Grab your six shooter, your sarsaparilla, and your… space ship? Wait a sec, what genre is this anyway? Are we rootin-tootin or flying through the stars? Turns out it’s both! This week we’re talking about westerns with speculative elements, be they scifi or fantasy. We discuss why conventional westerns have declined, what advantage speculative westerns have, and why movies are actually a kind of soup. 

Transcript

Generously transcribed by Abby Woods. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is Chris and Oren. All right, hat? Check. Duster? Check. Harsh glare in my eyes? Check. Broody stance? Check. Plucky sidekick? Check. Haunting flute notes in the background?

Oren: [provides a somewhat off-tune—but nonetheless haunting—flute riff]

Wes: Check. Gravelly voice? [gravels voice] Check. Pistol at the hip, regardless of the time and genre? Check. It must be time to talk about Westerns, everybody, because we’ve got all that’s necessary. [laughter] Yeah, so today we’re gonna talk about Westerns because, you know, we’ve watched things like Boba Fett and the Mandalorian and other kinds of fun, Westerny kinds of things, and we wanna talk about those, because why not? And also maybe why we don’t really see so many traditional Westerns anymore and why that’s probably a good thing.

Oren: What I’ve learned from watching Star Wars Westerns is that there will always indeed be balance in the Force between good and evil, because we get a good thing like the Mandalorian and then a bad thing, like the Book of Boba Fett, and so all things are eternally imbalanced and we are in hell. [laughter]

Wes: Yeah, appropriate.

Chris: There are, of course—there’s probably more than one reason why it feels like we’re seeing more speculative Westerns than straight Westerns these days, and one is simply that moving Westerns to a different setting makes them less problematic.

Oren: Okay, okay, so I did some research for this.

Chris: Oh, did you?

Wes: Research? Fancy.

Chris: Research? What? Get outta here with your facts! 

Oren: Yeah, I know right? So, first of all, there are way more Western movies coming out each year than we think.

Chris: Hmm, we just don’t watch them cuz we’re geeks.

Oren: Yeah. We’re nerds. We don’t hear about them. We don’t watch them. So, there are more than you would expect, and I looked at a list of Western films per year from Wikipedia and there wasn’t nearly as big a drop in recent decades as I would’ve expected.

However, it is also true that westerns are making way less money than they used to. And, I’m not saying this, this is just something that you can read in numerous entertainment think pieces by people who have much more time to study this than I do, and there are pieces in the Atlantic about it. So, this is a pretty well-established fact that Westerns don’t make that much money anymore, and there are a bunch of reasons for it.

The biggest one that they talk about is that Westerns are too American and non-American audiences don’t get them. And the other reason that they kind of talk around because they don’t know what it is—but is the reason why they only work with Americans—is that they are too low on novelty.

Chris: Yes, that’s what I was gonna say! Because, if you think about all of the different speculative fiction genres, fantasy and science fiction are huge. They are so varied. Like, anything that has any type of magic could be called fantasy, and those are very different stories with very different aesthetics. Same with science fiction. Alternate scenarios that could take place tomorrow. Anything that has any kind of futuristic technology could be called science fiction, hugely varied. 

Then, if you look at Westerns, it’s so specific. It’s a very specific environment with similar plots and themes on top of a very specific environment, and I think that if you stick to something that’s so niche for a while, it just grows stale and loses novelty, and one of the advantages of then mixing in speculative elements back into the setting is that you can add some of that novelty back in.

Oren: Although, it’s worth noting that a number of the big Western flops have also technically been speculative. But, in this case, I think that that is either a case of, it’s not obvious enough that they are speculative from the story or from the poster or what have you. For example, one of the big ones that I had never heard of until I started researching is Jonah Hex, who is technically a DC superhero, but you would not know that from looking at the posters and watching the trailers—or at least the trailers that I watched—for the movie of his that came out a few years ago and absolutely flopped.

Wes: I enjoyed the comic, but I had no idea they even made a movie.

