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Twilight of the Old West

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Just off the picture: a wild Ford Mustang.

Our days are [all almost] over
Times have changed around these parts
There ain't no more cowboys
Only men with violent hearts
Miracle of Sound, "Redemption Blues" and "Setting Sun"

The Twilight of the Old West is a trope invoked by stories depicting the changes that took place in Western North America and Mexico during the closing days of the Wild West and the beginning days of the New Old West. This is roughly the period between 1890 (when the U.S. Census Bureau announced the closing of the frontier and the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred, thereby marking the end of the Indian Wars) and 1920 (which marked the official end of The Mexican Revolution when guerrilla/bandit forces operated along the US/Mexican border and the beginning of Prohibition in the U.S. which closed the last of the saloons).

In stories set during the Twilight of the Old West, there will still be many elements of the Wild West present like cowboys, gunfighters, outlaws, bank and train robberies, saloons, and cattle drives but, as you get deeper into the 20th century, they'll gradually become less common. Injun Country will not be seen at all, as the last spasmodic resistance by Native Americans ended with Geronimo's surrender in 1886 and the aforementioned Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Instead, stories involving Native Americans will likely be set on a Neglected Rez. Probably the most noticeable change is the shift away from horses as a mode of transportation in favor of trains and—especially—automobiles. The replacement of gas and oil lights in favor of electricity follows close behind as an indication of progress as do the appearances of new inventions like telephones, motion pictures, phonographs, and airplanes. Territories became states, and filled up the contiguous Union, starting with North and South Dakota in 1889, and ending with Arizona in 1912, at the same time the country expanded further west into the Pacific following the Spanish-American War.

While technological changes play a major role, the Twilight of the Old West mainly deals with changes in society and how they affect those who still feel tied to the "old ways" of the Wild West. For example, bringing justice to an area now means criminals are dealt with by sheriffs, police, judges, and jails rather than vigilante justice. Also, Cattle Drives become more infrequent and smaller with the end of the open range and the spread of the railroad system beyond the hub cities that were usually the destination of such drives.

Compare Riding into the Sunset. The Magic Goes Away can be considered the corresponding fantasy trope.

Sub-trope of The Western and End of an Age that overlaps with the latter stage of the Wild West and the beginning of the New Old West. Opposite of Dawn of the Wild West. The East Coast equivalent would be The Progressive Era, encompassing the socioeconomic reforms of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson at the end of The Gilded Age. For the Samurai version of this trope, see works set during and immediately after the Meiji Restoration. Also compare to works set in The Soviet Twenties, which often had this feel out in the Soviet East.

Has nothing to do with cowboy vampire romance or a certain purple unicorn ruling the outback.


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    Comic Books 
  • Part of American Vampire is set in this timeframe. Skinner Sweet attends a Wild West Show, and is highly offended at how he and his Worthy Opponent are portrayed.
  • Blaze of Glory is set in this period. The heroes of the Old West die to make way for a new age. Two Gun Kid even says in the last issue that the way of the Old West is over, and that new villains require a new breed of hero. It's not called The Last Ride of the Western Heroes for nothing.
  • Originally, the adventures of Cinnamon in The DCU were set in this period (although later stories moved her back to the more typical Wild West period). The narration in her first appearance mentions the frontier being strangled by railroad lines and telegraph wires.
  • Jonah Hex's Deadly Distant Finale.
  • This trope is a theme in Don Rosa's story The Vigilante of Pizen Bluff, a part of the The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck series taking place in the 1890s, and involves Wild West legends such as the Dalton Gang, Anney Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Geronimo. PT Barnum himself sums it up at the end how the West has ended for all of them. Buffalo Bill and Anney Oakley reduced to performing tricks in a traveling show, Angus Pothole leaving the riverboat business as they have been made obsolete by the intercontinental railroads, and the great Indian tribes all but wiped out or stuck on reservations. As the story wraps up, Scrooge, himself a symbol of the dawning 20th century, thinks to himself as he watches the others leave that the West "is riding off into its last sunset".
  • Parodied in the final story of a Lobo Elseworld that reimagined the Main Man as various Western characters. "The Last Despera-bo" is a wistful page of the character reflecting on how times are changing and there doesn't seem to be much place for him any more. Then he gets hit by a truck.
  • A Man Called Frank was a western themed take on The Punisher. Frank Castle is a cowboy (and veteran of the Spanish-American War) during this time who is out for revenge to the criminals who killed his family.
  • The 1985 Rawhide Kid miniseries is set in 1897 and has an aging Kid pondering the place of gunfighters in the new century.
  • Hergé completely failed to understand this trope when making Tintin - Tintin in America, and as such features cowboys and gangsters in the same story and sometimes in the exact same location.

