Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption series likes dwelling on the end of things. Though mostly set in 1911, 2010’s classic Red Dead Redemption offered players several different styles of Western stories, from a sequence set on the game’s equivalent of the high plains frontier with the look and feel of a classic Hollywood oater to a South of the Border excursion reminiscent of a spaghetti Western. But in the game’s final sequence, time catches up with its characters, who start to look out of place in a world filled with newfangled moving pictures and horseless carriages.
That end-of-an-era feeling lent the game an added poignancy and, though set a few years earlier in 1899, the new Red Dead Redemption 2 seems likely to keep that feeling going. One of the few, vague details to emerge about the sequel is that it concerns a moment when, per the trailer “the West had nearly been tamed” and “the age of gunslingers and outlaws had almost passed into myth.”
This isn’t unexplored territory. Stories about the closing of the American frontier, and what’s lost when civilization overtakes previously untamed land, practically constitute a sub-genre of Western movies. Anyone wanting to keep the Red Dead Redemption feeling going between gaming sessions will not want for options. In fact, Red Dead-inspired viewing sessions could double as an opportunity to explore some of the genre’s greatest films.
A good starting point: George Roy Hill’s 1969 classic, in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford play happy-go-lucky outlaws who come to realize the world will soon have no room for them. The banks have gotten harder to rob and the bounty hunters hired to track them down have gotten better and it’s all started to get much less fun and much more dangerous. Newman and Redford are delightful as the quintessential buddy team, but Hill and screenwriter William Goldman find a deep vein of melancholy in the material, particularly in a long mid-film chase sequence through a beautiful Western landscape that both men seem to recognize will double as a farewell tour of the place they love best, even if neither can say it out loud.
The real life Butch and Sundance were part an outlaw gang known as The Wild Bunch, who lend their name, if not much of their story, to another 1969 classic. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch follows a band of outlaws, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, as they attempt one big score before calling it a day. Making matters worse: they’re pursued by an old partner (Robert Ryan) who’s gotten out of the life by going straight and becoming a bounty hunter.
Set in 1913, the film lets a sense of doom hang heavy over its antiheroes, whom Peckinpah treats with affection while doing nothing to hide their moral shortcomings. It’s a magnificent showcase for Peckinpah’s queasily beautiful stylized violence, and a dark, lyrical depiction of a moment in history coming to a violent end, as an age of new weapons and new technology herald the bloody century to come.
Automobiles are among that new technology, and they make appearances in other films by Peckinpah, who made the end of the West a frequent theme. As in the original Red Dead Redemption, they show up in Peckinpah’s 1962 breakthrough film Ride the High Country as a symbol that hero Steve Judd’s (Joel McCrea) era will soon come to a close. Nearly hit by a car when he steps into the street, he’s told, “You’re in the way,” by a cop who looks nothing like an Old West cowboy, and the line sings with added resonance.
In Peckinpah’s 1970 film The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a lighthearted but achingly wistful companion piece to The Wild Bunch, the eponymous drifter played by Jason Robards survives the desert and builds a little empire on an oasis between two desert towns, only to be undone by the coming of the automobile. (The ghost of the Old West haunts some of Peckinpah’s films set in his own era, too, like Junior Bonner, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Convoy.)
Map a Venn diagram of films dealing with the end of the West and the sub-genre that came to be known as the Revisionist Western — films that depicted the Old West by subtracting the expected Hollywood glamour and adding considerable moral ambiguity — and you’ll find a lot of overlap with Italian director Sergio Leone’s stylish, bloody, fly-specked Spaghetti Westerns. After making his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood, Leone directed two more Westerns, both set at the borderland between the Old West and the modern world.
In Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, in a rare villainous turn, engage in a decades-in-the-making revenge struggle while civilization starts to creep in in the background. The implication is hard to miss: their story, their whole way of life, will soon be forgotten by those who take their place. The tumult is even more dramatic in the director’s 1971 follow-up Duck, You Sucker, set in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, a stand-in meant to echo the revolutionary upheavals of the late- ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s as strong a movie as Leone ever made, and one of his least seen.
That so many of these Revisionist Westerns started to appear in the ‘60s, a period that called out all the old ways of doing things and looking at the world into question, is almost certainly no coincidence. Our visions of the West always mirror our own times, be they hopeful or suspicious or some combination of the two. In Robert Altman’s snowy classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the American frontier is a place of freedom and possibility — until it isn’t. Warren Beatty plays a gambler who drifts into the town of Presbyterian Church, Washington, sets up shop as a brothel owner, and finds love with his business partner (Julie Christie) only find it all threatened by the encroachment of businessmen interested in taking over the town whose idea of civilization is backed by money and violence.
But not all end-of-the-West stories deserve the Revisionist label, and it’s also no coincidence that the Hollywood Western would enter into a reflective, elegiac mode as its cultural dominance faded and the stars of its heyday started to age. John Wayne spent his final years taking on roles that made his aging, expanding body part of his characters. But Wayne made himself a symbol of the closing West while he still looked the part in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Wayne plays a rancher who befriends an attorney (James Stewart) whose very arrival suggests his world’s untamed period will soon come to an end — even if the recorded history of how that taming happens will end up shifting the credit away from rough-and-tumble types like himself.
It seems like more than 14 years divides that film and Wayne’s pallid, unforgettable final appearance in Don Siegel’s 1976 Western The Shootist. Wayne, who at this point had health problems for years, plays J.B. Books, a cancer-stricken gunfighter who travels to Carson City, Nevada in 1901 with the intention of dying. But before he can do this, he becomes the idol of a teenaged boy (Ron Howard) who romanticizes the Old West that Books represents, despite Books’ attempts to warn him away from his way of life. Besides, that way was ending, and he was destined to die.
But, as film after film (and now game after game) has shown, there’s a richness and beauty to be found in last round-ups and final sunsets.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.