Everybody’s West: 2024 will be remembered as a bellwether year for diversity in Western film productions and subject matter.
“Compared to the 20th century, where there was a bottlenecking [of] history into one particular pathway, in the 21st century, there are so many open pathways to such a diverse series of stories that I think a retelling of the story of the West, and being able to bring in some of these traditionally marginalized communities, has been long overdue.”
—Dom Flemons, musician, narrator of The Real Wild West.
In case you were wondering how deeply cowboy culture has lately made inroads into mainstream culture, Crocs, the clog shoe company, has issued its first cowboy boot—with spurs! (A resulting much–Googled question was, “What are spurs for?”) The past year’s entertainment industry strikes, which began with the Writers Guild’s walk-out on May 2, 2023, and ended with the Screen Actors Guild’s return on November 9, 2023, resulting in an endless cycle of reruns, and a plethora of mind-numbing game shows, was an inconvenience to most viewers. But it was a boost to the Western TV profile, and a bounteous feast to CBS, which ran Yellowstone, the only “new” dramatic network programming and thus the only game in town.
Yellowstone is, of course, in its final season, as star Kevin Costner has departed to film his long-envisioned two-part Western epic, Horizon, whose story will cover a 15-year period beginning before the Civil War. It’s planned to be released at the beginning and end of the summer of 2024, and Costner will be joined on-screen by saddle-ready Westerners like Giovanni Ribisi (Cold Mountain), Jeff Fahey (Wyatt Earp), James Russo (Open Range), Luke Wilson (3:10 to Yuma), Michael Rooker (Tombstone), Tatanka Means (Comanche Moon) and Thomas Haden Church (Broken Trail).
1883 was a prequel to Yellow-stone, and this year’s 1923 was a sequel to 1883, following yet another generation of the Dutton clan, led by Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford, and their determination to hang onto the family homestead, now during Prohibition. While mostly in Montana, a son who’s a big-game hunter gave the show a reason to travel to Africa. Unlike 1883, whose ending precluded a sequel, there will definitely be a second season of 1923, although no date has been set. There will almost assuredly be a spinoff of Yellowstone, probably starring Matthew McConaughey, but no more information is available.
The year closed with two high profile successes which each tells an important story about Westerners we haven’t heard enough about. On the big screen, Killers of the Flower Moon is the sixth collaboration of director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio, and Scorsese’s first Western. Based on David Grann’s book, Killers tells the little-known story of the insidious conspiracies surrounding the murders of the oil-rich Oklahoma Osage following World War I. The Western is usually such a face-to-face showdown genre that the details of how the Osage were obliquely swindled, using not only murder, but marriage, diabetes and a paternalistic legal system that left the nouveau riche Oklahoma tribe unable to protect themselves, are mind-blowing. With unprecedented input by the Osage community, the tale is so fascinating, and beautifully photographed, acted, and directed, that it triumphs over its excessive 3½-hour running-time.
On the small screen, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, first of a planned series of historical Western dramas executive produced by Taylor Sheridan, is the first substantial telling of the story of one of the finest lawmen in American history—and the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. It’s a passion project of its star, David Oyelowo, who fought for eight years to get it made before successfully partnering with Sheridan. Originally announced as a follow-up to Sheridan’s magnificent 1883, it is, judging by the first episodes, a worthy successor to that high-watermark in television Westerns. Like 1883, Reeves, created by Chad Feehan, is a physically beautiful production and an enthralling story, combining unflinching violence with humanizing heart.
Another impressive presentation is the four-part documentary series from Curiosity Stream, The Real Wild West, which looks at the Western experiences of Native people, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women. Grammy-winning songster Dom Flemons, who narrates, and wrote the theme song, recalls, “I first was brought onto the project as one of the experts, talking about African-American cowboys and the Black Westward Migration. If you think of the settling of the West as being a phenomenon of only the pioneers and settlers who are mostly white, you [have] a false sense of…the events.” The series examines the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Homestead Act on the settling of the West, and points out that Edison was filming Lakota Ghost Dances just four years after those dances had led to the massacre at Wounded Knee.