Chris: It reminds me of the movie called John Carter, and it’s just like, wow, that sounds—some generic dude’s name. And I decided it was sword and sorcery and not Western because they wield swords, but it’s basically a space sword and sorcery movie that takes place on Mars, based on the book, John Carter and the Princess of Mars, and they decided to take off “the Princess of Mars”.

Oren: Yeah, cuz who would see anything about princesses or Mars? No one has ever watched movies about those. But the other two movies that are commonly cited as evidence of Westerns’ downfall are Cowboys and Aliens, which is more obviously speculative, but also just incredibly silly looking.

Chris: Right? It’s like watching Sharknado. I mean, it has its amusements.

Oren: It’s a really high-budget Sharknado, and I just don’t think it has that much earning power, is what it looks like. And then the other one was the Lone Ranger remake, which—we hated it cuz it was racist. I don’t honestly think that made too big of a difference because Americans are pretty racist, but, at the same time, I do think that it showed there was really no interest. 

Because it doesn’t have any speculative elements, unless you count speculation as, “How racist can a Johnny Depp portrayal be?” I guess that’s a speculative element in some ways. But, other than that, it had nothing. It was just a straight Western and the Lone Ranger is too old a franchise to really have that much cultural power.

Chris: I would say that Westerns tend to be problematic because they depict an era where white people were doing really bad things in America and pretending like they were the only people in existence when they were not doing bad things. But, at the same time, that’s probably not the reason it doesn’t make money, unfortunately. It’s probably that it doesn’t have enough novelty.

Oren: I do think that that plays a role. I don’t think that’s the sole reason or even the biggest reason, but I do think that hurts it, because that can be bad publicity. Particularly with the youth, as they are sometimes known. It’s also notable that, of the Westerns that have come out, the non-speculative Westerns, the ones that get attention even if it’s not super high ticket sales—the ones that get critical attention at least—are all deconstructions on some level.

And some of them are just like, deconstructions in that they’re very dark and gritty and serious, and sort of a reaction to the more cheesy, high-concept Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, the remake figures into that one, which is a pretty good movie. And then others are more obvious deconstructions. The most recent one being the Power of the Dog, which angered some old guy who plays in a lot of Westerns, apparently. A guy named Sam Elliott got mad, cuz the Power of the Dog has gay in it, and he got angry and gave it the best publicity it could have asked for.

So anyway, that’s the state of the Western genre right now—of straight Westerns—is that they are either doing poorly, being subversive deconstructions, or doing poorly while being subversive deconstructions. Well, that’s my research. We have all the data now. You have the information.

Wes: I remember—it’s called Unforgiven. It’s not speculative. Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman, and I wanna say Morgan Freeman, but I could be wrong with one or two of those, but it came out in the nineties, I believe, and that one got a lot of critical acclaim as a deconstruction simply because they portrayed people not dying immediately when they get shot and having the climactic gun fight, Clint Eastwood’s character, downing some whiskey and then slowly and deliberately shooting everybody instead of this, like, rapid-fire pow-pow-pow kind of situation, so everybody, of course, said, “oh, this brought grit and realism to Westerns, this deconstruction actually depicts the reality of the genre and really reinforced that it has to be hard for it to be a Western,” kind of attitude, which we do see showing up in the speculative elements today, for sure.

Oren: Speculative Westerns have definitely seen a lot of success, even if they are not as common as straight up normal Westerns, which, again, surprised me how many Western movies came out that we’ve never heard of.

Chris: Well, they might be cheap to make, would be my question about how many are coming out. Especially if they’re not that profitable, don’t have high sales, and there’s a lot of ’em, it’s probably cuz they’re cheap.

Oren: So that’s another interesting point about Westerns, is that Westerns are actually expensive as a genre.

Chris: They’re expensive? Why? Where is that money going? Is it just all the horseback riding? 

Oren: Yeah. It’s because they’re period pieces, and there are cheap Westerns that get made, don’t get me wrong. There are low-budget every kind of genre, but, like, as a genre, Westerns cost in the same vein as sci-fi or fantasy.