    Films — Animated 
  • An American Tail: Fievel Goes West takes place around 1890 or so, implied to be the tail-end of the Wild West era because the boom town the Mousekewitz family expects to move to is now run-down and dying, and the Sheriff and folk hero Wylie Burp is now old, frail and past his prime.
  • Much of the first half of Missing Link has a setting whose architecture and culture is highly evocative of the Wild West. However, there is no frontier left—Lionel and Mr. Link travel between a logging town near present-day Seattle, Washington, and Santa Ana, California, two places on the Pacific Coast. The main characters also make extensive use of a comprehensive railway network in the United States stretching from coast to coast, as well as a stagecoach traveling a well-worn path through the desert. A background detail in the closing credits shows the movie is set in 1909, right in the date range specified in this trope's description.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Ballad of Cable Hogue depicts a failed prospector during the closing of the frontier. Cable Hogue discovers a well in the desert and founds a town at the site. When an automobile appears on the road and drives past without stopping, Cable recognizes that as a sign that the frontier is closing, so he decides to pack up and move to civilization.
  • Big Jake takes place in 1909. It featured a posse of Texas Rangers chasing outlaws in automobiles but ultimately the bad guys are defeated using old school gunfighting.
  • Bite the Bullet takes place in 1908 and features a 700-mile horse race. The reporter for the newspaper sponsoring the race drives in an automobile, which the heroes borrow to pursue escaped convicts who stole their horses. It's clear that the old west is seen more as the stuff of novels than a way of life for most outside of the cowboy protagonist.
  • Blackthorn: Set in 1928, the Wild West has been dead for decades, and even in Bolivia where Butch Cassidy has been hiding for 20 years, times are changing.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is set between the years 1898 and 1908—a time when such "new" inventions like motion pictures are present. The abrupt transition from the Wild West to the Modern Age is illustrated in a cut scene from the movie when Butch and Sundance visit a nickelodeon and see a filmed dramatization of one of their train robberies ... in which they're shot to death.
  • In Custer Of The West, Robert Shaw's Custer has a conversation with Sitting Bull prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn in which he tells him that the Indians must return to the reservation because new technology such as trains and Gatling guns mean that their way of life - and this way of waging war - is over. To which Sitting Bull laconically replies "One last time then." Like much of the film, the exchange is a complete invention and given that this is taking place in 1876, probably a little too prescient. However, it does accurately reflect the real Custer's romanticised view of life on the frontier and how it was coming to an end.
  • Day of the Outlaw: An exact year isn't given but Wyoming is still a territory, so it is before July 10, 1890. However, Starrett's feud with the homesteaders over barbed wire indicates it is late in the Wild West period.
  • Draw!: In the final days of the Old West, a former desperado faces down a now drunken ex-sheriff, who was his longtime nemesis.
  • Sergio Leone's last Spaghetti Western Duck, You Sucker! is set during The Mexican Revolution, making full use of the Western landscapes that had been used his previous films, but now with 20th century weapons and transportation. In fact, it all looks as if the Old West had already ended before the film began - especially after the first hour.
  • Although Forty Guns is set squarely in the Wild West (a comment from the telegraph operator indicates the date is around 1882), several characters can already see their time is ending. Griff foresees a time when gunfighters will be as anachronistic as Roman gladiators, and Jessica knows that Arizona becoming a state will spell an end to the way she does business and her use of a private army.
  • Hardcase is set sometime around 1910. The protagonist Jack Rutherford is a veteran of the Spanish-American War who gets caught up in The Mexican Revolution when he ventures into Mexico looking for his wife who has run-off with a Mexican revolutionary.
  • Harry Tracy is based on the exploits of the last Western outlaw as he navigates the hostile new world of the 20th century.
  • Hidalgo; protagonist Frank Hopkins delivered the orders that resulted in the Wounded Knee Massacre, and he becomes a headliner in Buffalo Bill's show before being asked to participate in a race across the Arabian desert.
  • The prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade depicts a young Indiana Jones in Utah during this period.
  • The Last Rites of Ransom Pride is set in 1912. While most of the characters still ride horses, Sergeant rides a motorcycle, and Early Ransom travels to Mexico in a Model T Ford.
  • Though still set squarely in the Old West, The Last Samurai shows a time when - for some people, at least - that time was already starting to die out. The hero, no longer needed as an Indian fighter in his own land, is offered employment oversees fighting a different kind of "savage". This also mirrors the fact that Japan, at the same time, is facing its own End of an Age, with the decline of the samurai and feudal era.
  • Legends of the Fall starts off around this era, before moving into World War 1 and the Prohibition Era.
  • The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean partially takes place during the first decades of the 20th century.
