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For more than a century the cinematic Western has been America’s most familiar genre, always teetering on the verge of exhaustion and yet regularly revived in new forms. Why does this outmoded vehicle—with the most narrowly based historical setting of any popular genre—maintain its appeal? In Late Westerns Lee Clark Mitchell takes a position against those critics looking to attach “post” to the all-too-familiar genre. For though the frontier disappeared long ago, though men on horseback have become commonplace, and though films of all sorts have always, necessarily, defied generic patterns, the Western continues to enthrall audiences. It does so by engaging narrative expectations stamped on our collective consciousness so firmly as to integrate materials that might not seem obviously “Western” at all.
Through plot cues, narrative reminders, and even cinematic frameworks, recent films shape interpretive understanding by triggering a long-standing familiarity audiences have with the genre. Mitchell’s critical analysis reveals how these films engage a thematic and cinematic border-crossing in which their formal innovations and odd plots succeed deconstructively, encouraging by allusion, implication, and citation the evocation of generic meaning from ingredients that otherwise might be interpreted quite differently. Applying genre theory with close cinematic readings, Mitchell posits that the Western has essentially been “post” all along.