Chris: Yeah, and so, for fantasy—well, urban fantasy is one thing—I would think that high fantasy would be more expensive because we also have to do special effects.

Oren: Yeah but, as far as I can tell, the biggest cost comes from costumes and sets, which is probably a commentary on how special effects crews are underpaid.

Wes: Oh, probably.

Oren: That’s probably a whole thing, but I didn’t do research on that, so I can only tell you what I found.

Wes: It’s still kind of surprising, because, when I think of Westerns, there’s three that Clint Eastwood did—The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More—they get called spaghetti Westerns, and that feels pejorative, but they were set in Italy for budget purposes. And so, now I’m like, was it that expensive to film those here? They had to go to Italy to film them? I guess?

Oren: Isn’t it because they’re made by Italian filmmakers?

Wes: I had heard they were shot in Italy to save money.

Oren: My understanding—I could be wrong about this—is that the term “spaghetti Western” specifically refers to Westerns that are made largely in Europe, by Europeans. Although there are probably Americans involved, too. Those films are famous for having characters speak in whatever the actor’s native language is, and then just dubbing it over with English later, and that whole thing is part of the Western samurai film ecosystem, in which they were constantly inspiring the other in an endless circle of swords and guns. “Endless circle of swords and guns” sounds like a cool novel.

Wes: That’s a great title, yeah. You should write that down.

Oren: Or write that novel.

Wes: So, let’s talk about the components of Westerns that, when you see these things in a show or read them in a book, you’re like, oh, that’s a Western.

Oren: This is my favorite because the reason that speculative Westerns are so broad and there can be so many of them is, lots of different things can signify that this is a space Western. The space Western as a sub-genre is incredibly flexible. And sometimes it’s as obvious as, like, Firefly, which has horses and revolvers and they dress like cowboys, but sometimes it’s like the Mandalorian episode, “Sanctuary,” which doesn’t take place in a desert. Nobody dresses like a cowboy. None of their equipment looks like cowboy equipment, but they’re doing the Magnificent Seven plot, so it’s a space Western.

Chris: Because “Western” has so many associations and is so specific, you can really take different aspects, but I do think that’s one of the few I’ve seen where a Western doesn’t take place in a dry environment. That feels like it’s one of the most universal aspects of Westerns, but the Mandalorian has something that feels Western-ish that sometimes takes place in an ice moon, and sometimes takes place in a lush and green environment, which— It’s pretty unusual. 

Oren: Well, the new Star Trek show, Brave New Worlds, is doing the same thing. The trailer for the new Star Trek shows Pike riding across a snowy field with, like, a shuttle flying overhead and he’s dressed like a cowboy, and it’s definitely a deliberate callback to the way that the original series was sometimes pitched as a wagon train to the stars, which, it isn’t that, in any way, but that’s how people described it sometimes.

Wes: Yeah, I think the dusty setting definitely comes to mind, but maybe we just extend that and it’s however a frontier is defined within the story. Westerns take place in frontier towns or frontier locations generally, which I suppose means you have to have an authority figure, and then you have to have an extent of that authority figure’s power and presence, and then that’s where the story takes place, at the fringes.

Chris: Yeah, it’s that frontier life, edge-of-civilization, and, like, semi-lawlessness themes that often come with Westerns.

Wes: Which, like, that setting in itself is already problematic because almost all of these stories include native peoples who are civilized and have their own cultures and other kinds of things, so, looking at Book of Boba Fett right now.

Oren: Book of Boba Fett just made a huge unforced error with the Tuscans, and it was like, we’re gonna develop the Tuscans more. I was like, that’s great. Everyone wants that. Everyone would love that. And they’re like, all right, we’re gonna do a white savior story. I’m like, oh. Okay. I guess we’re doing that. I know technically Boba Fett’s not played by a white actor, but it’s still a white savior story, my God.

