Always changing, the western never changes. Whatever era it is, the essence remains. If I told you about a pivotal scene in which a gunslinger turns to the camera and stares, hard-eyed, at the audience, I might be describing The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903, a silent cinema milestone whose star, Justus D Barnes, was a middle-aged stage actor. Or I could mean My Pure Land, a new film about three women in rural Pakistan defending their home from bandits. Its star is Suhaee Abro, a classically trained dancer in her first major role. Thousands of miles and more than a century apart, she and Barnes share a western moment.
Westerns in 2017 are politically open-minded, geographically flexible – cinematic Lego to be assembled as you like. The director of My Pure Land is Sarmad Masud, a British-Pakistani film-maker from the east Midlands, for whom the genre usefully shaped his ideas. Old and new meet again. My Pure Land is based on a contemporary true story: a young woman called Nazo Dharejo defended her family home from 200 armed assailants. And while we mostly know the western as a period piece, for the nickleodeon thrill-seekers of 1903 it was not. The Great Train Robbery, too, portrayed real events – ones that had taken place three years earlier on the Union Pacific Railroad; the culprits were led by Robert LeRoy Parker, also known as Butch Cassidy, then still at large in south America.
A last gasp of the old west duly became the first movie western. But from there, the task quickly became mythmaking. The western turned inexorably towards the past – or a version of it. Soon came the movies that defined the genre, tales of heroes in stetsons and dastardly “injuns” somewhere between propaganda and mass hypnosis. The west had to be won, most westerns said, to save innocence from savagery. There were exceptions, and some of those were fantastic films – but the racism stuck.
Eventually, there was a reckoning – an apology even. Doubt seeped into the genre with The Searchers, director John Ford’s anguished 1956 story of race and revenge. By his rueful final western eight years later, Cheyenne Autumn, it was rife. And now, the western lives a noble second life – a reformed ex-con devoted to good work, clean shaven and polite, embracing social progress.
My Pure Land is just the latest in a string of feminist new westerns – repurposing a form in which women were once silent chattels. Female strength and male hubris feature in films from the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit to the austere Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt. Others flip the script on men who spent the original westerns killing to protect the honour of their wives and daughters – now they are the predators against whom women must defend themselves. That was the engine of The Keeping Room and Jane Got a Gun, and now here’s another movie – Brimstone, a lurid tale of a preacher and his reign of terror over a series of young women.
A whole other line of modern westerns address the Native Americans once presented as whooping menaces – grotesques to be wiped. Again, the keynote is contrition. Again, the production line keeps rolling. Freshly unveiled on the festival circuit is Hostiles, a starry reappraisal of Native Americans in the old west. Already on release is Wind River, a sorrowful western whodunnit about tribal life at the margins of America. For decades, the genre was the definitive example of history as written by the winners – a fond origin story white America told itself in darkened movie houses, from sea to shining sea.
Like all elaborate lies, when it cracked it shattered. By the 1970s, the old western was seen as a product of a filthy America – the western was the Kent State shooting, the western was My Lai. So the comeback had to be careful – the genre often paired off with others as if it needed supervision. The comedy western soon became a fixture. Lately, exotic hybrids have arrived in tune with the times: the horror western (the eye-popping Bone Tomahawk) or the post-apocalyptic western (The Rover, set in outback Australia). Important too was the sense of remorse – captured nowhere better than in Unforgiven, the 1992 masterwork directed by Clint Eastwood, filled with regret about old crimes and the futility of revenge. The significance was vast. The western was sorry.
But it was a strange kind of sorry. For a start, the apology rarely came in an American accent. Brokeback Mountain, the film that finally made explicit the gay subtext of countless old westerns, was directed by the Taiwanese Ang Lee. Brimstone is the work of the Dutch Martin Koolhoven, with Denmark’s Kristian Levring responsible for another new old west yarn, The Salvation. Oddly, the British have been particularly active: The Keeping Room (Daniel Barber), Slow West (John Maclean) and the imminent Lean On Pete (Andrew Haigh) were made by directors familiar with drizzly seasides and suburban ring roads. Many of the new westerns, by non-Americans, have struggled for an audience in America.
It was a graduate of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, who made the modern western that bucked the trend. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water was a story of two brothers on a crime spree in west Texas, pursued by a laconic sheriff. The frame of the film – lawman and gunmen – was classical. The twist was the burned-out backdrop of foreclosed farms and post-2008 economic calamity. Handsomely made, the film bloomed into a surprise box-office hit, thriving in the poisoned air of last year’s presidential campaign. To the left, it was a tale of working-class lives destroyed by capitalism; to the right, it was a movie about a country waiting to be Made Great Again.
Despite the presence of Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, the real star of Hell or High Water was the red Texan landscape. In making the film, Mackenzie admitted, it had been difficult to tear his camera from the vista. The desert and dust is as potent a symbol of the genre as the gunfight. It was what, visually and spiritually, inspired Masud to make My Pure Land a western. “It’s like my dad says,” he told the Guardian. “To him Pakistan isn’t just the people and the noise and the language – it’s the soil itself.”
It was American soil on which the movies of John Ford played out, the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border standing in for every endless wildness since transformed into front lawn. Watching old Hollywood westerns, you can sense the obsession with taming savage ground that fills Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the manic indexing of flora in the Texan borderlands carried out by the infernal Judge Holden.
The greatest of western novels, Blood Meridian remains unfilmed. The closest the movies have come has been the knockabout Darwinism of Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant, in which the primal quest for survival looked like a Tough Mudder assault course. Still, directed by another film-maker from outside the US, Alejandro González Iñárritu, it was a stark account of the national soul to put before the multiplex.
But of course, the western now exists in a different America than it did even last year. If Hell or High Water had two audiences, those who cheered it wearing Trump hats now own the moment. For them, the idea of the apologetic western would be met with fury – and perhaps in that they wouldn’t be alone.
After Unforgiven, Eastwood – essentially the genre in human form – only heightened its impact by suggesting it would be his final western, a last word on the subject. But it wasn’t. While he never spoke of it as such, another film he directed a year later was a western too in all but name, the story of a gunslinger with a righteous cause: American Sniper, the biopic of the US Navy Seal Chris Kyle. The film was loaded with jingoism and a disputed approach to the facts. The effect was dramatic. It was as popular in the US as it was divisive, a film wrapped in the flag that made enemies of its detractors.
In the long run-up to the current political moment, American Sniper played a crucial role. By the time of the election, Eastwood had confirmed he himself would be voting for the candidate whose idea of American heritage is, it turns out, much like the one you see in old westerns.
Clearly, the man who made Unforgiven was not so sorry after all. And neither is the old west.
• Brimstone and My Pure Land are on general release.