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Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

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By Chris Kavan - 02/13/10 at 11:42 AM CT

I've learned quite a few things from entering so many films onto our database. But for this, I'll stick with westerns. I'll admit, it's not my favorite genre by any stretch, but it's a genre with a rich history.

The 30s-40s-and early 50s were a period where there were just a ton of westerns. A lot of these oaters were 60-minute quickies starring people like Bob Steele, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans, Dick Foran, Gabby Hayes, Clayton Moore (Lone Ranger), Audie Murphy, Tex Ritter, Tom Tyler, Chill Wills and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams.

If you have no idea who 80% of those actors are, I don't fault you. Before I started the database, neither would I. Yet these actors made hundreds of short westerns, some good, some bad, but all entertaining.

The biggest name to come out of this era is John Wayne. Even if many of his contemporaries have fallen to obscurity, Wayne carried the mantel of cowboy that spanned generations. It probably helped that he also made many war films as well, but this pilgrim will ever remain a cowboy to me.

After this period, westerns took a break. In fact, it wasn't until spaghetti westerns showed up that much was made. Italian cinema is a different beast from singing cowboys and hour-long oaters. Arguably the most famous - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - pretty much defined Clint Eastwood's early career. Also people like Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Mario Brega, Lee van Cleef, Jack Elam, James Coburn, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero and George Hilton would emerge. Many of these actors would go on to bigger and better films, which is why they are more recognizable today.

Yet this era was more fad than anything. From the 1980s on, westerns become harder and harder to find. Made-for-TV westerns became more numerous than those in theaters. Most modern westerns are simply remakes - 3:10 to Yuma, The Quick and the Dead along with Clint Eastwood's original, Unforgiven, are perhaps the best-known in the modern age.

I won't get into why westerns declined. I'm sure audiences simply got tired of the genre, perhaps stereotypes played a role. Whatever the reason, it seems a shame that a once-dominate genre has fallen on such hard times. I don't think we need to go back to cranking them out, but maybe we're due for a resurgence.


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