Yes, they were racist and sexist; yes, they were corny and formulaic and historically inaccurate (if not downright fantastic), and yes, the rules protecting animals from being treated cruelly weren't in place yet. But nonetheless, there was a time when the "western" (the "cowboy movie") was not only Hollywood's bread-and-butter staple, it was the idiom by which the rest of the world recognized and got to know us.
Despite what we may have been told, America didn't invent the automobile, airplane, bicycle or electric light bulb. While we modified and improved them, we didn't invent them. But we did invent the Western movie. And, in a sense, the Western movie invented us. It's no exaggeration to say that what the average American knows about branding irons, mining towns, cattle rustling and frontier saloons, they learned from Western movies and TV shows.
When I lived in India (Malerkotla, Punjab), the town's only cinema couldn't afford to show any first-run American movies, so it showed older movies, movies which it could afford and which were guaranteed to attract a good-sized, appreciative audience. Which is to say, it showed Audie Murphy "Westerns."
Because this was literally the only show in town, and because I'd always been a fan of the Western genre, I wound up seeing Apache Rifles, Hell Bent for Leather, and Gunfight at Commanche Creek several times each. Before India, I had never been much of an Audie Murphy fan. I was more of a Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood aficionado.
This will sound petty, but there was something about Murphy's face I didn't care for. To me, despite him being a real-life Medal of Honor-winning World War II combat hero, he didn't seem like a "serious" person. He looked too whiny to be dangerous. But an Indian gentleman (my neighbor) once told me the reason he liked the boyish, square-jawed Audie Murphy was because "he looked so much like an American."
Why do we no longer have a steady supply of Western movies? Why did we stop making them? The last two really good Westerns were, Unforgiven (with Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman) and Silverado (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner), both of which were excellent films, as good as any of the so-called "classic" Westerns.
Could the reason be logistical? Given all the necessary horses and cattle, and the unpredictability of animals, did Westerns become too unwieldy or complicated to make? Or did Hollywood simply decide the average movie-goer wasn't interested in seeing a movie set in the Old West? Vampires and zombies were in, cowboys were out. Or was it harder to get young actors today to agree to learn how to ride a horse or, at the very least, look comfortable atop one?
An actor I know, the very talented David Clennon (Syriana, The Right Stuff, et al), once played the part of William Henry Harrison (before Harrison became president), in a movie called, Tecumseh: The Last Warrior. In a couple of his scenes he had to dress up in an elaborate military uniform, including wearing a sword, and ride a very large horse.
Because he looked surprisingly good up there, comfortable and steady, I asked if he'd ever ridden a horse before. He said he hadn't. As was customary, the studio hired an experienced wrangler to show him exactly what to do. The rest was easy. Also, these Hollywood nags aren't exactly wild beasts. They're movie horses. Show biz horses. The last thing one of them is going to do is bite or kick an actor, and risk losing his union card.
I heard it said that the "crime movie" has replaced the Western as Hollywood's go-to genre. Crime movies -- caper movies, heist movies, terrorist movies -- are where the action is now. I've heard it said that, other than as a cinematic/cultural reference point, the Western movie will one day be completely forgotten. Western movies will eventually be as obsolete as the cattle rustlers they used to depict. And that will be a sad day.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd edition), is a former union rep.