How the West returned

Eric Hoyt

Once America’s most prevalent and popular genre, the Western film slowly faded from the screen in the early 1970s, cast aside by a cynical post-Vietnam society and replaced by an edgier and seemingly more relevant cinema.

But it appears the Western could be back on its feet. Kevin Costner, for one, thinks people still are interested in the Western — in fact, he’s banking on it.

Costner takes on triple duty as actor, director and producer in the new Western, “Open Range,” opening in theaters Aug. 15. Set in 1882, the movie features Costner and Robert Duvall as “freegrazers,” a dying culture of nomadic cattlemen driving their small herd across the frontier. Conflict arises when they are threatened by a tyrannical rancher, played by Michael Gambon.

“I think Westerns can be complicated and too many have been simple,” said Costner, clad in cowboy boots and blue jeans at a July 16 screening of “Open Range” in downtown Chicago.

“Open Range” resembles the classic Western in its iconography and themes. The cinematography attempts to capture the vastness implicit in the film’s title. The struggle between the “freegrazers” and Gambon’s ruthless rancher reflects the Western’s historical concern for ownership and land, exemplified by classic Westerns such as “Shane” (1953) and “The Man From Laramie” (1955).

Thematically and structurally the film also embodies the central Western tension between civilization and the frontier — and America’s simultaneous desire for both.

Considering Costner’s familiarity with the genre, it is little wonder “Open Range” displays such classic Western elements. Costner’s acting career took off after playing a misfit cowboy in “Silverado” (1985), he won an Oscar for directing “Dances with Wolves” (1990), and he gave a revisionist spin to “Wyatt Earp” (1994).

“Westerns are the quintessential movie,” said film Prof. Scott Curtis, who grew up around cowboy culture in rural Oregon. “They combine the moral drama of the West with complete myth and fantasy.”

Costner and Curtis aren’t the only ones who still have an affinity for Westerns. Crowds have been lining up at the Gene Siskel Film Center all July to watch a series of classic Westerns titled “Western Movies Ride Again.”

The film center’s Associate Director of Programming Marty Rubin said he decided to assemble the 11-film series after the tremendous and surprising success of a similar series last summer. Rubin credits the success of the series to the high presentation quality of the films and the stylish and celebrated featured directors, including such “auteurs” as Sam Peckinpah, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.

“This is a genre that cries out for big-screen presentation,” Rubin said. “There’s something about the big screen that adds to its vastness and grandeur.”

But cable television executives also see potential for the Western on the small screen. The USA series “Peacemakers,” starring Tom Berenger as a no-nonsense marshal, premieres July 30.

And HBO began production this spring on an hour-long Western drama series called “Deadwood,” expected to debut sometime in 2004, according to the film industry magazine “Daily Variety.” Written and executive-produced by David Milch of “NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood” promises a violent and gritty portrait of the West.

But despite these shows and the success of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s series of Westerns, Rubin doesn’t see a strong Western revival anywhere on the horizon.

“Just because one film or production is in the works doesn’t convince me it’s coming back,” Rubin said.

Costner is more optimistic. He believes people always have been interested in the Western, but thinks “only good pictures create revivals.”

So does Curtis. A Western revival might be possible, he said, but would require two or three really good films that everyone went to see — much like the new interest “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” have generated in the musical.

“I don’t think Kevin Costner is going to do it, though,” Curtis said.