Despite a burst of good A-westerns after World War II, the western movie genre fell into immediate trouble. The rise of TV ended the market for B-westerns in theaters. Studios sold their old B-actioners to the new competitor for countless "Cowboy Corral" and "Sagebrush Roundup" shows.
Old-timers like Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele and Buck Jones got new exposure (but no residuals), and clever stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and William Boyd not only released their old pictures but made new series especially for television. New stars like James Garner, Steve McQueen and James Arness were created by TV, and some even became successful in A-western features. The domination of 1950s TV by western series ended the Saturday afternoon matinees and retired most of the old crop of western stars.
Only three continued their careers into the 1960s ñ John Wayne; Bob Steele, who became a character actor, sustaining a career which began in 1926 silents; and Randolph Scott, who made a final series of seven tough, existential features with director Budd Boeticher and an elegiac farewell with Joel McCrea for Sam Peckinpah called "Ride the High Country" (1962).
Fortunately for western movie fans, John Wayne defied the 1960s backlash against TVs western glut; and stars like Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, Glenn Ford, Rock Hudson, Jimmy Stewart, Audie Murphy, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and others made some excellent A-features throughout the period.
They were joined by a new crop of stars who abandoned TV for the big screen, led by James Garner and Steve McQueen but which included two TV vets who detoured to Europe to make their names ñCharles Bronson and Clint Eastwood.
As U.S. studios made fewer westerns, Italy became a major force in their production. These so-called "spaghetti westerns" used third-rank American stars with Italian supporting casts dubbed into English, and were shot mostly in Spain. They were often bleak, usually violent, with heroes who were scarcely better than the villains. Sergio Leone was a leading director of these and hired Eastwood, who had co-starred on "Rawhide" as Rowdy Yates (CBS TV 1959-66), to star as the Man with No Name. "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) ñ Leones retelling of Akira Kurosawas samurai picture "Yojimbo"ñ became an international blockbuster and was followed by two sequels. Nearly all American westerns made after 1964 were influenced by the "spaghetti westerns." Eastwood became a top-ranked star and eventually his own director. Like John Wayne, his chief competitor n the 60s and 70s, Eastwood also played other successful, non-saddle roles. Most notable was Dirty Harry Callahan, the rogue San Francisco cop, in a series of violent, anti-Establishment films.
Unlike Wayne, however, Eastwood had a grimmer vision of the West. Until his last picture, the Duke played an old-fashioned knight of the saddle who believed in the myths of the Old West. Eastwood evolved into a dark, ambiguous figure, an apocalyptical avenging angel ñ especially when he directed his own projects such as "High Plains Drifter," "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Pale Rider." Although his non-westerns varied from shadowy violence to comedy, Eastwood followed in the path of director John Ford, whose attitude toward the West grew bleaker toward the end of his career ñ and which ironically gave John Wayne two of his best roles in "The Searchers" (1956) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962).
In 1992, Eastwood made "Unforgiven," which many critics called "the last western." A grim examination of the myths of the West, it includes whores, a violent sheriff, a reformed killer, a legendary gunman, and a sleazy Ned Buntline-type writer who is out to capture the glory of the dying West. None is admirable and none of them fares particularly well; but the picture caught Hollywoods fancy as well as the publics. It was a box office smash despite its violence and won an Academy Award as Best Picture as well as Oscars for Eastwood as Best Director and Gene Hackman as Best Supporting Actor.
With that, Eastwood hung up his saddle.
Hed made his statement on the ugliness and hypocrisy of the Old West and he apparently found nothing further to say. However, with John Wayne dead, no other star or producer was capable of providing a film western which could add anything or challenge Eastwoods movie.
In effect, Eastwood had killed the western genre after 90 years of American success.
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