Although its glory days have long since set over the frontier horizon, the Western, once a hallmark genre of Hollywood cinema, continues to trudge through the 21st century like a loyal, world-weary steed saddled by an aged gunslinger.
Even setting aside Tarantino’s three-film dedication to the genre; and modern neo-Western standouts such as No Country for Old Men (2007) and Wind River (2017), there is still on offer a fistful of rugged Westerns. There Will Be Blood (2007), The Revenant (2015), and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), to name a few, keep the flicker of kerosene lamps alight while proving if you catch a Western on the right day, there’s still an entertaining amount of hell to pay.
While Westerns of true grit persist, they are rarely event viewing. Competing in a cinematic landscape where time and space are considered playthings, the methodical genre has lost some lustre. One of the key differences separating the current class from their classic predecessors is the reoccurring, recognisable star. Henry Fonda, John Wayne, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood were among the marquee names moviegoers could reliably bank on when turning out for a Western from the late 1930s and into the 1970s.
Flash-forward some 30-to-40 years, those same moviegoers’ descendants now rely on the MCU and DCEU to watch some of today’s most bankable stars. Of course, when fanboys and girls ante up for a superhero blockbuster, they know Chris Hemsworth is Thor and Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. The actors become so synonymous with their on-screen alter egos that when Robert Downey Jr. utters the words, “I am Iron Man.”, the fourth wall is broken.
This wasn’t quite the case in the heyday of the Western. Yes, actors became known for their persona, be it introspection (Fonda), moral authority (Wayne) (on-screen anyway), eruptive conviction (Stewart), or taciturn anti-hero (Eastwood). But how these qualities were accentuated or subverted varied depending on the film and the character. To be truthful, sometimes, the character name was the only noticeable deviation. Nevertheless, the Western functioned as a star vehicle where actors could hang their hats as a known commodity while still exploring their range.
Enter, Channing Tatum.
Tatum needs no introduction. He has long been an established star who can draw an audience on name recognition. But, perhaps, a reintroduction as the actor who reinvigorated a storied genre would do well by both Tatum and the Western.
Though chiselled from the same superhero stone as Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Henry Cavill, Tatum has not appeared in the MCU or DCEU. Tatum signed on to play Gambit when there were only two Avengers films, one “Snyder cut” and no Deadpool. However, in the 6 years since, the closest Tatum has come to the suave Cajun X-Man is appearing as a French-speaking outlaw in Tarantino’s, The Hateful Eight.
As Jody Domergue, the smooth-talking, bilingual leader of a murderous gang, Tatum seamlessly transitions from flirtatious to cold-blooded. One moment, Jody is teaching foreign language over cigarettes and coffee: the next, he’s gunning down haberdashery proprietors without hesitation. Au revoir, chère…
Charming and commanding: the cameo role is among Tatum’s best performances. But the seasoned trouper hasn’t excelled on good looks and charisma alone. Tatum’s approach to gaining a foothold in Hollywood was quantity over quality. That’s not a criticism; Tatum put in the reps and yielded the results.
At age 25, Tatum made his feature film debut, playing troubled high school baller Jason Lyle; in Thomas Carter’s 2005 sports drama, Coach Carter. 10 years later, Tatum’s part in The Hateful Eight was his 33rd feature film. That’s 3.3 feature films per year for a decade. A staggering work rate, resulting in the betterment of the then-emerging talent.
If you need convincing of Tatum’s growth as an actor, load up the double feature of Dear John (2010) and Foxcatcher (2014). Both roles — one as a young soldier with parent issues, the other as a young wrestler with big-brother issues — require the telegraphing of internal struggle.
In Dear John, Tatum is tasked with playing an army sergeant who presents a collected exterior despite being ashamed of his father and abandoned by his mother. It’s a big ask where Tatum’s self-awareness is evident in a performance that comes across as flat rather than stoic.
Four years and 15 films later, Tatum is transformative in portraying the tormented wrestler, Mark Schultz. All motions and idiosyncrasies are turned over to the character. Bitterness radiates from tense shoulders. Indignation drags on his face. You don’t see Tatum. Only Shultz.
