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The Western Reinvented. Again.

· 9 min read
The Western Reinvented. Again.
Power of the Dog, Netflix.

It has been 30 years since a Western last won the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. That was in 1992 and the film was Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in it alongside Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris. On Sunday, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog may end that drought and become only the fourth Western film to win Best Picture (the other two were Cimarron in 1931, and Dances With Wolves in 1990). If it wins, expect to hear a lot more nonsense about how Campion’s film—which deals, inter alia, with alcoholism, homosexuality, and psychopathy—has somehow managed to transcend and/or subvert traditional notions of what constitutes a Western.

For some reason, every new generation of writers and filmmakers seems to think it is necessary to boldly “re-imagine,” “repurpose,” or “deconstruct” the traditional Western, to make it less morally straightforward and/or more inclusive of gays or women or minorities. And so, we get films like Brokeback Mountain (based on a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx) and The Power of the Dog (based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage), which (we are told) bring something brand new to the genre. Movieweb published an essay about the latter entitled “Here’s How The Power of the Dog Completely Reimagined the Slowburn Western,” which is odd since the author acknowledges that the film is based on a nearly 60-year-old literary property. The Northern Iowan claimed, “Campion’s ‘Power of the Dog’ Reinvents the Western Genre.” The Quint called the film “Jane Campion’s Brilliant Subversion of the Western Drama.” Other reviewers referred to it as a “modernization” of the Western drama and a “revisionist” Western.

Homoeroticism isn’t anything new in Western fiction. William Dale Jennings’s 1971 novel, The Cowboys, is filled with it (none of which made it into the 1972 John Wayne film version of the story), and it was published four years after Savage’s novel. Likewise, both Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers, and the 2018 film version directed by Jacques Audiard, have been called “reinventions” of the traditional Western by reviewers. But nobody can quite explain why that is. The story deals with violent sibling psychopaths in the Old West, but so do a lot of Western novels. The Old West was filled with psychopaths like Billy the Kid, Frank and Jesse James, the Rufus Buck Gang, William Quantrill, the Dalton Brothers, the Younger Brothers, and many others.

Australian author Greg Matthews’s 1993 novel, Power In The Blood, tells the story of three siblings in the American Old West, at least one of whom is a homicidal psychopath. For my money, it’s a much more daring piece of fiction than The Sisters Brothers. (Matthews’s 1985 novel, The Heart of the Country, may be even better.) Douglas C. Jones’s 1979 novel, Winding Stair, is an excellent fictional account of the Rufus Buck Gang’s brief reign of terror—much better, in fact, than the recent film The Harder They Fall, which stars Idris Elba as a “re-imagined” (that is, wholly fictionalized) Rufus Buck. And Jones’s 1991 novel, The Search for Temperance Moon, is an equally skillful fictionalized account of the murder of Belle Starr.

Violent psychopaths are a mainstay of Old West fiction. The directors of classic Westerns like John Ford and Anthony Mann filled their films with morally ambivalent characters. Some reviewers seem to think that The Sisters Brothers is revolutionary simply because it treats the Old West with humor and irreverence, which suggests that they’ve never read Charles Portis’s True Grit, or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, or Darryl Ponicsan’s Tom Mix Died For Your Sins, or Clair Huffaker’s Flap, or, for that matter, any cowboy poetry.

In 2021, Tom Lin, a graduate student at UC Davis, published his first novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. In an interview for the Big Thrill website, Lin said, “The idea for the book came to me as a one-line pitch, intense and inchoate: a Western, except the protagonist is Chinese American.” In an interview with UCDavis magazine entitled “Reimagining the Outlaw,” Lin added, “I think the Western as a genre is so powerfully integrated with the United States and cultural concepts of Americanness. I decided to lean into it and see how the myth-making machine of the Western genre might be repurposed.”

Lin was born in Beijing in 1996, so he can be forgiven for the assumption that this is a new idea. Baby Boomers will recall the same concept from the TV series Kung Fu, which starred David Carradine and ran from 1972 to 1975, for a total of 63 episodes. It inspired several feature films and TV series re-boots, as well as a handful of tie-in novels. But even in the 1970s, this concept was not new. Asian characters, and even Asian protagonists, had been showing up in Western novels for years. One of the best-executed novels dealing with this theme is The Land of the Golden Mountain, published in 1967 and written by C.Y. Lee, better known for his novel, The Flower Drum Song, which became a Broadway (and then a Hollywood) musical. The Land of the Golden Mountain is the tale of a young Chinese woman who comes to California as an indentured servant during the Gold Rush era. She has to disguise herself as a boy to avoid sexual harassment. But even while she is passing as a boy, she attracts her share of sexual interest from other men—further evidence that the Western novel was dealing with race and gender issues long before anyone felt the need to repurpose it.

A nearly identical set-up gets a more frank treatment in Gillian Stone’s 1980 Western novel, also entitled Land of Golden Mountains (the Chinese referred to America by that name, so it appears in the titles of several novels about Chinese immigrants to the US). Li-Li, the protagonist of Stone’s novel, also comes to California during the Gold Rush, but she doesn’t hide her femininity and ends up employed in a brothel. Ching Yun Bezine’s excellent 1991 novel, Children of the Pearl, tells a similar tale about a group of Chinese indentured servants who come to California in 1911 and are forced to make their way in a hostile environment not much different from the one that awaited earlier arrivals. One of them ends up working as a prostitute. Sex work has long been a factor in Western fiction (one of the main characters in the long-running Western TV series Gunsmoke is a former prostitute). Red Lights on the Prairie, James H. Gray’s 1971 exploration of sex workers in the Old West, was published as a mass market paperback by Signet and sold on the same supermarket spinner racks as the works of Louis L’Amour and Elmore Leonard. The Asian-immigrant-comes-West theme existed long before anyone ever thought of re-inventing the Western.

