Monday, November 28, 2016

Is Post-Apocalyptic the New Western?

At first there were westerns. John Wayne ruled the roost. Men rode in on horseback, guns blazing, and took out the outlaws and the savages. They survived the ravages of the desert, the mountains, the great undiscovered and deadly wilderness.

They were brave, forging new paths, fighting the "other," dealing with the darkness of humanity.

But they were also free. Lawless. Discovering, pushing, reaching.

Then something changed. Replacing the westerns I cut my teeth on were two things: Dirty Harry-style cops (Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson) and a new focus on war and its survivors (Rambo, countless Chuck Norris films).

As with horror, action films often reflect the concerns of Americans. There were new kinds of outlaws, and the cops had to do whatever it took to take them out. Serial killers were also big during this time, with the hardened, no nonsense cop tracking them down despite the risks.

Clint Eastwood's filmography is a good timeline of these trends. Through 1958, he was in a variety of movies, many of them uncredited, several of them having to do with World War 1 era military films and some cheesy horror. But in 1958, he tread into the land of westerns. A Fistful of Dollars came out in 1964. Note that America became minimally involved in the Vietnam War in the 1950s, with our involvement escalating in the 60s. Our direct involvement ended in 1973.

In 1971, Dirty Harry was born. Eastwood was in several more westerns after this time, but they were minimal compared to his cop dramas and comedies.

I looked at crime rates through these years. These showed that crime rates began climbing in the early 60s, peaking for a long time between the 70s and 90s. Starting in 1993, crime rates began dropping drastically ("32 percent from 1993 to 2000" and 23 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to this article.) By the time we rolled into the 90s, Eastwood's films became more varied again, with less focus on any one thing.

Die Hard came out in 1988. Terrorists were the bad guys here. (Or thieves playing terrorists, really, but in the following movies, this was less true.) In the late 80s and early 90s, Schwarzenegger started fighting dictators and terrorists (and robots). Red Dawn came out in 1984. Even Rocky came face to face with a big, bad Russian in 1988. Our crime rates were still high, but they were reaching their pinnacle. Mad Max popped onto the scene in 1979, though I'm not sure when he hit big in America. The sequels came out in the 80s.

At some point we stopped looking at outsiders and lowly villains, and started looking at the government and the power players. When that was, specifically, I can't say without a whole lot more research than I'm willing to do for this particular blog post, but by the time those crime rates dropped, we were already beginning. The Postman came out in 1997. Hunger Games came out in 2012 (book in 2010).

Going all the way back to westerns, where I began this, what was the appeal? Things were simpler, for one. It was all about survival. Everyone knew their roles and followed them. There were fewer people to contend with, and more wilderness to combat. For the most part, there were a bunch of white folks and Native Americans were, quite simply, the boogeyman, the other, the final barrier in settling the west and achieving manifest destiny. In the real world, during the popularity of westerns, we had the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies rallying for peace, and an awful lot of unrest stirring in this country and others (Berlin Wall). Is it that people felt overwhelmed with all of this going on and wished for those simpler days, where the only race wars were those long conquered in real life? Where the biggest enemies were the deeply stereotyped Native Americans and outlaws who were villains through and through, with no redeeming qualities? Did it perhaps give folks feeling otherwise emasculated somewhere safe to aim their discomfort, scorn, and anger at what was happening?

Now fast forward. We've been involved in warfare in the Middle East for decades (the Gulf War officially began in 1990), the Cold War came to a tentative end in 1991, and we've been involved in various other tensions across the globe. Our crime rates are at all time lows, reducing drastically after 1993. War started looking different to us, somehow more distant, even while we can see more of it with the ease of getting footage. In 2001, it was brought to our backyard for the first time in a long time on September 11. School shootings have escalated, as have random attacks on civilians by people wanting to make a point. McVeigh, angry at the federal government, blew up a federal building in 1995. In the early 70s, we had the Watergate Scandal. In the 80s, people stopped smoking pot and started snorting coke.

It started looking really good for government and civilization to break down, and for us to return to a simpler time. A time where basic survival was the most important thing, where trust was hard to come by, where people depended upon themselves and knew that, above all, no one should be trusted. We imagined the apocalypse. The end of industry and consumerism. Of big government. No more reliance on technology. No more taxes. No more laws.

In post-apocalyptic, there is usually a single hero, possibly with a small band of supporters or random good folks who come along to lend aid when needed. Power is back in the hands of the individual. There is more control over one's individual life, with a sense of freedom to it, even when there is great danger.

The more people depend upon technology, the more we wish we didn't. The more government makes laws to govern our behavior, the more we wish they'd back off and give us our freedom. The more taxes increase, the more we want to escape them. The more we see how dirty and disconnected our politicians are, the more we want the system to change. Post-apocalyptic stories remove big government (unlike dystopians). So did westerns much of the time, and even when government was involved, it was distant, grasp weakened. They were depending upon individuals to go in and clean up their issues, trusting them, often wrongly. The focus was on the individual and whatever form of evil they had to overcome. This is true in post-apoc, too. Even the settings often reflect the barren wastelands represented by drought-ridden deserts (or, as in Waterworld, the exact opposite). Resources are hard to come by, just as in westerns. And through it all, we see the evil in everyday people. Raiders, outlaws, power-grabbers, war lords.

