The Western is a genre of various arts, such as comics, fiction, film, games, radio, and television which tell stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in theAmerican Old West, often centering on the life of a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter armed with a revolver and a rifle who rides a horse. Cowboys and gunslingers typically wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, cowboy boots and buckskins. Other characters include Native Americans, bandits, lawmen, bounty hunters, outlaws, mounted cavalry, settlers and townsfolk.

Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Often, the vast landscape plays an important role, presenting a “…mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West”. Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns, saloons, railways and isolated military forts of the Wild West. Some are set in the American colonial era. Common plots include the construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier; ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners or who build a ranch empire; revenge stories, which hinge on the chase and pursuit by a wronged individual; stories about cavalry fighting Indians; outlaw gang plots; and stories about a lawman or bounty hunter tracking down his quarry. Many Westerns use a stock plot of depicting a crime, then showing the pursuit of the wrongdoer, ending in revenge and retribution, which is often dispensed through a shoot out or quick draw duel.

The Western was the most popular Hollywood genre from the early 20th century to the 1960s. Western films first became well-attended in the 1930s. John Ford’s landmark Western adventure Stagecoach became one of the biggest hits in 1939 and it made John Wayne a mainstream screen star. Westerns were very popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the most acclaimed Westerns were released during this time – including High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), and The Wild Bunch (1969). Classic Westerns such as these have been the inspiration for various films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings, such as Junior Bonner (1972), set in the 1970s and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), which is set in the 21st century.

Justus D. Barnes in Western apparel, from the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Themes

The Lone Ranger; a famous heroic lawman who was with a cavalry of six Texas Rangers, until they were all killed but him. He preferred to remain anonymous, so he resigned and built a sixth grave that supposedly held his body. He fights on as a lawman, wearing a mask, for, “Outlaws live in a world of fear. Fear of the mysterious.”

The Western genre sometimes portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilization or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice–”frontier justice”–dispensed by gunfights. These honor codes are often played out through depictions of feuds or individuals seeking personal revenge or retribution against someone who has wronged them (e.g., True Grit has revenge and retribution as its main themes). This Western depiction of personal justice contrasts sharply with justice systems organized around rationalistic, abstract law that exist in cities, in which social order is maintained predominately through relatively impersonal institutions such ascourtrooms. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter. A showdown or duelat high noon featuring two or more gunfighters is a stereotypical scene in the popular conception of Westerns.

In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian Romances. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight errant of the earlier European tales and poetry was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds and bound to no fixed social structures but only to his own innate code of honor. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many of the characteristics equated with the image of the ronin in modern Japanese culture.

The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples (e.g. the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, about an old hired killer) are more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness and isolation of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape. Specific settings include isolated forts, ranches and homesteads; the Native American village; or the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse and the open desert, where there are no structures and only windswept sand dunes. Apart from the wilderness, it is usually the saloon that emphasizes that this is the Wild West: it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where civilization has arrived, the town has a church, a general store, a bank and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is, as Sergio Leone said, “where life has no value”.

Characteristics

Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz

The American Film Institute defines western films as those “set in the American West that embod[y] the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.” The term Western, used to describe a narrative film genre, appears to have originated with a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World Magazine. Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of 19th century popular Western fiction and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Western films commonly feature protagonists such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, who are often depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival–and as a means to settle disputes using “frontier justice”. Protagonists ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on their trusty steeds.

Western films were enormously popular in the silent film era (1894-1927). With the advent of sound in 1927-28, the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers. These smaller organizations churned out countless low-budget features and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s, the Western film was widely regarded as a “pulp” genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in 1939 by major studio productions such as Dodge City starring Errol Flynn, Jesse James with Tyrone Power, Union Pacific with Joel McCrea, Destry Rides Again featuring James Stewart andMarlene Dietrich, and perhaps most notably the release of John Ford’s landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year. Released through United Artists, Stagecoachmade John Wayne a mainstream screen star in the wake of a decade of headlining B westerns. Wayne had been introduced to the screen ten years earlier as the leading man in director Raoul Walsh’swidescreen The Big Trail, which failed at the box office, due in part to exhibitors’ inability to switch over to widescreen during the Depression. After the Western’s renewed commercial successes in the late 1930s, the popularity of the Western continued to rise until its peak in the 1950s, when the number of Western films produced outnumbered all other genres combined.

Western films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early Eurocentric Westerns frequently portray the “Injuns” as dishonorable villains, the later and more culturally neutral Westerns (notably those directed by John Ford) gave Native Americans a more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include Western treks or perilous journeys (e.g. Stagecoach) or groups of bandits terrorising small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.

Western set at Universal Studios inHollywood

Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, just like other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, or Wyoming. These settings gave filmmakers the ability to depict vast plains, looming mountains and epic canyons. Productions were also filmed on location at movie ranches.

Often, the vast landscape becomes more than a vivid backdrop; it becomes a character in the film. After the early 1950s, various wide screen formats such ascinemascope (1953) and VistaVision used the expanded width of the screen to display spectacular Western landscapes. John Ford’s use of Monument Valley as an expressive landscape in his films from Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1965) “present us with a mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West, embodied most memorably in Monument Valley, with its buttes and mesas that tower above the men on horseback, whether they be settlers, soldiers, or Native Americans”.

Subgenres

Dan Duryea in Along Came Jones(1945)

 

 One More Train to Rob (1971) is a comedy western and revenge story

Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber listed seven plots for Westerns:

  1. Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories fall into this category.
  2. Ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners.
  3. Empire story. The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot.
  4. Revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story.
  5. Cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around “taming” the wilderness for white settlers.
  6. Outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action.
  7. Marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot.

Gruber said that good writers used dialogue and plot development to develop these basic plots into believable stories. Other subgenres include the Spaghetti Western, the epic western, singing cowboy westerns, and a few comedy westerns; such as: Along Came Jones (1945), in which Gary Cooper spoofed his western persona; The Sheepman (1958), with Glenn Ford poking fun at himself; and Cat Ballou (1965), with a drunk Lee Marvin atop a drunk horse. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was re-invented with the revisionist Western.