The heroes of Ride The High Country - these old, decrepit men doing a dirty job in a thankless world - seem far more real, far more sympathetic than today's crop of superheroes and supermen. Why is this? Am I alone in finding modest, self reliant outsiders far more charismatic and engaging than Spiderman, Jason Bourne or any of the cast members of Avatar? Here's my two penny's worth...
The events of the first sixty years of the 20th century showed us that the actions of one man can't explain the events of history (something Tolstoy mentions repeatedly in War and Peace, which I'll get around to blogging about when I finally finish it...). Two world wars, the depression, the cold war, Korea, Vietnam - all were monumental occurrences that where the backdrop to all forms of art from 1900 - 1960. Yet, it seems to me at least, that the protagonists and heroes of popular film in the first half of the century always seemed to be concerned with more personal, intimate forms of heroism. The effect on human lives of these seemingly immovable, unavoidable shifts in history is far more engaging and illustrative of the human condition than any story of some all powerful super-human fighting machine, who not only saves himself and the girl but manages to keep the course of history running smoothly, never letting it invade the lives of the little people down below.
What I find remarkable is that the popular entertainment of the time - westerns, noir, even musicals - embodied this feeling of personal heroism and victory and remained immensely popular. You can still find such films today, but they tend to be small independently produced affairs with very little distribution. The audience, it would seem, has tired of modest heroism. (Either that, or, star struck by the spectacle of increasingly preposterous CGI and galactic heroism, audiences flock to the next blockbuster which inevitably costs ten times as much as a small picture like Ride the High Country to produce. Subsequently the next big film has to be hyped up as much as possible to generate revenue and ticket sales, with all that time and money being invested in relatively few films. I think I'm digressing from my original point....)
This could go some way to explain the decline of the western form (as well as noir and musicals - who can save the world with a dance?). The West is a hermetic landscape, very little changes, and if too much is changed then it ceases to be a western. No cowboy could save the world - the most he can hope for is to end the rule of a ruthless cattle baron or local hoodlum. But then, couldn't we? Corporations and politicians have been brought down by ordinary individuals. Gangsters and criminals have been stopped by local heroes. These things can and do happen and when represented on screen or on the page they provide so much more fulfillment and entertainment than a vacuous metal suit flying through the air.