Hollywood was built on Westerns. For most of cinematic history--which is only about 120 years or so--the Western was king. Read criticism from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, even most of the 70s, and you'll note the prevailing notion that the Western's popularity would never diminish.
That's ironic now, of course, because the Western has become a marginalized genre. To say you like Westerns now is to tip your hat toward nostalgia and rural machismo. By the 1980s, Westerns had become politicized. Reagan sold himself as a cowboy (and, of course, had done his share of oaters back in his Hollywood days), and George W. Bush followed suite, selling himself as a Texas good old boy and explicitly invoking wild west images in talking about tracking down bin Laden. Meanwhile, the actual film genre itself has diminished in standing. Fewer and fewer Westerns are made, fewer still are successful (something like the Coen brothers' TRUE GRIT is the exception rather than the rule).
What's sad about this is that the Western is a rich and fascinating genre of film. In form, most Westerns are as prescribed as a sestina, yet the repetition of themes and motifs can often achieve fascinating effects. Despite the politics associated with Westerns now, the films themselves are by no means monolithic. Starting today, I'm writing a semi-regular feature over at Criminal Element in which I'll be looking at different Westerns from the 1960s. This is the period where the Western--like nearly everything else in American society--was subjected to a reevaluation.
First up, I'm looking at Martin Ritt's HOMBRE starring Paul Newman. This is a wonderfully gritty film, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. It has one of Newman's best, most laconic, performances; a deeply evil turn by the incomparable Richard Boone; and, as an added bonus, some of the greatest ass-kicking in the history of movies. The scene of Newman smashing a racist cowboy in the face with the butt of a rifle is one of the most deeply satisfying moments of screen violence you can experience. Read my full essay on the film here.