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Where have all the cowboys gone?

January 19, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The lone gunman with his trusty steed.

Good versus bad. White hat versus black hat.

A gun drawn with purpose.

An air of romance but nothing untoward.

Where have all the Westerns gone?

Arguably, the last great Western - if awards and acclaim are an indicator - was Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," and that was 14 years ago.

The Shepherdstown Film Society will explore four movies considered representative of the last Western theme when its new season kicks off Friday, Jan. 20, at Shepherd University's Reynolds Hall. The film that night will be director Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country." The film, along with another one to be shown in the series, "The Wild Bunch," was recently released as part of the DVD collection "Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection."


Film society member Peter Smith suggested a series on the last Western because of his interest in Westerns, that they contained many of the basic traditions of American culture and because the genre was once a staple of American cinema and has practically been discarded.

Smith, 65, of Shepherdstown, believes not many Westerns are being made because many of the stories and themes have been retold and become clichs. Plus many of the actors featured in Westerns have become old men, he says.

And the country has changed.

The basic theme of almost every Western - "old notions of good and evil and the good guys triumphing over the bad guys" - wasn't as attractive during the '60s with the Vietnam War and the counterculture reaction against violence as a solution to problems, Smith says.

"The idea of the strong, lonely, manly man riding off in the sunset was not so appealing to the kind of culture emerging in the '60s. Witness the way John Wayne became an object of contempt to the younger generation as the '60s wore on," Smith says.

Smith selected the four films for screening because he thinks they, among several other films, represent directors' attempts to make that one last Western to cap off a seemingly fading genre.

"Usually the protagonist is an old man and there are usually young people in the films who, to put it graciously, are blithering idiots," Smith says.

The Herald-Mail asked its readers if there was still an audience for the Western genre and whether there should be.

Bob Walton, 64, of Maugansville, thinks people are waiting on the edge of their seats for a Western, but it will need to be an action Western to draw in today's audiences.

"There won't be any more John Waynes, or a repeating hero like Roy (Rogers) or Gene (Autry). I don't think there's a following for that kind of thing," he says. People don't want to see the same guy over and over again, he says.

"They've tried all kinds of slants on the cowboy movie," says Walton, noting "Wild Wild West," with its science-fiction spin, and the recently released "Brokeback Mountain," the love story of two cowboys.

Mary Rotz, 57, of the Hagers-town area, says there should be an audience for Westerns because they featured great heroes who were exciting and to which children could relate. She is co-owner of Antietam Recreation, which features a Wild West show.

Rotz prefers the older Westerns in which "right always prevailed" and "it was character above other things" over some modern Westerns in which a viewer can't tell who is the bad guy and who is the good guy.

"A lot of them were fighting evil. They were trying to proclaim a better way of life for the Western settlers that were going out there. They braved great dangers and problems," Rotz says.

"I wish we had heroes like that today and we do. We have our military people that are willing to go out and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're willing to fight for freedom and sacrifice their lives," Rotz says.

Shirley Hovermale, 71, who lives west of Hagerstown and shows horses, isn't sure there's enough people today who want to watch Westerns because younger people have other interests.

"Of course, there are still a lot of folks around my age that perhaps would be," she says.

Like Rotz, Hovermale prefers the good, clean family Western where the good guy prevails, as well as "good, clean romances."

"A lot of times the cowboy never really kissed the girl star, but you knew they were in love," Hovermale says.

"I guess it is an era that has run its course or is in its past," she says. Younger generations seem more interested in movies with modern technology and spaceships like "Star Wars."

"'Star Wars' is nothing but a cowboy movie set in outer space. The good guy wears the white uniform and Darth (Vader), of course, being the bad guy is black all over," Walton says.

Ralph Horley, 54, of Sharpsburg, says he knows a lot of people who still watch Westerns, including himself and friends who watch the older movies on the Encore Westerns channel.

"It was the best birthday present my wife ever got for me," he says of the channel.

Like other readers who responded to our query, Horley grew up watching theatrical and television Westerns.

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