  • Lonely Are the Brave is set in the early 1960s. The protagonist, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), is an itinerant ranch hand who still rides everywhere on horseback and sleeps wherever he ends up in the evening; he refuses to join modern society, claiming that he resents its emphasis on telling people where they can or can't go and what they can or can't do. He is finding maintaining his Old West lifestyle increasingly difficult, however; the film is bookended by two attempts to ride his horse across Highway 66, only for the horse to be spooked by the noise of the cars. The second time, it is both dark and rainy, and the horse's panic leaves Burns in the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler.
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960) has a constant undertone of the Seven dealing with a world that has little need for their profession anymore. They accept the low-rate job south of the border because it's better than any other prospects.
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has this dramatized by the tragic Character Arc of John Wayne's character, as he sees his way of life fading away with Jimmy Stewart's character taking the reins (so to speak).
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller may, upon first glance, appear to take place early in the era of the Wild West. However, the appearance of a vacuum cleaner and William McKinley presidential campaign posters indicate it's actually around 1900 and times are changing.
  • Both versions of Monte Walsh (the 1970 version starring Lee Marvin and the 2003 version starring Tom Selleck) address the plight of aging cowboys in an era where the frontier is vanishing.
  • Set in 1893, a major theme of More Dead Than Alive is how much the West has changed in the 18 years Cain has been in prison. Cain is stunned the first time he sees a bicycle and a telephone, and Ruffalo says that the railways and telegraph have changed everything and points out men no longer wear guns unless they're traveling.
  • The spaghetti western My Name Is Nobody takes place in 1899 and the trope is part of the plot. Jack Beauregard, an old and, by then, famous gunslinger in the Wild West decides to call it quits and retire to Europe. However, he meets 'Nobody', a young enthusiastic gunfighter whose idol is exactly Beauregard. Nobody wants Beauregard to definitely end in a blaze of glory in the history books by facing the Wild Bunch (a horse-riding gang of 150 bandits) alone.
  • Old Henry is set in 1906 Oklahoma and follows an aging farmer and his son as they take in an injured man with a satchel of cash. A recurring motif is how there's no place for gunslinging outlaws in an America that's moved on from them, further reinforced by how said farmer is Billy the Kid.
  • Sergio Leone's penultimate Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, uses the railroad as an analogy for the dying Wild West, with Frank and Harmonica exchanging these lines:
    Harmonica: So you found out you're not a businessman after all?
    Frank: Just a man.
    Harmonica: An ancient race. [looks to the approaching railroad] Other Mortons will be along, and they'll kill it off.
  • The Professionals is set during the later years of The Mexican Revolution.
  • Ride the High Country involves two aging ex-lawman hired to guard a shipment of gold being transported out of the Sierras in early 20th century California. The opening scene, especially, captures the flavor of this trope; director Sam Peckinpah revisits the same themes in The Wild Bunch.
  • Shane hints at this, with an exchange between Shane and one of the villains near the end, about how both their ways are coming to an end.
  • In The Shootist, John Wayne plays a dying gunfighter in the fast-changing West of 1901.
  • In Sky Bandits, Barney and Luke are a pair of old school bank robbers trying to ply their trade in the dying days of the wild west. New forms of transport and communications spell an end to their crime wave. At the end of the film, they return to their bank robbing ways, only now they are using a plane to make their getaway.
  • In Sunset, which is set in 1920s Hollywood, Wyatt Earp is watching his life being mythologised while he is still alive.
  • Terror in a Texas Town: No specific date is given for the movie, but the importance of oil indicates it is probably the early 20th century. The Wild West is coming to an end and multiple characters remark that a gunslinger like Johnny Crale is an anachronism. One man with a gun cannot wander into a town and dominate it anymore, and developments like an organized state police make it harder for outlaws to hide.
  • Most of There Will Be Blood takes place in this period during the great oil rush. The rural ranchers of the fading Old West are represented by the young preacher Eli Sunday, while the hard-bitten oil men of the new, more industrialized West are represented by Daniel Plainview.
  • ˇThree Amigos!: Our heroes are silent film stars around the time of World War I who appear in movies depicting The Theme Park Version of the Wild West. Ultimately they travel to Mexico, where the Wild West tropes of banditos and imperiled villagers are still hanging on. At one point, German military pilots show up to train the banditos in more "modern" weapons.
  • Tumbleweeds is set during the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. At one point, the main character announces, "Boys — it's the last of the West."
  • The Wild Bunch is set in 1913 when the film's characters, a gang of aging outlaws, have clearly lived past their time. Electricity and automobiles are present, as are such "modern" weapons like Colt M1911 handguns, M1903 Springfield rifles and Winchester Model 1897 shotguns and an M1917 machine gun which underscore the mechanized brutality of the modern era.

