More Westerns Amble Out of Tinsel Town

THE release of "Unforgiven" raises the question of what makes a popular western in this day and age.

If horse operas have been an iffy proposition for the past 15 years, the successful ones must have had special circumstances working for them. By this hypothesis, "Young Guns" did well because of its young heart-throb cast, "Dances With Wolves" because of its maturity and seriousness.

Other westerns have borrowed ingredients from different genres - fantasy in "Back to the Future Part 3" and animation in "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West," for example. Still others focus on modern problems ("Thunderheart") or take their cue from major literary works, like "The Last of the Mohicans," a James Fenimore Cooper adaptation with Daniel Day Lewis as the celebrated scout Hawkeye.

In any case, more "oaters" are on the way. In addition to "Mohicans," directed by Michael Mann and due in theaters soon, industry watcher Anne Thompson lists "Hickok and Cody," starring Harrison Ford, and "Geronimo," directed by Walter Hill, among several western projects now working their way through Hollywood's production pipeline.

While the western refuses to lie down and play dead, however, it hasn't regained the robust health of bygone times, either. What caused its decline?

One theory holds that science fiction nudged it out of the popular imagination - beginning in 1977 when "Star Wars" blasted off, replacing horses with spaceships and sixguns with light sabers in an adventure strongly influenced by "The Searchers," a classic John Ford western.

Other critics suggest that ambitious flops like "Heaven's Gate," which lost some $44 million, and "Silverado," a more modest failure, laid the genre low.

Still others blame the onslaught of revisionist "antiwesterns" in the 1960s and 1970s, from "The Wild Bunch" to the European-made "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone.

Compared with those efforts, "Unforgiven" draws far more heavily on the heritage of old Hollywood westerns, which Mr. Eastwood evidently sees as a still-vibrant phenomenon with solid commercial possibilities. Whether he's correct about this in 1992, only time and the box office will tell.

What's certain is that Eastwood has directed the picture with the same energy and conviction that marked his earlier excursions into the West, from the offbeat "High Plains Drifter" to the sardonic "Bronco Billy," and that he is absolutely sincere in his ongoing affection for the western genre.

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