There’s a reason why you haven’t heard about Westerns in a while. I’m talking the gun slinging, horse-riding, cowboys-and-outlaws-type Western. Stories of the sweeping, untamed deserts of the American frontier have long been a defining genre of the Hollywood film industry, pivoting on the iconic tropes of the white, male protagonist battling with the ‘savage’ native peoples and restoring morality in a lawless country. But these glorified themes that popularised the Western genre for decades are the very things that knock it down for a modern audience. Frankly, we’re no longer able to look past the racist undertones, blatant misogyny, and toxic masculinity which the classic Western film reeks of. Given the fact that the last Western to gross more than $100 million at the box office was back in 1992 (Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’), it does seem that the Western genre is truly dying out.
Or is it changing? Cue the rise of the Revisionist Western — a post-classic subgenre that departs from the original Western by lassoing it away from novelty-niche territory. Hailing from the same rebellious family as Spaghetti Westerns and the Red Western, Revisionist Westerns use film techniques like subversion, appropriation, and parody to comment on some of the problematic tropes of the original genre.
But sometimes Revisionist Westerns do more harm than good. While the rest of the world was tuning into ‘Squid Game’, I made the unorthodox (and regrettable) decision to watch ‘Godless’, a 2017 Netflix miniseries that falsely advertises itself as a Revisionist Western to trap its victims into watching the show. As one of their poor victims, I was lured in by the trailer, posters, and Netflix plot synopsis which promotes the show as a ‘Western saga’ starring a predominantly female cast. The first couple of episodes did have me convinced. The story chronicles the events around La Belle, a dusty town populated by a clan of widowed women after a catastrophic mining accident took all of their husbands. The gritty girls have since had to stand up, dust themselves off, and regroup to defend their town against malevolent outsiders. But that’s pretty much all that is revisionist about this Western. After a while the story descends into a petty cat and mouse chase between two male outlaws, pushing the female heroines to the periphery and forcing them to don the cliche damsel-in-distress cloak. A Vox review of the show puts it perfectly: while ‘Godless’ had a lot of potential, it ultimately feels like “a missed opportunity” at something greater.
So are all Revisionist Westerns just a waste of time? Certainly not. According to my esteemed opinion, we can judge the success of a Revisionist Western by two criteria: firstly, it should be identifiably Western, and secondly, it should feature some contemporary revisionist themes that turn the tropes of the older genre on its head.
Take the case of ‘Django Unchained’ (2012), Quentin Tarantino’s sensational box office hit that ticks both of these boxes. While the film features the unmistakably rugged Western landscape packed with blazing gun fights and sordid outlaws, at the same time it hands the mic to a black protagonist — something radically unconventional for the classic Western. The protagonist, Django, is a former slave who joins forces with a bounty hunter to free his enslaved wife. It’s everything that a contemporary audience would want to see — a wildly unpredictable storyline, insanely badass fight sequences, and a strong anti-slavery message. And oh, Leonardo Di Caprio. What makes this film so successfully revisionist is that it does not take itself seriously at all. It takes the original Western genre by the horns and messes around with it to the point where it becomes absurdly historically inaccurate, but still identifiably Western.
The same could be said for Ang Lee’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005). This film is distinctively Western, and it’s not just the cowboy hats that give it away. Everything from the costuming, horse-riding, and moral questioning makes you want to whistle an old tune and ride off into the sunset. Yet what sets it apart as a Revisionist Western is the defiant gay love story that forms the film’s main premise — a striking departure from the hyper masculine, heteronormative tropes that pepper the classic genre. You also won’t find any glamorised shootouts, overt heroes, or prototypical cowboy characters. Like ‘Django Unchained’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ overtly goes against the grain without ever losing its integrity to the traditional Western.
So what of ‘Godless’? Next to these revisionist masterpieces, ‘Godless’ almost seems to cower, but not necessarily because it’s a bad Western. Rather, it’s a bad Revisionist Western. Essentially, the show makes a poor attempt to walk the precarious tightrope of honouring the classic Western genre, while also trying to be ‘woke’ enough for a modern audience. What results is a show that strives to comment on a stereotype through the performance of that same stereotype. Perhaps if ‘Godless’ quit trying to be historically accurate and just focused on the feminist aspect of the plotline, it would be less of a frustrating watch. But ultimately, ‘Godless’ fails at revising the racial and sexual misrepresentation with which the classic Western genre is rife. It’s just another nail in the coffin for Hollywood’s ailing Western genre.