“Never trust a man who doesn’t like John Wayne,” said the anonymous comment on Big Hollywood several years ago, perhaps the best advice I’ve ever seen on a blog comment forum. That in itself is good evidence for the way The Duke’s legacy endures. That legacy isn’t limited just to Wayne’s pictures, either, nor to other classic Hollywood Westerns starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and Audie Murphy. Mini-series like Into the West and Hatfields and McCoys and coming attractions To Appomattox and Texas Rising keep the Western alive on the small screen, while the big screen brings us new stories such as The Salvation and Cowboys and Aliens and even reboots and remakes like the Cohen Brothers’ True Grit.
Nor is the Western’s influence limited to tales set in the 19th century. Longmire and Justified keep alive the image of the Western lawman in the modern day—but so do Blue Bloods, where Frank Reagan isn’t far removed from Tom Selleck’s earlier turn as Orrin Sackett, and NCIS, where Mike Franks and Leroy Jethro Gibbs frequently live up to Tobias Fornell’s characterization of NCIS as “cowboy cops.” Then there’s genre television. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly are deliberately conceived as space Westerns, but Stargate: Atlantis falls into many of the same story patterns by virtue of being a town/fortress on the frontier (of the Pegasus Galaxy). And the writers of horror hit Supernatural have likened it many times to the Western milieu with Sam and Dean Winchester as last-of-the-breed cowboys—not to mention beloved father figure Bobby Singer, played by Deadwood alumnus Jim Beaver, whose favorite movie is… The Searchers.
As for audience, to cite only one print example, Western magazine Cowboys & Indians not only remains in print after twenty years but continues to increase its circulation every year, no doubt aided by feature articles interviewing a host of stars of stage and screen, from Brad Paisley to avid horseman William Shatner. Shows like The Magnificent Seven retain an active fandom presence online. And even when canon has nothing to do with the Western genre, a search of fanfiction archives will more than likely turn up at least one popular Wild West alternate universe.
The Western clearly isn’t dead. So why is Hollywood so insistent that it is?
“Never trust a man who doesn’t like John Wayne.” The comment’s point wasn’t just about the man himself but about the virtues his characters and films represent and champion, and Supernatural’s writers—among others—have likened the Western to the medieval morality play, intended to teach the audience how to live a virtuous life. Sir Philip Sidney argues in his Defense of Poesy that those who write creative fiction “do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved.” Such an idea may be anathema in itself to “those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20), but the specific virtues championed by the Western seem particularly ill suited to the message usually presented by Hollywood.
You see, the Western hero, whether he’s Cole Thornton, Matt Dillon, Hannibal Smith, or John Sheppard, is an inherently decent man—not perfect, but honorable and brave, hard-working and kind, respectful of those who deserve respect (especially ladies), wanting to live in peace but willing to fight when wrongs need to be righted, and first to defend the defenseless. Perhaps the most succinct summary of the code of the West comes from The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged; I won’t be insulted; I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to others, and I require the same from them.” He’s also independent and willing to act the instant action is required. Especially in an era when even the local sheriff might be hours away and Washington genuinely had no clue what conditions were like west of the Mississippi, people didn’t have time to wibble and waffle and hope for the cavalry to arrive on time. To do so would mean almost certain death.
In short, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The just man justices, / Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces.” In the Western, heroes are just men, as are heroines just women, doing their best to live rightly and well in the face of hardship and lawlessness, with only God’s Word and their own conscience to guide them. The justice and grace they keep in spite of it all are the reason the Western has endured, like the people whose stories inspired the genre, and will endure for generations to come.