  • The Ben Snow stories start in 1890 (nine years after the death of Billy the Kid) and advance into the early years of the 20th Century. "The Edge of the Year 1900" takes place on New Year's Eve 1899.
  • Though most of Blood Meridian takes place in the 1840s and '50s (in other words, closer to the beginning of the classic "Old West" era), the final section jumps forward to 1878 and engages in some reflection on the end of an age. However, given the utter bleakness and brutality of the earlier parts, the effect is less elegiac than wearily nihilistic.
  • The Continental Op short story "Corkscrew" by Dashiell Hammett (written in 1925) takes a big city private eye to a small western town. Part of the story involves the Op telling the people of Corkscrew that frontier justice isn't gonna cut it anymore.
  • Although the Gatling books are vague as to exactly when they are set (and are something of an Anachronism Stew overall), Gatling's favourite, and most commonly used, weapon is a Light Maxim gun in.303 calibre, implying that the setting is 1895 or later.
  • O. Henry has several stories about the West set in this era.
  • The story "The Long High Noon" in the anthology Law of the Gun is about two Gunslingers trying to have a decisive shootout over several decades as the Old West fades around them. By the end of the story, they're both playing aged extras in cowboy movies. One of them finally decisively plugs the other, then walks in front of an automobile.
  • Monte Walsh, Jack Schaefer's 1963 novel about a group of aging cowboys coming to terms with the end of the era. Later adapted as a movie twice: in 1970, starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance; and in 2003, starring Tom Selleck and Keith Carradine.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 1923 deals with this. Especially in the third episode when the Duttons head to town. Later in the same episode, an old west-style shootout with revolvers, lever-action rifles, and horses is brought to a violent and decisive end when one of the enemy sheepherders shows up in an automobile with a tommy gun.
  • The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. takes place in 1893, as the old ways are changing, although unlike most versions of this trope, it's mostly played for laughs. The eponymous protagonist, however, is actually optimistic about the scientific advancements that are being made, calling them "the coming thing." He's also a lawyer in addition to being a bounty hunter and still trusts his horse Comet over a a motorcycle because Comet has brains and loyalty to him, making Brisco an interesting contrast to the regular Western hero's reaction to the new age. Considering that the Orbs come from the future and are capable of healing people and invoking conversions in hardened criminals, Brisco's optimism may be warranted.
  • The short-lived 1971 Western series Bearcats! is set in 1914 and has the main characters traveling from one adventure to another in a Stutz Bearcat automobile rather than on horses. In a couple of episodes they faced off against airplanes and a (slightly anachronistic) tank.
  • Hec Ramsey starred Richard Boone as Hector "Hec" Ramsey, who had been a gunfighter/lawman in the Wild West, but the heydays of the cowboy are coming to an end, and the 20th century is just beginning, and Ramsey is keeping up with the times. He has developed a strong interest in the then-emerging field of forensics.
  • The Kraft Suspense Theatre episode "Threepersons" is set on the Texas/Mexico border circa 1923, with horses and automobiles sharing the streets. The heroes go after a gang who's smuggling booze across the border.
  • Murdoch Mysteries
    • The Season 2 episode "Mild, Mild West", in which a murder is committed at Buffalo Bill's Roadshow, and Murdoch's brand of by-the-book law and order is contrasted with the sort of lawman who gets involved in shootouts on Main Street.
    • The Season 8 episode "Glory Days" has legendary lawman Bat Masterson arrive in Toronto on the trail of two bank robbers he alleges are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The bank robbers turn out to just be local crooks, and Masterson knew it all along. He wanted to go on one last adventure to liven up his life as a humble journalist. Butch and Sundance had fled to South America the previous year, themselves without a place to fit in after the end of the Old West.
  • Nichols, a 1970s Western Dramedy starring James Garner, took place in 1914 Arizona and had the title character, a pacifistic sheriff, using cars and motorcycles rather than a horse.
  • The series Outlaws starts in 1899 where an outlaw has become a sheriff sent to bring in his old gang. The sheriff tells the gang that the old ways aren't going to work any more. Then a freak lightning storm sends them all through time to 1986, where they set up a detective agency and have to adapt to the modern world.



