplistic portrayal of the era, remained the biggest fixture in the business until the 1960s.
Even after that, Hollywood and its audiences continued baying for Westerns but with new concepts, thanks to the slow devolution of original ideas within the classical subgenre. There was consequently a push for new ideas and principles, brought out by maverick Italian directors Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, who would revolutionize the genre with their gritty, morally ambiguous entries into the canon. After the mid-1970s however, audiences have been limited to a handful of revisionist and neo-Westerns, of which there are popular entries only every few years – often longer. Here’s why the genre lost its popularity despite being beloved only fifty years ago.
RELATED:Clint Eastwood & John Wayne’s Feud Explained
The Gold Standard Of Western Was Too High

Ethan and Debbie in The Searchers

After enough years it became impossible to keep reinvigorating the Western genre, and for it to stand still meant that its contributors were constantly kept in the shadow of Ford, Leone, Corbucci, Eastwood, Sturges, Tessari, Peckinpah, and others. Though the public’s appetite for Westerns certainly waned after the 1960s, it has to also be said that filmmakers became wary of the prospect of plagiarizing the great works of others, or else making something that wasn’t as good. With a bar that seemed to continually rise higher well into the 1960s, it eventually plateaued with the peak of the spaghetti Western and has only been matched on a couple of occasions since.
It’s arguable that some of the greatest films of all time were Westerns, which was in part because so many of the greatest cinematic minds were drawn to the genre. Even today, many established directors try their hand at either revisionist Westerns or neo-Westerns (Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers are good examples of these, respectively), although their numbers are minimal. Perhaps as time goes on and the legacies of old masterpieces fade, there will be less pressure on filmmakers wanting to try their hands at the genre, and it will become popular again. Since the ‘70s, however, the many sensations of the Golden Age of the Western succeed in arresting optimism for new entries.

Western Movies No Longer Represented Cultural Sentiments

scene from Ow-Box Incident 1942

It’s safe to say that American patriotism evolved a great deal in the second half of the 20th century. Numerous wars, the growing popularity of counter-cultural music and film, and domestic issues ranging from racism to poverty drew younger generations away from traditional American exceptionalism views of the Westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This meant that much of the demographic that enjoyed the classical Western was limited to older audiences, while their children and grandchildren began to find the portrayals of the Old West to be outdated and often offensive. Even though the spaghetti Western was less egregious in its moral declarations about the era, the association with the wider genre remained.
The chaos of the Vietnam War especially affected the national sentiment about America’s place in the world, and more broadly the foundations upon which it was founded. Many people felt lied to about how America fitted into the global community, which led to increased skepticism about the veracity of films that focussed on Manifest Destiny – the belief that Americans were destined by God to expand across the North American Continent, and at any cost. Naturally, Westerns focussed on Americans who were at the forefront of this expansion. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Ben Johnson no longer epitomized the people that Americans wanted to be.

Hollywood Found The Western Genre’s Saturation Point

A composite image of John Wayne in various John Ford movies

As with any genre, saturation leads to decline. The Western was probably the most popular genre in American cinema for the best part of seventy years, which meant there was a constant race to achieve stardom within it. The perceived ‘Golden Age of the Western’, which ranged from around 1945-1960, saw a renewed interest in American history following the Second World War, fueling numerous new entries coinciding with dramatic technological improvements. It is estimated that several thousand Westerns were released during the fifteen years following the war’s end, around the same as had been in the forty years up until then.
The popularity and output of Westerns during the ‘60s and ‘70s were beginning to diminish, but the genre found itself reinvigorated first by foreign ideas in Italian and Spanish Westerns, and then by the revisionist subgenre which was cultivated in the latter decade with films like Little Big Man and High Plains Drifter. Several dozen major additions were released to great acclaim from critics and audiences, but it wasn’t enough to curtail the growing fatigue with the genre, which was creating lower demand. Films like Heaven’s Gate (1980) signaled the end of the era wherein Westerns were a safe bet for high box office returns and began a period of aimlessness for the genre.
RELATED:The Best Western Of Every Decade Since The Genre Started: 13 Movies You Need To Know

