The American frontier was an exhilarating time in history where European colonial settlements established western territories throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. This is ultimately where the American Dream was born and anyone was given the chance to become successful if they had the willpower to push through.
Of course, the Wild West was definitely not all sunshine and rainbows – but throughout the years it has been glamorised in popular culture due to the lawlessness and freedom of the era. From the early inception of cinema to the late 1960s, the Wild West was one of the biggest genres that always guaranteed a huge box office.
Some of the biggest films included Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, Red River, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and High Noon. By the 1970s, audiences were beginning to grow tired of the genre and there was a huge decline in the number of successful films and television shows focusing on the Wild West.
Thankfully, within the past few years, there has been a slight increase in the number of films, videogames and even songs inspired by Wild West. Not only has the quantity of products based on the American frontier increased, but most have been successful and well-received by people.
This article will examine if there has been a revival of the Wild West in popular culture and dive into the reasons why the genre could have a comeback within the next few decades.
Bigger than ever in gaming
When the Wild West really began to decline in the 1970s, video games had only just started to make waves. Gaming companies such as Sega, Sony and Nintendo gained household recognition by the end of the 1990s and the popularity of the Wild West was long gone by this point.
During the early 1990s and 2000s, there were only a handful of video games inspired by the Wild West with stand-out titles such as Wild Guns, Sunset Riders and Wild Arms. It was only within the past 10 years that the Wild West really found a home in video games with Red Dead Redemption II and Desperados III.
Red Dead Redemption II broke several records and had the second-biggest launch in the history of entertainment with $725 million in the opening weekend. The game received both critical and public acclaim showing just how popular the Wild West can be. Throughout the rest of 2022, there are now multiple video games inspired by the Wild West set to be released such as Weird West, Salt and Sacrifice and Live A Live.
There also seems to be a revival within the iGaming world as Wild West slots are incredibly popular at the moment with big hits such as Wanted Dead or a Wild, Tombstone RIP and Wild Duel to name a few of the latest releases. Wanted Dead or a Wild is one of the most popular slots released within the last couple of years joining the long list of popular Wild West slots such as Dead or Alive 2, Money Train and Deadwood.
It seems that the American frontier remains popular within both the video game and iGaming industry as it’s still a relatively new concept. Early cinema was literally made up of Wild West films and remained popular for almost 70 years. During this time, audiences were naturally fed up with the same old story and yearned for something more which is exactly what happened in the early 2010s.
A new take on Wild West movies
From the 70s until the early 2010s, there were films set in the Wild West – but the genre itself was hanging on by a threat. It wasn’t until the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit novel, that Western films found new life.
The 2010 version of True Grit is the second adaptation of the novel and a more faithful one at that. In the later version, the characters are more torn and twisted showing actual flaws, making them more redeemable. Whilst, the original is a beloved classic, the new adaptation is grittier and showed audiences that the Wild West was not just made up of flawless heroes.
This re-ignited the popularity of the Wild West and showed it in a completely different light. Following True Grit, many other directors saw the appetite for Western films and decided to meet the demand. Meek’s Cutoff, The Homesman, Hostels, The Sisters Brothers and Slow West were just a handful of Western films that focused on the tragedy of the American frontier instead of the glamourous cowboys – which is what people wanted.
Similarly, other directors took Western films in a new direction by completely shaking up the typical format. Most people expect Wild West films to contain a predominantly white male hero, but this can get quite repetitive. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Jeymes Samuel shook up the narrative with Django Unchained and The Harder They Fall.
These films focus on black heroes and show a better representation of the Wild West. Of course, it wasn’t common for a slave to enact revenge in true Tarantino style – but it showed the Wild West was not just made up of white cowboys. Ultimately, the changes from Western films in modern-day cinema are definitely welcomed by audiences and critics.
The newly released cowboy film, The Power of the Dog, has dominated the awards season and has continued to rank at the top of Netflix’s trending section. This film focuses on sexual repression and resentment instead of traditional Western tropes such as honour and revenge.
It’s clear to see the demand for Western films is different from the golden era of cinema. People want films focusing on actual people and not caricature heroes that are simply one-note. Audiences have changed and adapted over the years, and the new revival shows this.
Whilst it’s clear there is a revival within the popularity of the Wild West, the Western films that are popular now are radically different from the ones in the past. Films based around the American frontier prior to the 1970s were often based on tough cowboys and the glamour of the Wild West.
Audiences obviously grew tired of tired old tropes in the film world, but there is room for this in video games and iGaming. That’s why there have been so many recent video games and online slots based around the Wild West.
As for the Wild West in present-day movies, there is a clear shift towards darker and emotionally driven films that truly dissect the characters and the reality of the frontier. That’s not to say that old fashioned ‘cowboys’ films are gone forever – but they will never be as popular as they once were.