The place is Creede, Colorado. Dust and smoke choke the air, turning the world a slate grey. The clopping of hooves is the only sound that can be heard. Then, through the gloom, a party of men on horseback appears. Their features are hidden behind scarves and hats, their bodies clad in duster coats. They ride past abandoned buildings, a desolate church, horses, an entire derailed train. Finally, the man leading the party climbs off his horse and breaks down as he sees the lifeless body of a child hanging from a telegraph pole.
This is the opening scene of Godless, a seven-part Western miniseries that premiered on Netflix in 2017. It is just one of many recent TV shows and films exploring – and in each case reframing – the mythology of the Old West: The Revenant, Logan, Westworld, Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, The Rover, The Homesman, Yellowstone and so on. Visceral, violent and morally ambiguous, the Western is experiencing a renaissance the likelihood of which was close to zero in the two decades after Unforgiven appeared to call time on the genre. The question is why this is happening now.
In terms of narrative framework, the Western usually follows one of three variants (almost always featuring a male in the lead role): 1. a nomadic gunfighter rides into town, makes a few friends and a whole lot of enemies, learns what it means to put down roots, and drives the villains out in a heroic showdown; 2. a relentless lawman pursues a group of bandits over hell and high water in revenge for something that happened in town while he was being heroic elsewhere; 3. an outlaw gang goes for one last score, which fails, forcing them to go for another last score, during which they are heroically obliterated. The stories are taut, engaging and simple – on the surface at least.
They are also adaptable. Since the genre first came to prominence, Westerns have channelled the collective moods and fears of the period in which they were made. The movies of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, reflected a yearning to return to a time of morally righteous men and women, a past in which, as Stephen McVeigh puts it in The American Western, “such fundamental American concepts as individualism, progress [and] democracy” were in evidence wherever a cowboy laid his Stetson. Well-known films from this period include the Marlene Dietrich-led Destry Rides Again, the ropey Errol Flynn vehicle Dodge City and the smash hit that introduced John Wayne to the world, Stagecoach. In the 1950s, Westerns served as a canvas against which to address American audiences’ fears of the Cold War. Take Shane, a classic of the genre: in The Myth of the Western, Matthew Carter argues that the cattle baron Rufus Ryker represents “a charismatic authoritarianism (Soviet communism) threatening the democratic principles of the homesteaders (American capitalism)”, while Shane is the “personification of the sleeping giant in the age of atomic weaponry”. The masterpieces of the late 1960s and early 1970s followed, including Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, an anti-war screed hiding out on a Civil War battlefield, and The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent, ultra-effective commentary on how the Vietnam War desensitised the American public so much that no amount of blood or bullets could penetrate their numbness. The messages are there, hiding in plain sight. So what about now?
The desolate plains of the 21st century
Why is the Western back? For that, we have to answer another question first: What is the one topic that is currently inescapable, that is shaping policies, thoughts, discussions and behaviour all over the world? Look closely and the answer is obvious from the dusty, desolate opening scene of Godless: climate change. Like the films that came before them, these most recent entries in the Western canon are playing on our collective fears in the present, in this case: what it may be like to live in a world ravaged by ecological devastation.
It’s safe to say that as a species, we’re currently in the midst of an existential crisis brought about by climate change. The same questions are being asked over and over: What will the future look like and how do we need to prepare? Is it too late? Should we simply accept our fate? Does life still have any meaning if the societies we’ve built up over the centuries can be dismantled quicker than a glacier can melt? Is there any point doing anything if civilisation is set to collapse a couple of decades from now?
By and large, the characters in this new generation of Westerns deal with the same issues. There is no security, no civilisation, nothing that can be taken as certain other than death. The stories aren’t marked by heroism, tradition or a naturalistic way of life, nor are they concerned with serving as a grand allegory to current events. What we see is what we get: cold, hostile and terrifying climes where life is a slog from the first hour of the day to the last. Shots linger on barren land, broken ground and bad desires. We follow characters who are not wanted, who cannot trust anyone, and who are only ever a few meals or an injury away from disaster. Survival seems to be their sole objective.
A glance at the current crop of Westerns reveals just how prevalent the climate theme really is. In Godless, we learn early on that the predominantly female inhabitants of mining town La Belle have lost their husbands to an accident – the earth having quite literally swallowed them – with those left behind existing in a kind of limbo. Some want to move on (whatever that might mean), others wish to keep things as they were before, and an angry few seek to tear the whole place down and watch it burn. In a similar tone, the settlement we see in Bone Tomahawk is populated by just a few hardy souls, all of whom seem to be waiting for or eager to confront death. As a posse led by Kurt Russell’s moustachioed sheriff heads out in pursuit of a group of troglodytes (the antithesis of civilised society), the land through which they travel gradually deteriorates from roving green hills to baked mud and finally to white dust. Logan, a neo-Western and perfect send-off for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, is bolder still in exploring our fears of global heating: the environments are bleak and blasted, the protagonists seek refuge in an abandoned production plant, water is scarce and biotech is the only hope for humankind. Mid-way through the movie, an extended scene shows how violence and harassment from corporate farms desperate to control the food supply is the norm for civilians. Meanwhile, Westworld, another futuristic entry in the genre, grapples with the effects of disrupting a fragile ecosystem (the theme park) and how human consciousness is inextricably linked to our environment.
As was the case during the 20th century, then, these new Westerns use the genre’s simple framework to convey complex themes. Our fears are there, on the screen, for us to see. And this is just the beginning.
As the effects of the climate crisis become ever more apparent to us in everyday life, so art will increasingly seek to interpret, reflect and wrestle with our thoughts, fears and expectations regarding our future on this planet. This has always been the case: humans are more inclined to respond to something tangible—something they can see, touch, smell, feel—than to endless reams of data. If, for example, we go back to the Greek art of the Early Bronze Age, we find artefacts such as the Pelike of Odysseus and Elpenor, which displays scenes of death and decay on its ceramic belly, or the Cycladic figurines, which embody spirituality, nature and (once again) death. When a concept is made palatable to us in this way, we can begin to digest it.
These new Westerns represent the vanguard of a new artistic era in which climate change will be an omnipresent factor. What remains to be seen is whether we respond to the bleakness of these narratives with meek acceptance or rejection in favour of something altogether more hopeful. Shows such as Godless present both sides of the coin: on the one hand we have the (mostly) resigned townspeople of La Belle who wish only to bury their heads in the sand; on the other, we see characters such as Roy Goode, a former outlaw who drastically changes his behaviour in order to survive, and Sheriff Bill NcNue, who demonstrates a will to do what is morally correct and to face his fears despite the seemingly insurmountable odds standing in his way. Of course, as is the case in life, the show is not always this black and white, but it drives home what it means to actively or passively respond to a situation.
We are now at the same crossroads: do we acknowledge our fears and heed the messages that are now gradually being spread through the art we consume? Or do we dismiss it all as fantasy and treat it as light entertainment instead? The latter is simpler, yet disingenuous. Collectively, we know that our response to the climate crisis has been woefully inadequate. When we fail to engage with the themes being put forth by these shows and films, we compound that sense of inadequacy. Action begins with acceptance that there is a problem. The next time we boot up Netflix or head to the cinema, we should keep our fears in mind. And perhaps we should listen to them while we still have the chance to do something.