The Western’s Decline Coincided With The Rise of Sci-FI

Luke Leia and Han standing together at the end of Star Wars A New Hope

The downfall of one genre and the rise of another is best allegorized by Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story (1995), wherein Woody – the older, once-revered cowboy – is quickly replaced by the more exciting and impressive space ranger Buzz. Their environments purport to be similar; both come from vast, empty wildernesses in which lawlessness and villainy reign despite the valiant efforts of the law. They are pioneers exploring a frontier that best exemplifies humanity’s call to adventure. However, the prevailing feeling for Woody is that the two cannot co-exist. While this was not true for him and Buzz, it was true for the Western and Sci-fi genres.
It’s no coincidence that Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was marketed and labeled as an operatic space Western. There was still an appetite for the genre, but new technology meant that it could be translated into a different physical environment. Luke Skywalker himself comes from a farm in the desert, only his desert is in a galaxy far, far away. It became apparent very quickly after the release of the original Star Wars that science-fiction was the new heir apparent to the Western. The anarchic Badlands of the Old West could be more excitingly and romantically portrayed in boundless outer space, and the themes of the Western could be transposed there just as convincingly.

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John Wayne

John Wayne heartbreak after pleading for one last film before death: ‘Hope to hell I do’

The crowning moment in his acting life came in 1970, when he earned his only Academy Award for Best Actor, as a result of his role in True Grit.

But one project that sadly never made it to life was Beau John, a film Wayne hoped would be his last.
Author Scott Eyman, who wrote ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’, discussed what Wayne wanted the project to be like, as well as the confession he made before he sadly passed away.
Eyman noted that Wayne’s wish was made at the end of 1978, just under a year before the western icon died in June.

Wayne reportedly felt directionless without any film work as he’d spent the last years in recovery with health issues as opposed to being behind the camera.
That year, Wayne received the Utah Film Festival’s John Ford Medallion, though he was unable to travel due to his health.
Instead, friend and director Peter Bogdanovich went to accept the award on his behalf, and when the pair were reunited Wayne asked if he’d consider the film he proposed.
Bogdanovich said: “It’s kind of a half-western thing, it’s not cowboys and Indians, you know, it’s — oh, the humour and the wonderful relationship between this grandfather and the son and the son-in-law and the grandson.
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“Wayne said, ‘I hope to hell I live to do it. Just a wonderful story’.”
His friend reassured Wayne he’d do the project, were he alive long enough to commit to it, and in his later life it became the Oscar winner’s main focus in life.
As he grew even more ill, Wayne then proposed the project to director Ron Howard, though he didn’t want anyone but the dying star to be in it.
According to the book, Wayne told Howard: “I found a book. I think it’s a movie. It’s you and me or it’s nobody.”

John Wayne died in 1979

John Wayne died in 1979 (Image: GETTY)

But sadly for Wayne, he died before anything could be done to start the movie.
Howard added: “It never got past the verbal stage.
“And at that point, he was showing signs of not being well. I was a little doubtful.”
Wayne passed away in 1979 as a result of stomach cancer, and was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach.
His legacy was secured when the American Film Institute chose him as one of the greatest male stars of classic American cinema.

He was among a select group of stars who managed to negotiate their way from the silent film era of the Twenties, into the talkies that followed.
He had seven children in total, and was married three times.

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John Wayne

John Wayne battled crippling injuries and heartbreaking loss on Rio Lobo set

The sight of The Duke thundering across The West on horseback remains one of cinema’s most indelible images.
Meanwhile, “Get off your horse and drink your milk” has frequently been attributed as one of John Wayne’s most famous ‘quotes.’

Despite some claims that it came from an advert he shot, it is actually almost certainly an urban myth, most likely started by comedians doing drawling impressions of the Hollywood Westerns legend.
Sadly, though, by the time the star came to film 1970’s Rio Lobo (a blatant remake of Rio Bravo) towards the end of his career, he was in so much pain struggled to get on and off his horse.
In fact, the entire film shoot was surrounded by personal tragedies for the actor.
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John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

John Wayne starred in Rio Lobo
John Wayne was in agony in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY )

It was director Howard Hawks’ final film and the third film he made with John Wayne about a beleaguered sheriff standing against outlaws.
In a 1971 interview Hawks said of Rio Lobo: “The last picture we made, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’
“He said, ‘Good, I’ll be all ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I told him the story. He never even read it, he didn’t know anything about it.”