Now, westerns aren't entirely dead. This past year saw the release of a bunch, including one with Scott Eastwood. We had Hateful 8, Bone Tomahawk, The Duel, and more. There were some big names in these films. So, no westerns aren't dead, but they've changed, and they no longer speak to the same places within us that post-apocalyptic now does, which is probably why most of them struggle now, or go straight to video. No one watched Hateful 8 for the wild west experience. It was a violent film that acted more like a bloody locked room mystery than a pure western. Bone Tomahawk was horror, exploiting the other while trying to back away from the generalization of "normal" Natives. Diablo, the film starring Scott Eastwood, was more psychological horror than western. So, yes, they're still here, but no, they're not the classic westerns that were so big for such a long time, and their writers are failing to catch that essential genetic makeup that drew people in the 60s.

That's what post-apocalyptic appears to be for.

What do you think? Do you think post-apocalyptic films has ties to westerns? Do they set off similar emotions and thoughts? Or do you think they have nothing to do with each other? What do you think influenced the movie trends through the years?

May you find your Muse.

Disclaimer: I've grossly oversimplified stats and time periods in my attempt to look at the film and book industry during these time periods. This is a blog, not a college thesis or investigative journal. To flesh everything out, I would have had to spend a whole lot more time, found sources to cite, and it would have taken an immense amount of space, much more than should be used for a blog post. So I'd love to talk about what you think concerning post-apocalyptic vs. western, but discussing ALL the stuff I had to leave out for space and time considerations isn't necessary. I addressed history and crime stats in only the most basic way in order to give a quick scan of what was occurring during this time, and maybe try to figure out what might have been influencing films. This post was about me "thinking out loud" about the similarities between post-apoc and westerns.

*Still of John Wayne from El Dorado, Paramount Pictures, 1966
*Still of Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
*Violent crime data, public domain, Ryan Cragun: RTCEarly 01:44, 21 December 2006 (UTC) - Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics
*Hunger Games book cover
*Cowboy on Horse,, OCAL


Julie Flanders said...

This was so interesting to read! And I never would have thought of it myself but yes, I do agree about post-apocalyptic films and westerns. The connections seem clear. I can certainly understand the appeal of stories that remove big government right now!
Thanks for sharing this, gave me lots to chew on. :)

Christine Rains said...

I completely agree with you, and you put it so nicely. Post-apocalyptic films and books do have those connections to westerns. Makes me wonder what is next on the horizon.

Arlee Bird said...

You've made some excellent observations here and I think your argument has a lot of credibility. I've thought similar things recently. Over the week-end my wife and I watched the original Red Dawn and noted a Western connection even there.

But, yeah, the settings and stories of the post-apocalyptic genre do seem to have a similarity to Westerns. And the modern Westerns have often veered off of a far different path than what was traditionally seen in the past.

Arlee Bird
Tossing It Out

The Cynical Sailor said...

That's a really interesting analysis! I hadn't really thought about the connections between the two genres and current events.

Mark said...

Good title:) I think it is the new western, but there were a lot of stops on the way. Remember how everything had a vampire in it two years ago? Now it's zombies. Yay;)

Jonathan Linneman said...

I definitely think you are correct in connecting the themes of westerns and post-apocalyptic fiction. I'd also say that it may not be a coincidence that after turning out so many westerns in previous decades, Italian genre directors turned a great deal of attention to post-apocalyptic films in the '80s.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

They are similar in that it's usually survival on an individual level. Interesting how all of those things connect.

Andrew Leon said...

I'll have to think about this one...

DMS said...

What a fascinating post. You definitely gave us a lot to think about. I like how you presented all the information. I can see connections between westerns and post-apocalyptic fiction. I'll definitely be thinking about this for a while. :)

D.G. Hudson said...

I'm not sure I agree that post-apocalyptic stories are similar to or the result of morphing of old trad westerns. During the western's heyday, a simpler time, the late forties and fifties the public needed 'no-brainer' type movies with big heroes, and glamour gals, to balance off all the war movies that were also big at that time. When many now see governments failing and alliances falling apart, post-apocalyptic movies give us a chance to explore what if, and when we had to prove we could survive in a world without the comforts that have made many 'soft'. It also explains why so many people are eager to prove themselves in various bootcamps and survival events. (see the many tv shows, aka reality shows, on how to survive in the mountains, the jungle, and the swamp). One thing I am so so so tired of is 'zombies'. They remind me of insects. . .I appreciate the thought and research that you did put into this post, Shannon. That Clint Eastwood info is perfect. I didn't like his Dirty Harry days, I preferred his spaghetti westerns.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I grew up on those westerns too. I think the shift to all the post apocalypse is a reflection of people seeing how close we are to messing things up for humanity for good. It's a bit despressing.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Ah good! When I posted it, I was afraid I'd just be told I was crazy. The big government point is a big one!

Shannon Lawrence said...

Me, too! There will always be a way to explore that type of world, especially during stressful times.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I've been wanting to watch the original again. Now I can do it for research.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Sometimes, though rarely, I can get deep. ;)

Shannon Lawrence said...

Zombies are everywhere! Before, they were associated with consumerism. I wonder if that's still the case, or if they've morphed into a different meaning.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I didn't realize Italian directors had turned to post-apoc. I'll have to look into that more. I wonder what it is about life/government in Italy that inspires them toward western/post apoc.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Yes, they're very independently focused, and people tend to be attracted to that. Maybe it helps them feel like they might have a chance in similar circumstances.

Shannon Lawrence said...

What was the verdict?

Shannon Lawrence said...

I'm glad it's not just me who can see it!

Shannon Lawrence said...

I was a fan of both the westerns and Dirty Harry, but I grew up on those. He's outlasted other action figures of those times, either way.

Shannon Lawrence said...

It's definitely depressing. Things keep getting scarier.