Sunday, January 15, 2006

Director Walter Hill on westerns

From TV by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall

All things pass'

Director Walter Hill (“48 Hours,” “Wild Bill”) appeared at a Television Critics’ Association press conference to promote his upcoming AMC film “Broken Trail,” which debuts in July. The four-hour, two-part film stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church (who were also present) as a veteran rancher and his nephew. The characters drive a herd of cattle from Oregon to Wyoming, then get sidetracked into trying to rescue five immigrant girls who have been sold into prostitution.

Asked why westerns had nearly disappeared from popular culture – particularly on TV, where the genre is represented only by the occasional TNT movie and HBO’s “Deadwood,” for which Hill directed an Emmy-winning pilot – the filmmaker said, “You’d probably need a sociologist to answer that.” Then he took a shot at it.

“When I was a kid, there was a tremendous saturation of westerns on television,” said Hill, who was mentored by Sam Peckinpah and wrote Peckinpah's 1972 thriller "The Getaway." “All things pass.”

Hill suggested that the Western’s slow decline was probably due to two factors: its fairly strict requirements as a genre, and America’s transformation from a rural to an urban society.

“I think the deepest reason for the decline is probably that the audiences of the '50s and '60s were probably the last audiences that identified their own lives with an agrarian past, that either their lives or their parents' lives had begun on farms and they moved to cities.”

That is not true of contemporary audiences, Hill said, and that meant “… to have a western is now a special thing. I think they can work. I love them. But I think as a genre, what they were will probably never again come to pass.”

Ed here: I think Hill nailed it when he said that audiences today don't identify with an agrarian past. Cops are our cowboys now. Remember what Hammett said in the `30s, that private eyes were the transplanted western heroes of the 1800s. What he didn't point out was that the change to the city gave adventure-detective fiction a gravity it had rarely had before. Because most early hard-boiled was written by Irish and Jewish immigrants, crime fiction got really dark quickly. Immigrants saw how corrupt the cities were. The rich and powerful could get away with anything. Gangs and crooked cops ruled the streets. The reason I've always prefered Elmore Leonard's westerns to his thrillers (and face it, his thrillers ARE westerns) is that he was one of the first signifcant western writers to deal seriously with the public corruption of the old west.


Blogger Richard S. Wheeler said...

I agree with Walter Hill's analysis about urban readers being disinterested in the rural frontier, and have said so many times. What do modern urban readers care about getting across an unbridged river? And yet there are anomalies. How explain the deep interest in fur trade and mountain man fiction? It is even less urban than frontier stories. That non-urban western fiction earned a couple million bucks for Terry Johnston.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

I like the moral underpinnings of westerns more than anything else, even though I was fortunate enough to spend a ton of time on a Nevada cattle ranch as a kid, and good writing brings back the smell of sage. I agree about Leonard's westerns, some of my favorites.

12:30 PM  

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