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Kevin Costner’s no great fan of westerns. So how come he’s making another one?

Donald Clarke: The actor left Yellowstone to direct Horizon: An American saga. It seems the deadest of genres has risen from the grave again

Has the deadest of dead genres risen from the grave again? Sit by the fire, pardner, and I’ll tell you a tale.

This time last year, visiting Los Angeles, I found myself in an enlightening conversation with a taxi driver. We are often a bit up ourselves about the good people of Southern California, but you can count on them still to care about movies and TV. “I saw a really good Irish film the other day,” he said. “What was it called again?” He was talking about the Oscar-nominated The Quiet Girl, as An Cailín Ciúin was titled in those territories. He went on to jaw about other current projects that had caught his eye. One auteur in particular sent him into flights of uninhibited eulogy. Taylor Sheridan could do no wrong.

Sheridan couldn’t quite call himself a household name. But he has an Oscar nomination – for writing Hell or High Water – and has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in contemporary television. Yellowstone, a rancher drama somewhat in the style of Dallas, premiered on the Paramount Network in 2018 and went on to become a substantial hit. Two prequel series, 1883 and 1923, set in those years, arrived in 2021 and 2022. (Apologies for the calendar soup.)

Buffs get in a huge tizzy when defining the western. Though featuring cattle, guns and men in big hats, Yellowstone will still be excluded by the most pernickety for daring to take place in the present day. They may still scowl at 1923, but 1883, following settlers on their way from Tennessee to Montana, could hardly be more firmly in the western genre. It has duels, river crossings and geezers chewing tobacco. Many critics hate it (for reasons we’ll get to). I thought it was a stormer. It is available here on the Paramount+ service.


Because the United States is now obsessed with its own divisions, Yellowstone’s success was quickly weaponised. “The cowboy soap speaks the language of culture war with a perfect accent,” the New York Times claimed. “Is Yellowstone a Red-State Show?” Time asked teasingly. I’m pretty sure my driver, who told me he was raised in south central Los Angeles, would not be among those so classifying it. Sheridan followed that show up with Lawman: Bass Reeves, starring David Oyelowo as the real-life first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi.

The whisper that the western really is back increased in volume last week with splendid footage of a Yellowstone alumnus in action. In late 2023 it was announced that Kevin Costner, who played the domineering John Dutton, would be leaving the series because of scheduling conflicts with his own big-screen cowboy saga. Horizon: An American Saga is a two-part epic following an array of characters through the American civil war. Sienna Miller, Danny Huston and Sam Worthington are among those taking Costner’s direction. The films will be released in June and August.

A glance at the promos suggests that, in certain key regards, Horizon inhabits the same aesthetic universe as 1883 and Bass Reeves. Over the past 50 years, as the western lost its status as every kid’s favourite genre, critics came to prefer such projects to be hard-edged, dirty and, as often as not, “revisionist”. Teeth were muddied up. Hair was scuffed. Accommodation was rude. The fine TV series Deadwood was just such an anti-Roy Rogers. Reviewers loved it, but it was gone after three series.

There is a fair bit of misery in the trailer for Horizon. But it looks a damn sight shinier than Deadwood. No bootblack has had their way with Miller’s incisors. Costner’s nice blue coat could be from the Abercrombie & Fitch Pioneer line. None of which is meant as criticism. Gritty pseudo-revisionism is no better or worse than the qualified romanticism John Ford embraced in the 1940s. The point is that Costner appears to be working on the assumption there is still an audience for the mainstream western played straight (not wiggly like spaghetti).

That actor and director won a hatful of Oscars for Dances with Wolves in 1990. Clint Eastwood took a few more for Unforgiven two years later. But the genre really has not been at the front of the conversation in more than half a century. The war film did for it. Then cultural revolutions of the 1960s put in the boot. It became your dad’s favourite tipple. Then your grandad’s. Then nobody’s. The genre may not even have been Costner’s favourite. “There are really only 10 or 15 westerns that I have liked throughout my life,” he told me 20 years ago. “The rest of them were mostly rubbish.”

We travel in the hopeful expectation of one more by the end of year.