The revisionist Western (sometimes called the anti-Western) is a sub-genre of the Western film which developed in the 1960s after the Hays Code restrictions were relaxed. It is perceived as a post-classical variation of the traditional Western, the myth and romance of which it subverts to present a more realistic view of life in the "Old West", as in Hombre (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Films like these are also called psychological Westerns because of their focus on character at the expense of thrills and action. From the 1960s, Westerns are usually a fusion of the two sub-genres but the psychological Western began in the 1940s as a character-driven variation of the traditional Western, as in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and High Noon (1952).
The traditional Western typically features a strong male lead character, often a lawman or cavalry officer, who takes direct action on behalf of supposedly civilised people against those deemed to be uncivilised. The former are portrayed as honest townsfolk or travellers, the latter as outlaws or hostile Native Americans.
In the revisionist Western, the traditional format and themes are subverted by such devices as the Native American protagonist; strong female characters; the outlaw protagonist; plots that are pre-eminently concerned with survival in a wild environment; or the presentation of a morally ambiguous storyline without definite heroes, these often featuring the so-called anti-hero or a sympathetic villain. The object is to blur the traditionally clear boundaries between "right" and "wrong" (the "good guy" against the "bad guy") by emphasising the need for survival amidst ambiguity.
The traditional Western treats characters in simplistic terms as good or bad with minimal character development. The psychological Western, which began in the 1940s and was hugely popular through the 1950s and 1960s, prioritises character development ahead of action whilst retaining most of the traditional aspects. For the most part, the psychological Western morphed into the revisionist Western as censorship restrictions were relaxed and removed in the 1960s.
Shane (1953; directed by George Stevens) is a psychological Western. The title character (Alan Ladd) seems at first to be a traditional Western drifter riding across a traditional Western landscape but it is soon apparent that he has entered a complex setting which is populated by, as Kim Newman puts it, "believable characters with mixed motives". Even though rancher Riker (Emile Meyer) is ostensibly the villain of the piece, he makes the point that he has striven for thirty years to develop the cattle range which is now being taken over by fence-building "sodbusters", many of whom have the mixed motives noted by Newman. Despite the complexity of its characters, Shane is nevertheless filmed in a conventional setting and ends with the hero outshooting and killing the three main villains before riding away to an uncertain future. There is, however, an element of revisionism in the ending when the disillusioned Shane tells Riker that he knows his day as a gunfighter is over. He then vanishes while farmer Starrett (Van Heflin) and his family endure.
Shane is a psychological Western with many of the trappings of a traditional one. Fifteen years later, Sergio Leone directed Once Upon a Time in the West, a revisionist Western which completely subverts the traditional with complex characters and multiple plot devices, the key one being revenge – the motive of enigmatic gunfighter Harmonica (Charles Bronson). As in Shane, it is not the gunfighters who "inherit the West" but in this case the compassionate town-building ex-whore Jill (Claudia Cardinale). By the end of the film, all of the antagonists except Harmonica are dead, and he rides away like Shane to an uncertain future.
Opinion is divided on the origin of the revisionist or psychological Western but it is generally agreed that there were hints of a darker perspective in some films of the 1930s such as Westward Ho (1935), directed by Robert N. Bradbury and starring John Wayne, in which the hero leads a band of vigilantes on a quest for revenge. Westward Ho is the earliest film in AllMovie's list of revisionist Westerns. The earliest films classified by AllMovie as psychological Westerns are The Ox-Bow Incident and The Outlaw (both 1943).
Many of the films were produced in the 1950s during the milieu of McCarthyism and attempted to strike back against blacklisting of the film industry at that time, notably High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper. By the time of the loosening, and later abolition, of the restrictive Hays Code in the 1960s, many directors of the New Hollywood generation such as Sam Peckinpah, George Roy Hill, and Robert Altman focused on the Western and each produced their own classics in the genre, including Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Meanwhile, European directors such as Sergio Leone had been making Western films unencumbered by American expectations nor Hays Code inspired censorship, and these "Spaghetti Westerns" also provided a new perspective on the Western genre. The revisionist and psychological Westerns have been carried forward from their own standard settings into the Neo-western, a notable of which is the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007), based on the work of Cormac McCarthy, an author known for writing revisionist Western literature, such as the novel Blood Meridian.
Most Westerns from the 1960s to the present have revisionist themes. Many were made by emerging major film-makers who saw the Western as an opportunity to expand their criticism of American society and values into a new genre. The 1952 Supreme Court holding in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, and later, the end of the Production Code in 1968 broadened what Westerns could portray and made the revisionist Western a more viable genre.
Beginning in the late 1960s, independent filmmakers produced revisionist and hallucinogenic films, later retroactively identified as the separate but related subgenre of "Acid Westerns,” that radically turn the usual trappings of the Western genre inside out to critique both capitalism and the counterculture. Monte Hellman's The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970), Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972), Alex Cox's Walker (1987), and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) fall into this category. Films made during the early 1970s are particularly noted for their hyper-realistic photography and production design. Other films, such as those directed by Clint Eastwood, were made by professionals familiar with the Western as a criticism and expansion against and beyond the genre. Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Unforgiven (1992) made use of strong supporting roles for women and Native Americans.
Foreign markets, which had imported the Western since their silent film inception, began creating their own Westerns and, in the 1960s, a new brand of Western emerged in Europe as an offshoot of the Revisionist Western. The Italian movie industry was foremost in the production of these films, although they were mostly shot in Spanish locations. As a result, they came to be known as "Spaghetti Westerns", disparagingly at first. Director Sergio Leone played a seminal role in this movement and a subtle theme of the conflict between Anglo and Hispanic cultures plays through his Western movies. Leone conceived of the Old West as a dirty place filled with morally ambivalent figures, and this aspect of the Spaghetti Western came to be one of its universal attributes.