One of the more unexpected and impressive Westerns on television this year was a co-production of Amazon and the BBC. The English, a six-part limited series from writer/director Hugo Blick, stars Emily Blunt as an English mother who travels to the American West to investigate the death of her son. Chaske Spenser plays the Pawnee former cavalry scout who helps her. A mystery as well as a Western, shot a little in Oklahoma and a lot in Spain, the story is well-written and original, as are the characters, with memorable performances not only by the stars, but supporting players like Gary Farmer and Kimberly Guerro as desert farmers.
Billy the Kid, the Alberta-lensed series from The Tudors creator Michael Hirst, returned for a second season on MGM +. Like The English, Billy focuses on the clash between Irish and English expatriates in the New World. Starring Tom Blyth, it’s a handsome, well-acted show, but feels out of period in terms of character behavior. Incongruously, the show bestows pop-star status on Billy the Kid before the Lincoln County Wars even begin.
The INSP Channel, which produces more Western and Western-adjacent entertainment than any other outlet, had additional seasons of its very entertaining and informative docudrama series, Wild West Chronicles and Into the Wild Frontier, and its reality competition Ultimate Cowboy Showdown, hosted by Trace Adkins. Wild Frontier has successfully avoided the common Western pitfall of doting on over-familiar Western icons, by focusing on the underutilized mountain man era, and INSP will double-down on that strategy in January of 2024 with the premiere of a new series, Tall Tales of Jim Bridger.
Neal McDonough and Gregory Cruz are back as lawmen John Breaker and Bugle Bearclaw in The Warrant: Breaker Law, INSP’s second feature in their Warrant franchise. They’re coming to the aid of a reluctant Judge Breaker (Bruce Boxleitner), who’s made a dangerous enemy of Dermot Mulroney of the Young Guns films. And Far Haven, stars Longmire’s Bailey Chase as a widowed lawman trying to work his way back into his family’s life, while protecting his hometown from the corrupt characters who are controlling it.
The other period Western series—and in this case the period is the 1970s—Dark Winds, based on the Tony Hillerman mysteries following the exploits of Res police Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McLarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), will be returning to AMC for a third season of Native crime and Southwest atmosphere.
A disappointment for fans of contemporary Westerns series, the darkly comic and gleefully gritty Reservation Dogs will end with its current season, as will the two series based on the writings of C. J. Box, Joe Pickett and Big Sky.
Coming to Disney + from Marvel in January is Echo, a new super-hero series about a girl with a Native background, played by Menominee actress Alaqua Cox who, like her character, is deaf and has a prosthetic leg. Also in the series are Vincent D’Onofrio, Zahn McLarnon, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, and Chaske Spenser.
One of the less-lauded film releases that’s well worth tracking down is the delightful Outlaw Johnny Black. Backdating his hilarious Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, star, director and co-writer Michael Jai White has done the seemingly impossible: made a movie that parodies Westerns films while being one, and a heartfelt one at that. In fact, the flashbacks, which feature Glynn Turman as Johnny’s father, whose murder triggers the story, are played as straight Western drama. Perhaps an omen of good things to come in the sub-genre, in 2024, 31 years after his original Posse, Mario Van Peebles will be releasing his follow-up, Outlaw Posse.
In the decidedly darker drama, Surrounded, a former Buffalo Soldier is heading for Colorado when his stagecoach is ambushed. As the soldier is left alone to guard the surviving outlaw while the others seek help, it becomes a taut physical and psychological duel, especially once the outlaw realizes his captor is actually a woman, played by Letitia Wright.
The Old Way stars Nicholas Cage as a gunman-turned-shopkeeper who is out for revenge when his wife is murdered. What makes this revenge story fresh is that he’s hunting the killers with 12-year-old daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) in tow, plus a strong script and direction, and excellent performances throughout.
