The traditional western tended to view things in black vs. white terms and was mostly affirmative.
Traditional westerns honored “the verities” (themselves the product of pulp romancers)–face-to-face Main Street showdowns vs. back alley ambushes \ the inevitable triumph of the Right (as defined by majority sensibilities \ white man–good; Indian–bad \ outlaws “driven to it” by banks, railroads, etc.).
BUT there were always exceptions (even in humble Tim Holt westerns sheriffs could frequently be seen as bad eggs in league with crooked bankers, land-grabbers, etc.). “Psychological westerns” began casting shadows on the otherwise sunny scene (“Pursued” with its emotionally scarred and confused hero; “The Man from Colorado” with its psychotic Federal judge; “Ramrod” with its duplicitous “heroine”–and then there were the Mann-Stewart westerns).
Revisionist westerns re-wrote many of the old rules–heroes could be outrightly amoral; outlaws no longer needed justification for their anti-social behavior; romance rarely entered into it–and when it was present it was usually obsessive or twisted; “happy endings need not apply” (think “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” without the climactic laughter.)
To a certain extent “revisionist westerns” always existed, but as isolated phenomena–Edward L. Cahn’s 1932 film “Law and Order” was a revisionist western long before its time and both Selznick’s notorious “Duel in the Sun” and Gerd Oswald’s lesser-known “Valerie” dealt with twisted and obsessive love affairs.
Politics rears its head as well, with revisionist westerns often seen as “leftist”–anti-law-and-order, anti-Vietnam war, anti-America the Beautiful–the traditional western became “right-wing” almost by default–although its champions (John Wayne, John Ford, Howard Hawks) no doubt helped that identification along. But here too, nothing is simple. Ford and Wayne made one of the great revisionist westerns–“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”–although its version of revisionism was more comforting than troubling. One man (Wayne’s go-it-alone rancher Tom Doniphon) suffers nobly so that another (James Stewart’s communitarian “pilgrim” Ransom Stoddard) can go on to help create a new, tamed west. Compare this to a film like Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” where Gabriele Ferzetti’s crippled empire-builder Morton dies in a puddle of dirty water and the “hero” (Charles Bronson’s enigmatic Harmonica) only hastens his own extinction in a west that no longer needs men like him to rid it of men like Henry Fonda’s Frank, Morton’s hired killer. The fact that some of the most prominent revisionist westerns came from European directors–mostly Italian, but some Spaniards, Brits and U.S. ex-pats as well) also helped along the inference that these new-style westerns were somehow “un-American.”
The crux of the Traditional vs. Revisionist issue involves the questions who “owns” History and what uses do we make of it? The sunnyside approach allows the ancient pieties to be maintained and so History morphs into Heritage. Revisionism throws a harsher light on these pieties of both the Left and the Right. If Indians were wantonly killed, what does that make settlers? Alternately (in films like “Major Dundee” and “Ulzana’s Raid”) if Indians were themselves wanton killers, what does that do to the notion of their victimization? If lawmen were really thugs-for-hire what becomes of our notion of Justice? It’s comforting to see Wyatt Earp portrayed as an immaculately-clad, clean-shaven fellow nick-named “Deacon” for his upright lifestyle. To see him as a mustachioed part-time gambler and hireling of one political faction to assist it in settling scores with “the loyal opposition” is disturbing. Seeing the shootout at the O.K. Coral as five minutes of pure action-choreography is exhilarating. seeing it as a quick-as-a-flash street-shooting, as happens every day in too many of our own cities, is not. Audiences don’t necessarily like their Wyatts portrayed as cold-eyed, vengeful men.
I suspect there will always be those who want their movies to be comfort food and the traditional western works just fine for them. For those who enjoy the occasional troubling notion there’s the revisionist western.