How do you follow up your improbably successful hit about a foul-mouthed teddy bear? Make a movie in the genre that, of late, has been improbably successful: the Western. Yep, Family Guy mastermind, upcoming Oscar host, and Ted director Seth MacFarlane is next helming a Western comedy in the mode of Blazing Saddles called A Million Ways to Die in the West. And Hollywood.com has confirmed that its comedic pedigree just got a major boost, in that Charlize Theron is in final talks to star. She'll play an outlaw's wife who teaches an easily spooked farmer (MacFarlane) to shoot in order to win back his wife, who left him after a gunfight.
The Western lay fallow in Hollywood for so long that fans of sagebrush and saguaros have been particularly excited by the blockbuster success of a couple recent oaters: 2010's Coen Brothers remake of True Grit, which grossed $171 million domestically (off a $38 million budget!), and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which has scored $147 million since it's Dec. 25 release. That's a lot of money for your saddlebag. Not to mention that Disney looked to the Old West when they pinned their hopes on what could be their next big franchise-starter, The Lone Ranger (out July 3). Still two hit Westerns, and one hoped-for hit that's far from a sure thing, aren't enough for us to declare that Hollywood cinema's greatest, and most uniquely American, genre is ready for a full-fledged revival.
And make no mistake, the Western is Hollywood's greatest genre. It's the summing up of American mythmaking, a dusty canvas on which filmmakers have interrogated the ideals and values, compromises and crimes that make up the American character and have defined this country's history. Far from being some retrograde idealization of a violent, even genocidal time, the best Westerns like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Ride Lonesome, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Unforgiven don't seek to escape into the past but use history to explain the present. They also just tell damn good stories. So are cowboys and outlaws really set for a comeback? Well, excuse the pun, but we'll have to hold our horses. Here are four reasons why the recent crop of Western hits may not signal a lasting revival.
1. The Lone Ranger
Yes, Disney has invested a lot of faith in this project. A reported $250 million worth of faith. That's a production budget that's going to be extremely difficult to recoup. It has likable stars — Armie Hammer as the titular masked avenger and Johnny Depp as his Native American sidekick Tonto — and a classic premise time-tested on radio and TV. But Disney recently spent $200+ million on another film with a classic premise, John Carter, a bomb so big the company ended up cleaning house at its movie division. Not to mention that Lone Ranger director Gore Verbinski's last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies were pretty much the definition of bloated, CGI-larded excess. If The Lone Ranger fails — reports of shooting delays aren't promising — it'll stop the Western's revival right in its tracks. And even if it's a hit, what success it achieves will be difficult to duplicate. It's not like there are many other instantly recognizable Western franchises like Lone Ranger just waiting to be resurrected. You also have to recognize that the best Westerns of recent years have come from directors with a vision. And we all know...
2. ...Directors With a Vision Can Be Hard To Come By.
True Grit had the Coens. Django Unchained had Tarantino. But for every hit like either of those, there are multiple non-auteur duds like Appaloosa, The Missing, or The Alamo. The Coens and Tarantino already have fans who will come out to see anything they do. And no wonder. Because they're able to tap into the inherent flexibility of the genre and make it completely their own, not just homages or nostalgia trips. How many other directors are there waiting to contribute something really new and valuable to the Western? Maybe MacFarlane can be that director if he can actually make a comedy that deconstructs the Western without merely replicating what Blazing Saddles did 40 years ago.