By many metrics, the Western has been one of the most important genres in cinema history. Tales of the Old West were hot commodities in Golden Age Hollywood. Similar to the superhero movies of today, it wasn’t stars or exciting stories that made these movies popular; it was the genre itself that sold tickets and made people like John Wayne stars. And the idea of a Western proved adaptable, especially with European Spaghetti Westerns, which in turn incorporated elements from Japanese samurai films. The Western even served as a launching pad for other genres, with Stagecoach being the prototype for the Hollywood action movie.

But, like all things in movie–dom, Westerns’ dominance had to end. At some point, audiences started preferring other films, and it stopped being a box office draw. Over time, Westerns became seen as a thing of the past and films of a prior, bygone generation. 

However, that doesn’t mean that the Western genre has been static. In fact, over the past three or so decades, the genre has undergone a series of fundamental changes, which have modernized its tropes—and sometimes its settings—in order to confront and dispel harmful stereotypes and reflect the general public understanding that the ideal of Manifest Destiny did much more harm than good. And by doing so, a select group of auteurs have proven that the capital–W West can still entertain and even challenge modern audiences. 

Two of the most quintessential Westerns are 1939's Stagecoach and 1956’s The Searchers. The first film tells the story of a motley group of people traversing dangerous territory, learning more about each other as they journey and fend off Native American attacks. The second focuses on a former Confederate soldier—portrayed by John Wayne—on a year–long quest to rescue his niece, who was captured by a band of Native Americans and has subsequently “gone Native.” For the people who saw these films in theaters when they were released, they probably felt majestic. 

But it is no longer 1939, nor is it 1956. Outside of some beautiful scenery, pretty much everything about the films is disturbing to modern eyes. In Stagecoach, there is basically one female character of note, and her main character trait is her pregnancy. In both movies, most female and nonwhite characters are simply objects for the white men to curse at or kill. Many of the Native American characters are portrayed by non–Native actors and exist solely as emotionless purveyors of violence and destruction. And in what is probably the worst sin in either film, Wayne’s character is constantly lionized, despite his violent abuse of women around him and disregard for the humanity of nonwhite people. 

When watching Golden–Age Westerns in 2023, it becomes easier to see why films like these fell out of favor as America reckoned with the less favorable elements of its past during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War–caused turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s—a past which these movies romanticize. 

Overt racism and lack of female character development aren’t the only reasons audiences stopped wanting to see films like Stagecoach and The Searchers; simple plots and one–dimensional characters remained tentpoles of the Western genre, even as Hollywood evolved over time. 

People in Golden Age Westerns don’t change—they are what they are, for better or worse. This is the crux of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In it, the two titular characters are outlaws forced to flee to Bolivia. But once there, they quickly return to a life of crime. The subplot of them “going straight” is merely used for some comic relief. However this violent lifestyle doesn’t end well for the outlaws, which saves this movie from feeling as morally bankrupt as The Searchers

Despite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid representing some sort of a shift from what came before (the characters aren’t held up as an ideal for masculinity and the movie’s story is nowhere near moralizing), the film still contains too much of the classic Western template. And over the course of the late 1960s and 1970s, as Hollywood’s New Age took root and audiences seemed to want more complex stories, it appeared as though the Western had been passed by. 

For decades, the Western remained in the background of Hollywood. But it wouldn’t take much to shake the dust off of this genre, and as it turned out, it only took one film by one of the biggest stars of this first age of Westerns for complete revitalization: Clint Eastwood's 1992 opus Unforgiven forever changed the game. 

Unforgiven shares the settler colonialist setting of many classic Westerns, and its main character is still a white man on a mission. But what makes it unique are the nuances: Eastwood’s character is formerly a thief and murderer, but by the time we see him, he’s a changed man, “set straight” and raising pigs with his two children. When his old life calls again, he hesitates before accepting a mission to avenge the assault of a prostitute. As William Munny, Eastwood plays against the classic Western archetypes that made him a legend, refusing to drink or fight back when being beaten. His gentle demeanor shocks the characters around him who expect violence and machismo. 

It isn’t just Munny’s capacity for pacificity that sets Unforgiven apart from what came before; it’s also the expansion of the Western World. Female characters have agency, pursuing their own (very Western) brand of justice after finding (male) recourses insufficient. Additionally, Munny’s partner is a Black man, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, but the racial dynamic in their relationship is not mentioned, with the two men treating each other as equals. 

With Unforgiven, Eastwood—who rose to prominence in Golden–Age Westerns, and who directed and produced as well as starred in Unforgiven—appears to modernize his genre, and in doing so redefines his legacy. Munny represents the predictable future for a classic Western gunslinger past their prime. He’s a legitimate family man called out for one last mission. He’s an old man with little physical strength left, who falls in the dirt separating pigs and struggles to mount his horse. But, when honor and circumstance calls for it, he has the strength of will and steadiness of hand to dispatch the bad guys. 

This isn’t to say Unforgiven is unproblematic. The prostitutes who raise the bounty are constantly doubted and harassed. Freeman’s wife is Native American, and doesn’t say a word. But there are signs here of the Western interrogating itself. 

Once Eastwood reinvented the Western, other filmmakers felt freedom to jump out of the conventional box as well. 

There’s James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which tells the story of a posse tasked with escorting a dangerous criminal between towns. While this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, it does feature a female character who gets to make her own decisions and call out the men when things don’t go her way. Additionally, the protagonist in this film—a down–on–his–luck rancher who volunteers to join the posse—doesn’t have the same noble motivations or stoic demeanor of a Wayne character; he just wants to make some money for his family. 

Mangold’s film is still a pretty conventional Western. It’s set in the Old West and features characters trying to do what’s “right”. But in David Mackenzie's 2016 film Hell or High Water, the Western is stripped to its core, in order to create a truly enduring cinematic experience. 

For starters, the film is set in modern–day West Texas. People ride cars and trucks, not horses. But the plot—a pair of brothers going on a bank–robbing spree to prevent a foreclosure and stick it to the man—is still fundamentally Western. Never mind that one of the protagonists ends up killing four people; Hell or High Water is the story of men trying to do what they think is right in the face of a changing world, a proverbial last gasp against the death of a way of life. The film's screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, has played a large part in this reinvention of the Western— he's also the co–creator of Yellowstone, another modern Western that is among the most successful things currently on television. 

It’s not just a change of time period that some filmmakers are experimenting with. It’s also the merging of Western with other forms, such as in 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers are no strangers to Western themes; movies like 2007’s No Country for Old Men and their 2010 remake of True Grit are entrenched in the post–Unforgiven Western canon. But Buster Scruggs—which tells six unconnected stories—is their most ambitious. The classic Western setting is there, but the ideas of people fighting for what’s right are not. This film is incredibly bleak and amoral. Characters in Buster Scruggs are dishonorable, killing each other instead of any dehumanized enemies. It’s here, at the other end of the spectrum from The Searchers, that the role of the Western for the 21st century is clearest. 

Thus, over the past three–quarters of a century, the Western has fundamentally changed. It is now very different from the films of your grandfather’s generation, where white men ride around on horses for two hours shooting Native Americans and whoever else gets in their way. And while those Westerns have lost their place in modern society, the cinematic universe of the Western is expanding as filmmakers use its medium to tell unique stories, because the idea of people fighting for honor while questioning authority and following their own brand of what’s right has not—and should never—fall out of favor.