Famously, when Wayne realised it was a remake of Rio Bravo and El Dorado, he quipped: “Yes, he said, ‘Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

Hawks was less jocular after the film bombed and blamed it on 63-year-old Wayne being too old and out of shape for the role.
Critics and audiences agreed and the film took just over $4million against a production budget of $6million plus all the extra promotional costs which are often the same again.
Wayne’s physical difficulties were not due to his age, however. He had piled on weight for 1969’s True Grit and then while filming The Undefeated the same year, The Duke fell from his horse and fractured three ribs, leaving him unable to work for two weeks.
Later in the shoot, he tore a ligament in his shoulder. With no movement in one arm, he had to be filmed only from the other side.

John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo
John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

Wayne came into Rio Lobo in considerable pain, out of shape from True Grit and still suffering from a torn shoulder.
Most of his fight scenes had to be filmed with stand-ins or carefully from restricted angles. Some fights even happened off-camera. And he struggled greatly getting on and off his horse.
He also suffered two devastatimg personal blow when his mother died during filming and then his younger brother Robert E. Morrison lost his battle with lung cancer the month after filming ended.
But there was one shining moment of happiness also.

John Wayne in True Grit
John Wayne in True Grit (Image: GETTY)

Always a dedicated workhorse on set, no matter the physical injuries or personal pains, Wayne took a rare break from filming.
He had a very good reason, since it was to attend the 1970 Academy Awards. After exactly 40 years on screen, The Duke finally won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit.
Touchingly, when he returned to the Rio Lobo set, he was greeted by the cast and crew all wearing eye patches like True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn.

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John Wayne

Ann-Margret recalls ‘gentle’ and ‘welcoming’ John Wayne who did her a big favour

Legendary actress Ann-Margret turns 80-years-old today on April 28, 2021. The singer, dancer and performer made quite the name for herself in Hollywood in a number of films during the early 1960s, including Bye Bye Birdie and State Fair. She is perhaps best known for her epic performance in 1964 hit Viva Las Vegas alongside Elvis Presley, with whom she shared a passionate love affair. Shortly after working with the King, she joined wild west star John Wayne in his 1973 movie The Train Robbers.

Ann-Margret played the lead in the movie – one of her first lead roles – Mrs Lowe.

The story followed her character after her husband had been killed, leaving her half-million dollars.
Mr Lowe had acquired this money from robbing banks in the wild west, however, she was keen to return it to the government to clear her name. John’s character, Lane, had different ideas. He wanted her to help find the money and claim a reward for it.
Ann-Margret recently gave an interview about her time on the silver screen, where she touched upon working with the legendary John.

Ann-Margret continued: “He was so great with my parents. So absolutely welcoming and gentle with them. And anybody who was great to my parents was on a throne in my eyes.
“I was friends with him forever. He was never [pretentious]. He had so many friends and every single person loved him.”
Ann-Margret also previously praised John for doing her an enormous favour in her time of need.
During the filming of The Train Robbers, Ann-Margret was up for an Oscar alongside her co-star Ben Johnson.
However, considering Ann-Margret was filming in Mexico she was struggling to find a way to attend the ceremony.
Without a second thought, John gave her and Ben his own private plane to allow them both to attend the ceremony.
Ann-Margret said later: “The next day, we were back on the set, and Ben had won and I hadn’t.
“I don’t know what Mr Wayne said to Ben, but he got me in a corner, and he just said some wonderful things to me.”
Ann-Margret also spoke candidly about her relationship with Elvis.
The pair enjoyed a relationship together for just over a year while filming Viva Las Vegas.

Speaking in the same interview, Ann-Margret said: “Just thinking about Viva Las Vegas, or anytime someone mentions it, I smile.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. George Sidney, who directed Bye Bye Birdie also directed Viva Las Vegas. And believe it or not, I had never seen [Elvis] perform.”

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