Between these films came Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street. Even though both movies celebrate their 10th anniversary in 2022, they may still serve to undercut belief in Tatum as a dramatic actor. Michael “Magic Mike” Lane and Greg Jenko are possibly the roles most readily associated with Tatum’s image. In the former, Tatum cemented himself as a Hollywood hunk. In the latter, Tatum is so naturally funny as a doofus jock it’s easy to mistake the actor for the character.
For casual fans, Tatum may never outmanoeuvre his mimbo appeal. There’s no imperative to flip the script. Tatum has been an attraction in American cinema for almost 20 years. And he has always been in on the joke. But should Tatum decide he wants a change of scenery, Westerns may be the land of opportunity.
If Tatum finds himself in the MCU, spinning a bō staff and throwing kinetically charged playing cards, he will be one of many. Part of an ever-ensemble in a self-perpetuating genre. In the Western, Tatum could apply his broad appeal and stake his claim as the movie star who helped restore the hobbled genre to a credible career-maker. In return, the Western can offer a setting where Tatum can flex more than his muscles.
Numerous tropes are intrinsic to the period Westerns are typically set, frontier life, lawman v. outlaw, and the ceaseless progression of civilisation, among others. However, the Western is also very malleable. For most folk, if it looks like a Western — one-street town, saloon, an assortment of hats — then it is a Western. On the great open plains, there’s space for drama (Red River), thrillers (High Noon), comedy (Blazing Saddles), action (Young Guns), and even sci-fi (The Mandalorian). Within this single genre, Tatum could tap into any aspect of his acting. And he’s already found the director to help him do it.
Like Eastwood is tied to Sergio Leonie or Wayne to John Ford, Tatum is linked to Steven Soderbergh. To date, Tatum and Soderbergh have teamed on four feature films as actor and director. The first three, Haywire (2011), Magic Mike* (2012), and Side Effects (2013), are among Tatum’s more complicated and violent roles. Their latest effort, Lucky Logan (2017), traded on the notion of the actor being more brawn than brains. Cast as a bumpkin, former football star, Tatum’s underestimated Jimmy Logan proves capable of masterminding an elaborate robbery. In Soderberg, Tatum has a director who is willing to toy with public perception.
In over 30 years as a director, Soderberg has not helmed a Western. (A Soderberg heist movie set in the Wild West? That’s worth an HBO Max subscription.) Were Tatum to head westward, it seems the perfect opportunity for Soderberg to utilise his star’s underappreciated talents once again.
Advocating for a white male actor/director duo may be considered uninspired or worse, perpetuating the “white-saviour premise,” as phrased by Leah Williams in The Atlantic. As a genre, Westerns are guilty of presenting a romanticised, white male-centric spin on late 19th/ early 20th century American history. One could compile and consume a list of classic Westerns and be left only vaguely aware that it was an ethnically diverse time with troubles greater than where can white man experience the most freedom: inside the law, outside the law, or by fleeing the country?
Soderberg was an executive producer on the Netflix limited series, Godless (2017). The show won multiple awards but also garnered criticism for failing to deliver on its potential. The marketing set the expectation of a progressive, feminist Western. Instead, Godless centred on a feud between two white male outlaws. The women were given the B plot treatment. Native American and African American characters were marginalised.
Godless may not have shifted the status quo, but Soderberg could still help affect change. The fortified director excels in making movies that Hollywood seemingly prefers to no longer make; mid-tier productions not attached to popular IP with limited franchising or merchandising potential. If Soderberg’s aptitude for having such films green-lit were teamed with a diverse cast and crew, perhaps a new light could shine on the Old West.
As for Tatum, his combination of age and looks makes available a breadth of Western archetypes. Protagonists in Westerns are often characters that carry the weight of experience; their youth spent, making do with the hand they’ve been dealt. In his early 40s, Tatum is a natural fit to play roles that require an earned wariness, like the established sheriff or practised cattle driver. But that needn’t mean the parts also require the triumph of white masculine individualism. Sometimes sheriffs need to be saved or replaced, and cattle drivers need to be shown the way.
Although no longer a “young man,” Tatum still has the appearance of a smooth-faced assassin. It’s no stretch to picture Tatum as a crooked politician on the rise or a sinister gun-for-hire, firing rounds at people’s feet with a wry quip.