One of my favorite classes in college centered on westerns in literature and film, the cowboy life and values taught in those art forms.
The books read and movies viewed - think “The Virginian,” “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “True Grit” - shared lessons about fortitude, what it took growing up on the wide open plains; justice, who determined punishment for crimes against humanity and how lawfulness was enforced and family dynamics, how families worked through less-than-desirable conditions to establish homesteads and a means of income.
The class provided an interesting glimpse at life in our country’s early stages and how choices charted the future.
Lately, Scott and I have been on a western kick when it comes to viewing choices.
There’s plenty to pick from.
Earlier this year, we watched “Godless,” a Netflix series about a town named La Belle, primarily inhabited by women after a silver mining explosion kills the majority of the town’s men.
We’ve tuned in for the majority of “Longmire,” a modern-day mashup of western and police drama, featuring a sheriff, his officers and relationships between modern-yet-rural Wyoming and neighboring Native tribes and traditions.
If you include “The Ranch” in the genre, we tend to binge watch. Who doesn’t wonder how the antics of Colt and Abby and the rest of the Bennet clan and their ranch will play out?
Other series come to mind: “Yellowstone,” “Westworld” and “Hell on Wheels,” to name a few.
We aren’t the only ones watching.
According to The Washington Post, 4.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of “Yellowstone,” which stars Kevin Costner as the family patriarch attempting to navigate Montana’s frontier.
Why the upswing in popularity?
The popularity of westerns in the movie theater runs in cyclical fashion. During the 1950s, rugged westerns were all the rage before shifting to spaghetti westerns, then trailing down a dusty path to obscurity, until all-time favorite western star Clint Eastwood produced “Unforgiven” in 1992.
The simple difference may be the time period.
Instead of busting up Dodge City’s Main Street, westerns are set on the western slope of the Rockies, the open expanses of Wyoming and Montana or a future wild, wild west.
I think there’s more to it.
It’s about the message.
Those same lessons - justice, fortitude and family dynamics - remain pertinent. Current westerns promote empathy and understanding between characters and cultures, even in the face of adversity.
Storytelling focuses on the human condition. Westerns portray varying levels of betrayal and redemption, common themes played out among us every day.
And, there’s usually characters at each end of the spectrum, a hero donning a white cowboy hat and the sneering villain, dressed in black.
For me, the allure of the western is the myth of the great American frontier, moving into uncharted territory, struggling with choices between right and wrong, reconciling moral decisions bordering on shades of gray and how choices construct destiny.
It’s fiction mirroring society, a frontier worth exploring.