If you want to write in the fiction genre of westerns, you might still be asking yourself the difference between what I call a Classic Western and a New Western. The third sub-category, Modern Western, is easy to identify because it takes place after 1900. But the first two? They both share the same historical setting in the American frontier years of the 1880s which is after the Civil War but before all the western territories were made into states. They both explore the same themes (though in different ways). Let me illustrate the difference with movies, which are sometimes more straightforward than novels. The 2003 movie Open Range expresses heroism and optimism and is therefore a Classic Western. The 1992 movie Unforgiven exudes cynicism and pessimism and is therefore a New Western. This article discusses Unforgiven with plot spoilers.
Unforgiven opens in a rough saloon in a frontier town in Wyoming where one of the prostitutes recently got her face slashed up by two thugs. The sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) keeps the town under a fascistic level of control to prevent anarchy. He has even banned anyone from bringing guns to town. Now he decides the thugs can be let off with a horsewhipping – and then waters down the punishment further by allowing them to give a couple of horses to the saloon owner who protests that his "property" was damaged. The prostitutes are horrified that they apparently have so little value in this world that the laws that exist to protect most people aren't going to be enforced on their behalf. They pool their money to offer a one thousand dollar reward to anyone who kills the thugs.
Gunfighters eager to claim the bounty begin to flock to the town. Among them are two retired gunfighters Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Logan (Morgan Freeman) who are so desperate for money that they have left behind their families to try to claim the bounty. Their young sidekick the Schofield Kid is a wanna-be gunslinger. While the Kid and Logan meet the prostitutes upstairs, Munny who is sick with a fever sits alone at the bar. The sheriff and his men arrive, search Munny, and give him an extended, sadistic beating for carrying a gun into town. It takes Munny days to recover.
When our three heroes manage to kill the two thugs, it is an exercise in ugly, mundane brutality. Logan shoots the first guy's horse, causing it to pin the guy and break his leg. Sickened by the violence, Logan can no longer finish the job. Munny has to blast away at the thug before managing to wound him fatally. Logan decides he can't continue and heads back to town. The Kid ambushes the second thug leaving an outhouse and kills him. He too decides to hang up his guns. When he and Munny get back to town, they receive their reward money from the prostitutes, but learn that the sheriff and his men have captured Logan and tortured him to death, displaying his corpse outside the saloon.
The Kid leaves to take the reward money to Logan's and Munny's families. Munny enters the saloon for an extended, vengeful shoot-out against the sheriff and his men. After killing the villains, Munny steps outside, proclaiming loudly that if anyone shoots at him, he will kill not only that man but also his wife and children and burn his house down. He also promises that if Logan isn't buried right or if the prostitutes are harmed, he will return to kill every man in town. Then he leaves.
How is Unforgiven a New Western? Unforgiven, which I'll admit is not one of my favorite movies, wallows in violence, degradation, despair, and darkness. The filmmakers went to great lengths to distinguish their film from the whitewashed oaters of the 1950s. For example, the extended sadistic beating that happens to Munny is actually the second such scene that the audience has to watch. An earlier scene happened to another man. And Logan isn't just arrested or even shot for defying the sheriff's no-guns edict. Instead, he's tortured to death and his defiled corpse is displayed in public. All this over-the-top depravity is not very historically accurate – what real frontier town would tolerate such a sheriff? And anyone who slashed a prostitute's face would have been hanged immediately, end of story – but it reinforces the typical New Western theme that (1) most people are sheep, and (2) it is futile to defy the forces of evil, which permeate our existence and prey on the sheep. As Cormac McCarthy showed in his novel (which is actually a Modern Western), it truly is "no country for old men." And what about our three heroes? The Kid is too nearsighted to see anything, and Logan and Munny are so decrepit that they can barely mount a horse or shoot a bottle off a stump. The movie lingers on their weakness and incompetence. Munny in particular is filled with self-loathing about his past deeds now that he has been reformed by his devout wife. When faced with the overwhelming forces of evil, these men are too damaged to make much difference. It is not until Munny regresses to be exactly like the evil-doers that he prevails.
This is not to say that your New Western has to be written like Unforgiven to be a New Western. Some extremely well-written character driven stories have come out of the New Western genre and have been masterpieces of psychological revelation, hope, heroism, and redemption. But in general they will be much darker, grittier, and more violent than the Classic Western. See also my article on What is the New Western, and see Open Range as a Classic Western for contrast.
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