Kevin Costner will either save the Western or kill them off entirely

Jessica Cullen
Kevin Costner in Horizon, wearing a cowboy hat and looking at a woman

With Horizon: An American Saga on the…well, horizon, there’s a lot of pressure on Kevin Costner to prove that the Western still has appeal.

Kevin Costner might be the most Western-adjacent actor since Clint Eastwood. From the early days of his movie career to his takeover of the small screen in Yellowstone, Costner is our most memorable on-screen cowboy in decades.

Now, he’s ramping up his dedication to the genre even further with Horizon: An American Saga. A passion project 30 years in the making, the four-part historical epic has caught the attention of fans, good and bad. Many can’t believe that Costner ditched Taylor Sheridan’s TV goldmine in favor of his film quadrilogy, while others admire the gall.

Either way, Costner has decided to take the biggest cinematic gamble in years. Placing all bets (and his house) on an expansive four-piece saga from a time gone by, Costner could either bring a genre to its knees… or confirm to us all that it’s long dead.

The golden era of the cowboy

It’s been a long, long time since Westerns shaped the movie landscape. After dominating throughout the 1940s-1950s, the genre hit peak form in the ‘60s, cementing what’s now known as the Golden Age of the Western.

At that point, the names John Wayne, John Ford, and Gary Cooper were some of the biggest in the business. Even Walt Disney was getting in on the action, developing a handful of Western-inspired shows and adding Frontierland to the Disneyland park.

However, the ‘60s came and went, and the Western quickly died thanks to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Audiences moved on from the simple ways of times gone by and looked to the future for their thrills. Save for a noble attempt at a genre revival in the ‘90s (Unforgiven, Tombstone, and Lone Star all being impressive entries), the Western never really came back in full force.

In the 2000s, True Grit, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Brokeback Mountain kept audiences alert to the appeal of cowboy tales. Quentin Tarantino put out two Westerns back-to-back: Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Still, it wasn’t enough to give the genre the same spark that superhero movies had at the time, but it kept things going.

In fact, there was only one thing truly keeping the Western on life support: television.

Enter: John Dutton

Westerns have always existed in small-screen form. Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and Rawhide might not have been as respected as their cinematic counterparts, but they still had their audiences. Later, the Western series would become a TV staple.

Westworld, Deadwood, and Justified all earned their spot in the 2000s and 2010s (with Netflix having the best of its kind with Godless). But none held a candle to what has since become one of the most-watched cable shows of all time: Yellowstone.

Kevin Costner as John Dutton in Yellowstone, wearing a cowboy hat and standing in a field

The Costner-led Taylor Sheridan series followed the dramas and conflicts of the complicated Dutton family, a wealthy cattle-ranching conglomerate. Satisfying every Western trope in the book, it’s since become one of the most popular TV shows to air in recent years.

This is why it was so astonishing to Yellowstone fans (and otherwise) to hear that Kevin Costner would be ditching his $1.3 million per episode paycheck in order to get Horizon off the ground. With fans suggesting it’s unlikely to set the box office alight, it begs the question: are Western movies even profitable anymore?

A fistful of dollars?

When looking at the biggest Westerns of the past decade, the box office takings fluctuate massively. 2013’s The Lone Ranger barely made some money back, while just a year later, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West earned a decent box office sum. (Although neither is considered to be a genre benchmark.)

The less commercial projects didn’t fare so well, with 2015’s Bone Tomahawk losing out, while both The Power of the Dog and, most recently, Killers of the Flower Moon were unable to turn a profit in theaters. Tarantino managed to turn out very well with both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, and 2015’s The Revenant was the first Western blockbuster in years.

Ironically, someone who’s done well in the genre is Costner’s former boss, Taylor Sheridan. Before Yellowstone, he turned out Hell or High Water and Wind River, both of which made a healthy profit.

What this teaches us is that audience loyalty to the Western is murky. Clearly, it’s not the most reliable genre around right now. Someone would have to be crazy to abandon their current trajectory to bet it all on not one but four Westerns, right? …Right?!

King Costner

Okay, but how impractical is Kevin Costner’s Western dream? Nobody will know for sure until Horizon: Chapter 1 comes out. The modern Westerns that have done the best are the ones that aren’t “pure”.

Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, holding an American Flag

A Million Ways to Die in the West is a comedy through-and-through, and Tarantino’s Westerns appeal to lovers of hyper-violence. Right now, it’s not clear where Horizon lands on that scale.

But, realistically, Costner has been prepping for this most of his life. Literally — he’s been developing Horizon for three decades now. And as an actor with extensive experience in the genre, not many people know it better than him. Throughout all this, the lede has been buried on just how integral Costner has been to its curation and preservation.

1990’s Dances with Wolves (which Costner also directed) is now known for being a leading influence in the genre and has since been inducted into the National Film Registry. His other self-directed Western, Open Range, earned money and critical acclaim. The point being, if he can replicate this success four times over with the Horizon saga, then he might just be able to save the Western. He’s done it before.

Of course, this is all reliant on Horizon actually being good and getting audiences in seats for a style of film that hasn’t had a megahit in years. A hard task, for sure. But if Costner can achieve it, then every questionable move he’s made to get there will have been worth it.

He can start up a new wave for the Western, and he can do it in the most Costner-way imaginable. Or, he can confirm what many movie lovers are already sadly thinking — that the Western won’t be rising from the dead anytime soon.