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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 (the year 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 guerilla/bandit forces operated along the US/Mexican border).

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 disappear. Probably the most noticeable is the shift away from horses as a mode of transportation in favor of automobiles. The replacement of gas and oil lights in favor of electricity follows close behind as a sign of change as do the appearances of new inventions like telephones, motion pictures, phonographs, and airplanes.

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.

Compare Riding Into the Sunset.

Sub-trope of The Western that overlaps with the latter stage of the Wild West and the beginning of the New Old West.

Examples:

Comic Books

Film

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • McCabe and 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 posters indicate it's actually around 1900 and times are changing.
  • 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.
  • In The Shootist, John Wayne plays a dying gunfighter in the fast-changing West of 1901.
  • In Sunset, which is set in 1920s Hollywood, Wyatt Earp is watching his life being mythologised while he is still alive.
  • 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 .45 automatics, bolt action rifles, pump shotguns, and M1917 machine guns which underscore the mechanized brutality of the new era.

Literature

  • 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.
  • O. Henry has several stories about the West set in this era.

Live Action Television

  • The Adventures of Brisco County Jr takes place in 1893, as the old ways are changing.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 and Sitting Bull.

Video Games

  • Red Dead Redemption takes place in 1911, with this trope in full effect. Federal agents have shown up to tame the Wild West, and they've brought an automobile with them. 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.
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