Filmmakers learned long ago that having the name of a popular historical character in a film title was like having a famous movie star in the film, but without paying them. Here are the best Western box-office titles of the year: Wyatt Earp and Bass Reeves, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, Butch vs. Sundance, Unforgiven True Grit, and Once Upon a Time in Tombstone.
Best 2023 Western Movie
Killers of the Flower Moon
An aimless World War I veteran (Leonardo DiCaprio) drifts onto the Oklahoma ranch of his beneficent Uncle King (Robert DeNiro), weds a wealthy Osage woman (Lily Gladstone), and is gradually drawn into a homicidal swindle of the oil-rich Osage people.
The Old Way (Saban Films)
Best Western Documentary
The Real Wild West
The film offers a look at the settling of the American West with a focus on the stories of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and women.
Good Ol’ Girls (BullMoose Pictures, Tal Vez Entertainment)
Best TV Western Series
Lawmen: Bass Reeves (Paramount +)
David Oyelowo stars as the man who made the journey from slave to struggling farmer to one of the most effective and fair lawmen in the history of the West, Bass Reeves.
The English (Prime Video)
Best TV Western Movie
The Warrant: Breaker’s Law (INSP)
U.S. Marshall Breaker (Neal McDonough) and his deputy (Gregory Cruz) are transporting a prisoner for trial when they find themselves trapped in a town under siege.
Far Haven (INSP)
Best Western to Stream
Outlaw Johnny Black
In this half Western and half Western Spoof, Michael Jai White stars as Johnny Black, a gunman hunting the man who murdered his father.
The Counterfeit Kid (Falcon 85 Films)
Best Blu-Ray Western Movie
Will Penny (Kino Lorber)
Writer/Director Tom Gries’s masterpiece stars Charlton Heston as an aging cowboy who finds a woman (Joan Hackett) and her son living in his lineman’s cabin, and a lunatic (Donald Pleasance) who wants him dead.
Nevada Smith (Kino Lorber)
Best Western Movie Collection
The Ranown Westerns: Five Films Directed by Budd Boetticher (Criterion Collection)
Mostly shot in Lone Pine, and stunningly restored, these five low-budget Westerns starred Randolph Scott at nearly 60. Most were written by Burt Kennedy, all were directed by Budd Boetticher, and the films were the high watermark for all their careers.
The Cisco Kid 13-Film Western Movie Collection (VCI Entertainment)
Best TV DVD
Bonanza: The Official Complete Series (Paramount/CBS)
All 14 seasons, all 431 episodes of the ground-breaking Western that had the entire family gathered around their first color TV for years, are beautifully restored from 35mm camera negatives, and presented in one immense set, with commentaries and a whole disk of amazing special features.
Dark Winds (AMC)
Best Silent Western
Tom Mix in Sky High and The Big Diamond Robbery (Undercrank Productions)
Ben Model’s exciting piano and organ scores are icing on the cake for this terrific Mix double-feature, with Sky High featuring spectacular photography in the Grand Canyon.
Hoot Gibson in Chip of the Flying U (Alpha Video)
Best Foreign Western
The Head of Joaquin Murietta (Mexico, Prime Video)
While it has precious little to do with the life or even the legend of Joaquin Murietta, this eight-part series is elegantly shot, full of style and action, bravado and fun.
Best Western Film Festival
Lone Pine Film Festival,
Lone Pine, CA
The Western film fest debuted in 1990 and ever since has been one of the most popular and well-attended fests by stars and fans alike. Held the first weekend in October, the festival showcases productions made in the Eastern Sierra, a legacy of filmmaking that goes back more than a century. Each year a major lineup of actors, writers, directors, producers and family members of filmmakers provide unique insights into the history of cinema along with special events and screenings.
Go West Film Festival, Greeley, CO