I mean, that is the big reason why I think space Westerns are easier to do—if not more popular than—weird Westerns or other fantasy twists on Westerns, just because you can get your Western things and your Western tropes and what have you, but not put them in the context of American genocide and manifest destiny against Native Americans. Once you start doing weird westerns, it’s like, well, are you gonna address that? And if so, how, and if not, it’s gonna be pretty noticeable that you didn’t. So that’s a whole can of worms. Whereas, if it’s a space Western, it’s like, yeah, we’re in space. Whatever. Yeah. Some of us have dusters. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Don’t ask questions.

Wes: Dusters are cool! Leave us alone.

Oren: Don’t ask who this crew is a parallel for. Let’s not ask that question.

Chris: The Gunslinger doesn’t take place in America either, right? It takes place in the alternate world?

Wes: They’re in the US for book two, for most of it. But, the first book, yeah.

Chris: How Western-ish is that part?

Wes: All seven books I would argue are pretty Western in their vibe. Some moreso than others, absolutely.

Oren: But the reason for that, is that the gunslinger himself comes from a second world, fantasy Western setting, which is pretty unusual. I can only think of one other story that does that off the top of my head, and I wrote it, so I don’t think that counts. [laughter] I’m sure there are others, but it’s a rare concept. And then the gunslinger goes to other worlds, like in book two, he’s either on a weird beach, or dimensioned his way over to the real world, and that still feels like a Western because the gunslinger is a character from Westerns and he shows up in the real world and does Western things.

Wes: Maybe that’s a good parallel, though, to some of the other features of the Western. We have like, fringe settings, but we also tend to have fringe characters leading the charge. Bounty hunters operate outside the law to some degree, but then outcasts, criminals, those kind of elements as well, tend to feature a little bit more prominently in Westerns. And in the Dark Tower series, the people that Roland goes and gets kind of are representative of that. Him, most so, as, obviously, the knight in shining guns.

But yeah, that kind of comes to mind too. You have to have people that are not working for actual law enforcement. You know, they are doing their own thing. They’re scraping by, by whatever means necessary.

Oren: Or, if they are, they’re part of some isolated, small-town sheriff’s office or whatever.

Wes: Yeah, you have to be able to say that the reinforcements aren’t coming and we’re on our own.

Oren: Honestly, that’s a pretty good bet for most stories, because you don’t really want your protagonist to be able to call in competent reinforcements. That’s not a good recipe for drama, but yes. Western stories typically portray settings where central authority is weak or nonexistent. That is a common trope, and that is one of the ways that you can spot a space Western, is if they’re doing something like that. 

Chris: Also towns are very small, so that it matters when a heroic stranger comes into town.

Wes: Because everyone has to glare at the stranger.

Chris: Everyone has to care that, like, one new person has entered this town.

Oren: One of my favorite examples of how broad the space Western umbrella is, is that people think Cowboy Bebop is a Western, even though everything about Cowboy Bebop is actually noir. Like everything, except for the fact that they are sometimes called cowboys, and there’s a show that they watch in universe called “Big Shot,” which is cowboy-themed. That’s it. That’s practically it. Almost nothing else has anything Westerny about it at all.

Wes: Ah, I dunno. I think—

Oren: You disagree?

Wes: I think the flexibility of spec fiction Western, I think applies to Cowboy Bebop enough.

Oren: I’m not saying it doesn’t! I’m just saying that, like, Cowboy Bebop has almost none of the things we would associate with the space Western, but people still clearly think it is one. That’s how genres work.

Chris: It does feel like, at least in some episodes, they visit places that feel frontier-ish.

Wes: Especially in the episode where you go back to see, the guy who owns the ship, his daughter’s house. And you’re like, oh wait, there actually are nice worlds.

Oren: Jet? 

Wes: Jet! Yeah, Jet’s kid.