    Video Games 
  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger actually starts off in 1910. Most of the story, however, is told via flashback during the heyday of the Wild West.
  • The Red Dead series:
    • Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911, with this trope in full effect. Federal agents have shown up to tame the Wild West. They repeatedly refer to the hero, Retired Outlaw John Marston, as a remnant of a bygone age, even as they use him to track down his former gang mates. Indeed, one of the game's major themes is the incompatibility of the old west with "civilized" people, who are ever encroaching upon it. The point is hammered home in an opening scene, where the agents give Marston a ride in an automobile.
    • Red Dead Redemption II is a prequel to Red Dead Redemption but also emphasizes this point.
      • The Van der Linde gang has been migrating farther and farther west in an attempt to stay ahead of encroaching civilization. Their leader Dutch is constantly preaching about the Old West ideals of freedom and independence, but it becomes increasingly clear that those days are dwindling, and his hold over the gang wanes.
      • Eagle Flies and the young warriors of the Wapiti Indians mount a doomed resistance to the US army removing them from their reservation, against the advice of his father Rains Fall, who has already lost his wife and other son in an attack and given up fighting the US as a result.
      • The Lemoyne Raiders are a vestigial band of bushwhackers - ex-Confederate soldiers turned outlaws - fighting a similarly doomed guerrilla campaign against the US Government, as though "the war never ended". In 1899, the vast majority of them are younger men just joining opportunistically and the few genuine soldiers are pushing their sixties and seventies. By the epilogue (set in 1907), the Raiders are nearly extinct.
      • Evelyn Miller, an Expy of Henry David Thoreau and Dutch's favorite author, routinely laments the dying of the Old West and the encroaching city life.
      • In Saint-Denis, the Van der Linde gang come face-to-face with Angelo Bronte and his nascent Italian mob, foreshadowing the rise of not only the American Mafia, but also of organized crime in the 20th Century, displacing the old image of the frontier outlaw.

    Real Life 
  • Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured from 1883 to 1913, was a result of the closing of the West. There were all of these people still alive who had lived through the wildest days of the West, which had finally been tamed and fenced in. So the only way left to experience the Wild West was The Theme Park Version, and William F. Cody brought some of the best to his show, like Annie Oakley, "Wild Bill" Hickok and Sitting Bull.
  • The hunt for Pancho Villa had both the primitive setting of the borderlands and the high-tech of the time: gasoline-powered trucks, airplanes, radios and automatic weapons.
  • An ad for the original Thompson sub-machine gun features a cowboy on the porch of a ranch house spraying the iconic weapon into a band of cattle rustlers. Indeed, the first batch of guns seems to have gone out the large ranches along the border.