Just a year before Tom Lin published his novel, Chinese-American writer C Pam Zhang, also born in Beijing, published a novel called How Much of These Hills Is Gold, described by as a story about “two Chinese siblings let loose into the American West.” Naturally, the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a fierce re-imagining of the American West.” Martha Southgate’s review of the book in the New York Times notes, “Chinese Americans … played a huge part in the settling of the American West, a fact that has too rarely been the subject of fiction.” Zhang’s book, she announced, is “a tough-minded, skillful, and powerful corrective to that omission,” adding that by “invoking these tropes, she re-imagines them for thousands of forgotten Americans of different races and gender orientations; her American West is no longer populated only by the all-white, predominately male cast of characters who, we’ve been told, created it.”

Peggy Simson Curry’s masterful novel, So Far From Spring, published in 1956, is set in the high cattle country of the Rocky Mountains in the 1890s and concerns, among other things, rape, birth control, cattle drives, winter freezes, and child sexual abuse. Curry convincingly shows the reader how, with so few eligible women living in cattle country, even 12 -year-old girls were not safe from the predations of sex-starved cowboys. Even by today’s standards, it is fiercely feminist and betrays no romantic illusions about the Old West. The strongest characters in the book are all women. Mildred Walker’s 1955 Western, The Curlew’s Cry, is another feminist masterpiece. Set in the late 19th and early 20th century, it tells the tale of Pamela Lacey, a young woman who is forced to save her family’s cattle ranch after her father’s financial fecklessness brings it near the point of bankruptcy.

Louis L’Amour may not have been the best writer of Westerns the world ever produced, but he was certainly the most popular. No one thinks of him as a groundbreaking writer or a man who re-invented the Western genre. But even he tackled many of the subjects that today’s critics seem to think are groundbreaking. L’Amour didn’t write about homosexuality because he didn’t believe the sex lives of his characters was anybody’s business. But he did write about women and he did write about minorities and he did write about violent psychopaths. The Cherokee Trail, published in 1982, is his feminist novel. It’s the story of a young widow who takes over the management of a stagecoach stop in Colorado during the Civil War. She faces numerous hardships and dangers and overcomes them all without much help from any of the men in her orbit. Nobody considered it especially revolutionary because plenty of previous authors had written Westerns from a woman’s perspective.

L’Amour didn’t write much about the Chinese in America because, though almost all of his novels were written there, few of his books were set in California, which is where most of the Chinese immigrants to America wound up in the 19th century. But L’Amour did write a lot about non-whites in his books. Like a lot of Western fiction, his books often featured Native American characters, and they tended to be portrayed sympathetically. In Louis L’Amour: His Life and Trails, literary scholar Robert Phillips writes that Louis was:

...all ears when some of his grandfather’s Indian acquaintances, with whom he had fought out West, would drop by the house when passing through Jamestown. They would sip coffee together in the kitchen and discuss battle tactics and argue about why the winners had won and the losers had lost in each particular battle. This was some of the boy’s first contact with Indians, and he could see they were not exotic “others,” but scrappers like his own grandfather. The stories he heard in his home became a part of him. … As a boy of four or five, he accompanied his father to an Indian camp. The most marvelous sound he’d heard, he thought at the time, was the laughter of the old squaws, sitting around a campfire, chuckling in deep, rich tones. He thought the Indians were very vibrant and alive. L’Amour stated that the only reason they got a reputation for being stoical “was that some white man came along and asked them some stupid question.”

“[M]any young male L’Amour protagonists,” Phillips added, “not only have a deep respect for nature and the land, but an admiration for the Indians as well.” Later, in the 1970s, L’Amour would become a patron of a Navajo painter named Clifford Brycelea, whose work he admired. L’Amour sponsored exhibits of Brycelea’s artwork, and purchased many of the paintings himself. And he encouraged his publisher to use a Brycelea painting, “The Sacred Navajo Prayer,” on the cover of his bestselling novel, The Haunted Mesa. The affection was mutual. In 1978, he was awarded the Great Seal of the Ute Indian tribe for bringing attention to the plight of the Native American. Near the end of his life, L’Amour was making plans to write a trilogy of novels that would follow a Cheyenne Indian from birth to death. “He won’t see a white man until the last page of the first book,” L’Amour noted. Alas, he died before he could get even the first book in the trilogy written.

Critics and columnists who nod with approval at the latest “revisionist” Western film or novel are usually comparing it to an archetype of that most masculine and conservative of fiction genres; simple-minded morality tales of manhood’s vindication, populated by strong white heterosexual males defending terrified homesteaders from shrieking Indians on horseback. But the genre is and has always been much richer than that. Authors and filmmakers have been creating Western stories that feature sex workers, gender issues, Asian protagonists, homosexuality, sociopathic antiheroes, irreverent humor, and moral ambivalence for as long as the genre has existed. Anyone who thinks any of this stuff is new is simply betraying their unfamiliarity with the subject of their article. You don’t need to re-invent, re-imagine, or re-purpose the genre in order to make it inclusive of a wide variety of stories. It has been telling those stories ever since the West was won.

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