Oren: Yeah well, like most of the places that they go in Cowboy Bebop are urban decay rather than frontier. Most of the places they go are, like, cities, that are either lawless or the law is rude and bad. That’s generally how Cowboy Bebop explains why you can’t call the police when there’s a problem. There are exceptions. There are some episodes where they do go to more “frontier” areas, but, like, a lot of the places they go are clearly big urban areas that are suffering from some kind of decline. Usually that isn’t what you would see in a Western, but the genre is extremely flexible.

Wes: That’s a good point too. When you brought up Gunslinger, Roland’s world is basically a post-apocalyptic situation where the remnants of civilization are kind of non-existent. The former—I don’t remember what kind of empire status his father’s kingdom or whatever had, but it’s not there. Like, it’s very much a world that seems to have moved on, which is, yeah, not normally what you see in Western shows. Like, the world very much exists and it’s on Coruscant, but the Mandalorian is not going there, right?

Oren: The Gunslinger is just a weird situation because it’s like, Stephen King is mashing a bunch of things together. Because, if you look at the flashbacks that Roland has to the country that he’s from, it’s more like a chivalric knight-aristocracy situation, except instead of swords, they use guns.

Wes: Yeah, he did, “What if King Arthur, but instead of swords, guns.”

Oren: Right. So it’s this weird mix of high fantasy tropes and Westerns, and then he goes into the real world, cuz King’s gonna do what he wants, okay, and he wants to do weird stuff.

Wes: That’s why the entire fourth book is Roland sitting down and telling them all the story of when he and his fellow teenage friends went to this town and the entire book is a pure Western story. And we have advice on like, why you shouldn’t do those kind of things, but my favorite scene in that, though—there’s a horseback scene where Roland and his friends are following the group of bad guys. There’s a lot of noise because there’s the horses, it’s not great weather, but they’re like, sneak up behind them on horseback, and Cuthbert, his weapon of choice was the slingshot. And I was so pleased to see a slingshot used well in a story because they’re horrifyingly deadly, and he just picked most of them off from the back before they even realized that there were, like, armed gun fighters behind them, it was just a cool chase scene. Anyway, slingshots. Include them in your Westerns.

Oren: Yeah, you don’t have to just use guns. You can expand things a little bit. Mandalorian has a lot of melee fights because, again, the samurai-cowboy movie ecosystem is real. So the Mandalorian is drawing from both Westerns and samurai films, that are also sort of the same thing. It’s a whole thing. Makes it very complicated to try to figure out the exact cultural lineage of a certain story. Star Wars in particular.

Wes: And how does that parallel like, match up in terms of the protagonist? Like Westerns, their protagonist is a gunslinger, but the gunslingers usually are outsider types, and as someone less familiar with the samurai films, are they just all ronin?

Oren: A lot of them. I mean, there’s different kinds of samurai films, right? Like not every samurai film is part of the shared gunslinger-samurai ecosystem, but a lot of them are. Some of the most famous, like Lone Wolf and Cub, which is clearly an inspiration for the Mandalorian. I’ll let you all figure out how. [laughter] That story is about the shogun’s executioner getting forced out of his office by an evil bad dude and having to go and wander the land as a ronin with his young son who cannot lift things with his mind. So, zero out of ten, do not recommend.

But the Magnificent Seven and the Seven Samurai are basically the same story, but with guns instead of swords, and those are a bunch of ronin, a lot of samurai films feature ronin that fulfill roughly the same role as a cowboy or a gunslinger.

Wes: It’s kind of that folk hero type.

Chris: So then, is it as fair to say the Mandalorian is a space samurai film as a space Western?

Wes: I mean, he has a sword now, so.

Oren: It’s all one thing. It’s all the same. Everything’s the same. Nothing is different. It’s all a soup. It’s a big old cultural soup.

Chris: Well, again, The Mandalorian. Sometimes it has more Western visual aesthetics when it actually goes to Tatooine, because all the Star Wars gotta be in Tatooine for some reason.

Oren: They’re all there.

Chris: But often it doesn’t, and when doesn’t, it’s really just the plots and themes, which it sounds like are in common with samurai films and Western.

