These days, the concept of a particular theme or genre remaining popular or even relevant in art and entertainment is eminently fleeting. In our lightning-paced, wireless world, the next new thing often supplants the latest and greatest in mere hours, relegating apparent titans to relative obscurity in a virtual blink of an eye. Only a precious few can claim membership in that exclusive club of genres that repeatedly endure the test of time. The Old West surely stands tall as one of them.
Just what is it about the Old West that seems to have immunized it from the death knell known as “going out of style?” Of course it is a richly multifaceted world with lots to grab onto – the characters, the landscape, the places, the lifestyle and the lore to name a few. That can also be said, however, about completely fictional worlds that rise to stardom in literature and on the screen, whether they be in outer space, middle earth or any one of myriad others. And there’s the clue that we’re looking for.
Nobody made up the Old West. That is not to say that the characters, places, stories and events that comprise it have not been embellished, exaggerated, sensationalized or even completely twisted in many cases. That is inevitable with humans at the helm of passing pieces of history through time. Morphed as some of its elements may be, however, while the Old West arguably is as unknown and mysterious in some ways as any purely fictional world, it is at the same time something that we all know to have been truly real.
You might be asking, “So what does being real have to do with anything?” Well, you can’t maintain relevance and popularity unless both the consumer and the creator are working together in good spirits. Essential as it may be, having a potentially receptive audience is only half of the battle in any successful genre, for if no artist will make the effort to produce something to read or watch, there is nothing for any audience to see.
Being real means that it’s all right there in front of us. Do you need a setting? Are you worried about what your characters might wear or carry around with them? Do you wonder how they’ll get from place to place? When you start from ground zero in a world that no one knows, all of those duties fall squarely on the shoulders of the creator. When you write about the Old West, all of those matters safely can be ignored – you can use all of the old standbys for that mundane stuff and focus all of your real creative energy on the story and its characters. That is not to say that artists are always just looking for the easy way out, but it sure does help sometimes if some of the heavy lifting already is done for you.
What does being real mean to the audience? That is what makes the Old West one of the very few ways in the modern world that we can maintain a connection with our past. Connections not just with the history of our North American land, but also personal connections with our parents, grandparents and others who have gone before us in our lives and whom we remember fondly. As the world of media continues to accelerate toward mind-numbing speed, we truly share less and less with older generations than ever before.
We likely aren’t listening to music with grandma or grandpop tonight, and it is just as unlikely that we will be playing video games with mom or dad this weekend. Yeah, you might try to fake it just for the sake of spending time together, but I’m talking about everyone truly enjoying the exercise. There is, however, a reasonable chance that we all can sit down together and enjoy a good Western, almost regardless of the era from which it came. We all probably can enjoy reading a Western-themed novel, or even the charm of a good Western art exhibit. No, we might not know each other’s music, games or social media proclivities, but we all know the Old West. It isn’t something that somebody just came up with. It was real then, it’s real now and it always will be real.
Thinking about trying to lose touch with the Old West just to prove me wrong? Good luck with that. Generations after generations of creators continue to reprise it, and almost always with commercial success, despite the occasional flop. Its images were cemented in film in the earliest days of the art form. Through the 40’s and 50’s, some of greatest heroes ever to grace North America’s screens rode to fame in the Old West. Yet another rash in the 60’s and 70’s with a whole new cast of characters. It continued through the 80’s and 90’s with new makes and remakes.
While new centuries have a habit of leaving the past behind, that didn’t happen with the Old West. Throughout the first decade of the 2000’s, the Old West still was going strong on the screen. And if you think everyone was going to wear out at some point, you ought to consider that the ultra-popular Westworld ranks as the most watched first season of an HBO original series ever. Not only has the genre remained strong on the screen for getting on 100 years now, but a good argument can be made that the Old West has proliferated even more in the written word, whether it be fiction or not.
So, don’t get tired of it. Just get used to it and be happy we have it to enjoy. Enjoy it just yourself and with those who came both before and after you. It’s still real and real things are getting harder and harder to come by.
Romey Connell is the author of Elvis the Gunslinger, the riotous tale of a gun-toting, fast-talking Catanova in an alternative Old West.