THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN – FROM GLENN FORD TO LONGMIRE

Longmire – the acclaimed Western crime drama now in its second season on A&E – represents the most recent form of a Western that often serves to draw new viewers to the genre – the Contemporary Western. This writer defines a contemporary Western as a Western that is set in the time that it is made. Longmire is set in the Wyoming and West of today and thus mixes Western landscapes, history and long-standing models for behavior with the issues and technological ‘patina’ of today.

Katee Sackhoff and Robert Taylor in Longmire

In this writer’s view, it is problematic to use the term contemporary Western to describe Westerns currently being made but that are set in the past. The term has been applied to AMC’s Hell on Wheels by some reviewers but it is more helpful to view Hell on Wheels as a historical or “Old West” Western series – a TV Western series set in the past – that is currently being produced.

Past examples of contemporary Western films would include Lonely Are the Brave (1962), starring Kirk Douglas, which sees the difficulty of a cowboy trying to carry the Old West way of living forward into the New Mexico of 1962.

The contemporary Western is a rich canvass for exploring issues that connect the West of the past to the West (and North America) of today – relationship to the environment, relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, notions of personal freedom and movement. For example, in Longmire, the historical treaty relationship maps out the jurisdictional boundaries between the county overseen by Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) and the local Cheyenne reservation protected by Officer Mathias (Zahn McClarnon), chief of the tribal police.

The great Glenn Ford also contributed to the canon of the contemporary Western in a short-lived yet noteworthy TV series entitled Cade’s County. This Western crime drama ran for one season (24 episodes) from 1971-72 on CBS.

As Walt Longmire is the sheriff of a fictional county (Absaroka), so too was Sheriff Sam Cade (Ford) – Cade oversaw a fictional Madrid County. Interestingly, while the state of Longmire’s county is highlighted (Wyoming), the state in which Cade works is never named. The geography of Madrid County would indicate a location in the Southwest.

Alongside his chief deputy, played by Edgar Buchanan, Cade mixed modern law enforcement techniques with an understanding of his area of the West – Glenn Ford’s character travelled by jeep across the rugged terrain. The series had a number of Indigenous characters, which included deputies of Cade. Cade did not have a wife nor was there any mention of his family during the series.

The following clip, with theme song composed by Henry Mancini, was the opening for Cade’s County:

The next episode of A&E’s Longmire airs this Monday, June 10th at 10pm EST/9pm CST. Official information about the series can be found this link: Longmire

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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2 thoughts on “THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN – FROM GLENN FORD TO LONGMIRE

  1. I find the contemporary or modern western a fascinating little sub-genre. It’s an interesting way of drawing audiences who may not necessarily be familiar with more traditional westerns into the genre.

    Martin Ritt’s Hud and Jack Arnold’s Man in the Shadow are among the examples of these that I like. Personally, I also reckon John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock qualifies, though others have disagreed with me on that one.

    In light of the topic and your mention of Glenn Ford, I wonder if you’re familiar with Lust for Gold – it tells a traditional “old west” western within a contemporary framing device.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Colin. I am also a fan of Hud (1963) and share that film with my students as an example of different generational approaches within a contemporary Western. I have not viewed the Glenn Ford film you mention but will look into it.

    Thanks!
    Chad

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