Oren: But I mean, you still have things like, even when he’s not on Tatooine, you still will sometimes have the quick-draw, where the two characters stare at each other and their hands hover above their guns, and you get that in samurai films too, but it’s a little bit more iconic to Western. Because in samurai films, they have to be much closer together and they do like a quick sword draw, which is a little more limiting in how you can stage the scene. I haven’t seen anyone do that with a light saber yet, but I wouldn’t put it past them.

Chris: Besides space westerns, do you folks remember Westworld?

Wes: Oh yeah.

Oren: Yeah, that’s weird. That’s a weird one.

Chris: That’s a weird—that is a very weird one because of the premise being, all of the Western aesthetics are part of a theme park, basically. So they’re all manufactured, and instead of being combined with the space sci-fi story, it’s combined with an AI-develops-consciousness storyline, which happens—also happens a lot in science fiction, but generally science fiction that’s a little more near-future.

Oren: Yeah, it’s a lot like the various Star Trek episodes that do, like, a Western holodeck episode.

Chris: Yes, that’s exactly what the legacy is. It’s a holodeck episode, but not a holodeck.

Oren: But extremely grimdark. It’s like holodeck episode, but what if grimdark.

Chris: What if we actually took all of the implications of the holo program seriously? Like, there’s at least one Star Trek episode—I’m sure there’s more than one—but I remember one Voyager episode in particular, where—besides the fact that they have a doctor who is a holographic character—and they have more of those too in Picard—but they have, like, an episode where Janeway has a romance with a holo character, when it really feels like it’s treating him as an actual person, and then I think she just kind of like, erases his memory or does something like that in the end.

Oren: She deletes his wife. [laughter] That’s one of Voyager’s more notorious lines.

Chris: And so, it’s almost like Westworld is like, okay, what if we actually took seriously the fact that all of these holographic characters are, like, people, and we’ve been putting them through these holodeck scenarios.

Oren: Voyager does that too a little bit, although not with the Western. They do that with the Fair Haven town, because eventually Fair Haven gains self-awareness and then they are like, Hey, so you guys live on the holodeck, is it cool if we keep vacationing here? And they’re like, yeah, I guess that’s fine. And we just move on. 

Chris: At least Moriarty in the Next Generation actually…

Wes: …kind of escaped?

Oren: Oh my gosh.

Chris: They actually deal with the implications. Of course, the end result is that they just put him in a program that he doesn’t know is a program.

Oren: It’s fine. Don’t worry about it, man. [laugher] Oh gosh. That episode.

Chris: He wants to escape the holodeck—for anyone who’s not seen this episode—they accidentally make a Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes program that is too smart, and he really, really wants to leave the holodeck and explore the real world, and because he’s causing trouble to the ship in order to get this, they finally trick him by making him think he’s escaped, but he’s really in a holo program that’s running indefinitely. And they do say that this is just until we have the technology for him to leave, but, as far as we know…

Oren: Right, it’s also a little unclear, cuz he’s in two episodes. And at the end of the first episode, he is in, he agrees to stop being a bad guy, as long as they’ll work on how to get him out of the holodeck, and they like, pinky swear to do that. And then, like five seasons later, he comes back. I’m assuming one of the writers discovered that old script lying around and it seems like they’ve completely forgotten about him. And then at the end of that episode, they kind of act like this is the permanent solution? It’s weird. It’s not a great episode in terms of its implications.

Wes: So, yeah, I guess if you’re just thinking about Westerns, the things that we mainly covered here today. Bounty hunters, frontier towns, grit, operating outside of the law or the reach of the law. And then, we didn’t talk too much about having your cute, adorable sidekick, but that’s definitely a nice bonus as well.

Oren: Even outside of the Western genre.

Wes: Always have fun, cute sidekicks.

Oren: Giving your gruff, stoic hero an adorable side character he can bond with. That’s generally a good plan. So with that, we’re gonna go ahead and call this episode to a close. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.

Before we go, I wanna thank a few of our patrons. First. We have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She [email protected] We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing theme]

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