- The Western is the only true American Film genre. Why? Well, because it is about the American experience, and hundreds of western films have been created over the years capturing this unique slice of life. Although other countries and cultures have also dealt with outlaws, lynch mobs, and gun fights on horseback, it was American cinema that first depicted the lawlessness, unknown fears, and the excitement of finding one’s way through uncertain challenges, all in the search for better opportunities for one’s family in the western United States.
- In many ways, the cowboy of the Old West was the American version of the Japanese samurai warrior, or the Arthurian knight of medieval times. The heroes were all bound by legal codes of behavior, ethics, justice, courage, honor and chivalry.
- Traditional Western Film plots were usually classic, and simple with characters focusing on a goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier set in a fast-paced action story. It is normally rooted in the conflict – good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, white hat vs. black hat, settler vs. nomad, and farmer vs. industrialist, etc.
- The Western is the least successful film genre at the box office today because it has a very limited and focused audience (mostly white, male-targeted, historical-minded, action-oriented). This wasn’t always the case, between the 1920s -1950s, the Western film genre dominated the box-office (much like Superhero films do today).
- Western Films can cover this time period in history (1830 – 1909) but usually focus on 1865-1895.
- First Western Film: The Great Train Robbery (1903).
- 1915-1930 Western Films flooded the box office as double feature material.
- 1940-1960 – The Western covers themes of Honor, Sacrifice.
- John Wayne was a major Western film star for nearly 50 years (84 Westerns from 1930-76) and earned several Oscar nominations including his first Academy Award win for Best Actor for the western True Grit (1969).
- Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by the Japanese Samurai films. For instance The Magnificent Seven (1960 & 2016) was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and both A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Last Man Standing (1996) were remakes of Yojimbo (1961).
- 1960s – Revisionist Western –challenged the traditional Western story.
- Native Americans not portrayed as savages.
- No longer typical hero vs. villain.
- More depth displayed in characters.
- Women begin to take on stronger leadership roles.
- Children called into the role of leadership.
- the revisionist aspect of these films will offer this for the characters: Instead of dying bravely or stoically, characters whine, cry, and beg; instead of a hero saving the innocent, it is a villain who may step in to seek revenge.
- Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West.
- “Spaghetti Westerns” emerged in Italy – (1960-75, 600 films) Low budget, more action and violence than Hollywood (this inspired US-made films to adapt).
- “Spaghetti Westerns” launched career of Clint Eastwood. He went on to star and direct in numerous Westerns (1960-92) and won an Oscar in 1992 for Best Picture and Director for the Western, “The Unforgiven.”
Other Film Western Sub-genres:
- Cowboy Musicals (Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey).
- Western Comedy (Blazing Saddles, Back to the Future III, My Name is Nobody, Shanghai Noon).
- Post-Apocalyptic Western (Postman, Mad Max, Book of Eli).
- Space Western (Star Wars, Solo, Serenity, Avatar, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, Cowboys and Aliens).
- Horror-Western (Bone Tomahawk, The Burrowers, Ravenous, Gallowwalkers)
Check out the review above with filmmaker S. Craig Zahler as he talks about his Western-hybrid “Bone Tomahawk”.
Other Western films for viewing consideration
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Searchers (1956)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Pale Rider (1985)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The Missing (2003)
The Legend of Zorro (2005)
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
True Grit (2010)
The Revenant (2015)
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Agresta, M. (2013, July 24). How the western was lost (and why it matters) – The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/how-the-western-was-lost-and-why-it-matters/278057/
AMC. (n.d.). Westerns Films. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). western | narrative genre | Britannica.com. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/western
Genre: Western – The Script Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://thescriptlab.com/screenplay/genre/western
Perry, C. J. (2015, March 6). The evolution of the western genre. Retrieved from http://www.filmslatemagazine.com/the-evolution-of-the-western-genre/