Attempt at defining WesternWesterns are arts works (films, books, television shows, and paintings right off; see Frederic Remington; we focus on movies) devoted to telling romanticized tales of the American West (see Westward Expansion in History of the United States).
While the western has been popular throughout the history of movies, as the United States progresses farther away from the period depicted, the western has begun to diminish in importance, though (as of August 2003) it has been revived with the Kevin Costner western Open Range.
The fundamental plots of Westerns are simple. Life is reduced to its elements: there are no computers, no cellphones, no cars, no electricity. None of the complications and technology of modern life. You have:
- The clothes on your back.
- Your gun, and
- Your horse.
Origins of the "Western idea"The idea of the "Wild West" traces at least to Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows that began in 1883. In literature Owen Wister's The Virginian (published in 1902) was an American start, but the German writer Karl May was writing Wild West stories as early as 1876, and he traced ideas at least to the American writer James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote Last of the Mohicans in 1826.
Thus the "western idea" has a long history. They were a distinct literary genre before the rise of motion pictures; other important writers were Zane Grey, and Louis L'Amour.
Popular culture and WesternsAmerican popular culture loves cultures of honor, as opposed to cultures of law. Hollywood portrays a society in which persons have no social order larger than their immediate peers, family, or perhaps themselves alone. Here, people must cultivate a reputation by acts of revenge; they can be generous, because in this world generosity creates a dependency relationship and a social hierarchy.
These themes unite the Western, the gangster movie, and the revenge movie in a single vision. In the Western, these themes are forefronted, to the extent that the arrival of law and "civilization" is often portrayed as regrettable, if inevitable.
The Western goes to HollywoodBut a genre in which description and dialogue are lean, and the landscape spectacular, is better suited to a visual medium. Western movies, usually filmed in desolate corners of Arizona, Utah, Wyoming or Colorado, made the landscape not just a vivid backdrop but a character in the movie.
The Western genre itself has sub-genres, such as the epic Western, the shoot 'em up, singing cowboy Westerns, and a few comedy Westerns.
Cowboys play a prominent role in Western movies, and often fights with American Indians are depicted, though "revisionist" Westerns give the natives sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of westerns include western treks, and groups of bandits terrorizing small towns, such as The Magnificent Seven.
In film, the western traces its roots back to The Great Train Robbery, a short silent film directed by Edwin S. Porter and released in 1903. In the United States, the western has had an extremely rich history that spans many genres (comedy, drama, tragedy, parody, musical, etc.) The golden age of the western film is epitomised by the work of two directors: John Ford (who often used John Wayne for lead roles) and Howard Hawks.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a considerable revival with the "Spaghetti Westerns" or "Italo-Westerns", most notably those directed by Sergio Leone. These tended to be fairly low-budget affairs, shot in locations principally chosen for the cheapness of shooting film, and are characterised by high-action and violence. Clint Eastwood became famous starring in these, although they were also to provide a showcase for other such considerable talents as Lee van Cleef, James Coburn, and Klaus Kinski.
Other influences to and by Westerns; "revisionist Westerns"Westerns have drawn on other arts forms as old as the Norse Saga, as other art forms have drawn on the Western.
To add to the international influences on westerns, many westerns after 1960 were heavily influenced by the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (for instance The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai).
Also, beginning in the 1960s, many people questioned many traditional themes of westerns, aside from the portrayal of the Native American as a "savages", audiences began to question the simple hero versus villain dualism, and the use of violence to test one's character or to prove oneself right. Examples of "revisionist westerns" include Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven. Some "modern" Westerns give women more powerful roles, such as Open Range.
An offshoot of the western genre is the "post-apocalyptic" western, in which a future society, struggling to rebuild after a major catastrophe, is portrayed in a manner very similar to the 19th century frontier. Examples include The Postman and the "Mad Max" series.
In fact, many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the western genre. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars".
The western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff, Cat Ballou, and Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles.
Television WesternsThe Saturday Afternoon Movie was a pre-TV phenomenon in the US which often featured western series. "Singing cowboys" were common (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Rex Allen, each with a co-starring horse). Other B-movie series were Lash Larue and the Durango Kid. Herbert Jeffreys, as Bob Blake with his horse Stardust appeared in a number of movies made for African American audiences in the days of segregated movie theaters.. Bill Pickett, an African American rodeo performer also appeared in early western films for the same audience.
When the popularity of television exploded in the late 1940s and 1950s, westerns quickly became a staple of small screen entertainment. A great many B-movie Westerns were aired on TV as time fillers, while a number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, Ponderosa, The Big Valley, and many others.
Notable figures in the Western
- Gene Autry, actor
- James Coburn, actor
- Gary Cooper, actor
- Clint Eastwood, actor
- John Ford, director of dramas of tragic intensity.
- Howard Hawks, director
- Sergio Leone, Italian director who added to the Western genre.
- Maureen O'Hara, actress
- Gregory Peck, actor
- Sam Peckinpah, director
- James Stewart, actor
- Lee van Cleef, actor
- John Wayne, archetype and actor who appeared in many of Ford's films.