Spotlight: Revisionist Westerns

May 12, 2022
Spotlight: Revisionist Westerns

Thursdays | 26 Movies

This month, TCM spotlights revisionist westerns.

The western, like jazz, is a uniquely American art form. It is practically as old as the movies themselves. Turn of the century audiences were reportedly gripped with as much excitement as terror at the now-iconic moving image of an outlaw firing his gun directly at the camera at the conclusion of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903).

The traditional western, broadly speaking, “tends to uphold the mythic view of American history and western expansionism,” according to Joseph McBride, co-author with Michael Wilmington of the 1974 critical study, John Ford, and author of the 2001 biography Searching for John Ford

The ethos of the traditional western might best be summed up by the oft-quoted line near the end of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). James Stewart’s lawyer-turned-senator Rance Stoddard has just told a newspaper editor the true story behind the violent act that made his career (and gave this film its title). The editor tears up the story. “This is the west, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

This, itself, does has a revisionist bent, McBride said in an email to TCM. Ford’s penultimate western, he observed, “is explicitly about the fabrication of that myth and its hollowness, and it gives a feeling of terrible bleakness about Western ‘progress’ and ‘heroism.’”

The traditional western was in the legend-printing business. The good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black. Cowboy heroes had names like Roy, Gene and Buck, and they palled around with folksy sidekicks with names like Gabby and Smiley. Native-Americans were murderous, scalping savages. There was a “noble western tradition, rugged men who represent the heterosexual ideal,” as Jon Stewart deadpanned when he hosted the Academy Awards in 2008, the year in which Brokeback Mountain (2005) was up for Best Picture.

Revisionist westerns are in the legend-questioning, myth-busting business. As with jazz, a new generation of artists began to subvert the very foundations on which the genre was based. Traditional western conventions—the stuff of Saturday matinees at the local movie theater—were challenged: the good guys weren’t always so good, the bad guys often more likeable than their pursuers and civilization wasn’t always so civilized.

While the traditional western tended to demonize Native-Americans, revisionist westerns, particularly those made during the Vietnam War, used the genre to deal bluntly with the savagery of the ‘taming’ of the frontier. Many of these films, such as Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) valorized Native-Americans.

TCM’s month-long look at revisionist westerns begins on June 2 with one of the most entertaining examples of the subgenre, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Released in the early days of the New Hollywood, it starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the charming and charismatic “two-bit outlaws on the dodge.” Arguably the film’s most radical element is Burt Bacharach’s jaunty Oscar-winning score, which contains the breakout No. 1 hit, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Not exactly “Do Not Forsake Me” from High Noon (1952).

Director George Roy Hill had collaborated with Elmer Bernstein (who composed the iconic score for The Magnificent Seven, 1960) on his previous three films, but forButch, he went with the stylish and sophisticated hitmaker of such songs as “I Say a Little Prayer” and “The Look of Love.”

This was a western made for its rebellious times. “The picture was designed for a contemporary feel,” Hill noted in a documentary about the making of the film. “The characters are modern rather than traditional in approach and temperament, and [William Goldman’s] dialogue…has a very contemporary rhythm and sound to it, and we didn’t want a traditional Western score.”

Another unconventional score is at the heart of the second film of the evening, Robert Altman’s elegiac McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Leonard Cohen composed and performed the haunting songs that serve as the film’s spare soundtrack. Warren Beatty stars as the stranger who, like any dealer, is “watching for the card that is so high and wild he’ll never need to deal another.” His bet is to bring a brothel and gambling to the grubby, muddy town of Presbyterian Church. Julie Christie costars as Mrs. Miller, a madame who becomes his partner (and, for the top price of $5, his lover).

Whether it was the war film with M*A*S*H (1972) or the private eye film with The Long Goodbye (1973), Altman never met a genre he couldn’t subvert. It was the tenor of the times that McCabe & Mrs. Miller was called by many an “anti-western” for depicting a decidedly unglamorous reality of life in the old west.  “This is a film that puts you off if you don’t know what to expect,” The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael offered on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1971.

Never mind the less than conventional lead characters in the film or the grubby setting that was a world away from the epic, panoramic vistas of Monument Valley. More mainstream critics, Kael noted to Cavett, took exception to the film’s profanity, the indistinct dialogue with the ensemble talking over one another and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy, soft-focus images. “I’m reasonably sure that this is a movie that’s going to live and in future years people will think of as an important film,” Kael maintained.

Another of the most impactful revisionist westerns is Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), which TCM will broadcast on June 9 as part of a Peckinpahlooza of four films. The Wild Bunch was released the same year as True Grit, and from its first words (“If they move, kill ‘em”) to the climactic bloodbath, there are few clearer delineations between the traditional and revisionist western. 

As for with whom the audience is supposed to sympathize, it’s not like William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and company are the affable Butch and Sundance, but in comparison to the amoral bloodthirsty posse on their trail, they are paragons of western virtue. In fact, they are anachronisms. Doomed as they are, they at least live by a code of loyalty. “When you side with a man, you stay with him,” Holden’s Pike proclaims. “If you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.”

When a Reader’s Digest critic asked Peckinpah why he made the film, he replied, “We wanted to show violence in real terms. Dying is not fun and games. Movies make it look so detached.”

Also airing on TCM that night is Peckinpah’s sunset western, Ride the High Country (1962). It deals with two former lawmen (aged screen icons Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott), who reunite to transport a cache of gold. Their best days as lawmen are behind them, but their code of honor gives them a lived-in, authentic dignity (even if one of them flirts with forgetting it).

The revisionist western cast a wide tent. In addition to giving Native-Americans an image reappraisal, westerns such as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) afforded women and actors of color substantial and non-stereotypical roles.

The role reversal cult favorite Johnny Guitar is bonkers (Francois Truffaut called it the Beauty and the Beast of westerns!) On its surface, it is “a cheap Western from Republic Pictures,” wrote Roger Ebert. “And also one of the boldest and most stylized films of its time, quirky, political, twisted.” Joan Crawford stars as tavern-owner Vienna, about whom her bartender states, “I never met a woman who was more man.” Mercedes McCambridge costars as her nemesis Emma, determined to run her out of town. Standing by is Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a former gunslinger and Vienna’s former lover.

Buck and the Preacher finds the Old West correlative to “sticking it to the man,” which was job one for most of the films of the early 1970s blaxploitation era. Sidney Poitier made his directorial debut and stars as Buck, who is leading a wagon train of escaped slaves west. Harry Belafonte costars as Preacher, a con man who throws in with him against the bounty hunters on Buck’s trail.

Buck and the Preacher’s revisionist bona fides have grown in stature over the years. As The New York Times noted, “For the most part… blacks showed up on the frontier only as servants or, occasionally, as outcasts and loners, most notably in Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. If they do nothing else, these new Soul Westerns may serve to desegregate our myths, which have always been out of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.”

TCM’s revisionist western month-long tribute will also feature a night devoted to the so-called existential westerns of Monte Hellman, as well as Kathryn Bigelow’s genre-bending vampire-western (vampstern?) Near Dark (1987). For a complete line-up, visit

We can thank revisionist westerns for helping to revive a genre that at various times over the decades was declared dead (again, just like jazz). Then along would come a Lonesome Dove (1989), an Unforgiven (1992) or a Power of the Dog (2021), and once again the western was riding tall in the saddle.

There is something irresistible in the frontier and what it has to teach us about ourselves. We just can’t quit it.