From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Westerns lost their appeal in the seventies with the emergence of the younger "New Hollywood" audience, who were in the process of revising long held legends of the American west. A number of Westerns made in the seventies, are, as a result, definitely not conventional re-tellings of heroism and the taming of the American frontier. Instead, they make a new space for themselves which allows little room for the glorification of violence, the genocide of the American Indian, stultifying gender roles, or a style of myth-making that has little to do with the reality of a hard scrabble life lived on the borders of civilisation. The Hired Hand directed by and starring Peter Fonda, is a perfect and lovely example of this." --Sholem Stein
Eight unusual westerns (a list by Sholem Stein):
The Western is an American fiction genre seen in film, television, radio, literature, painting and other visual arts. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in what became the Western United States (known as the American Old West), but also in Western Canada and Mexico. Closely related to the Western is gaucho literature of Argentina and tales of the European settlement of the Australian Outback, and also, the Charro or "rural" film genre in Mexico (see Golden Age of Mexican cinema). In film, the genre was most popular from the 1930s and into the 1960s, but the number of Westerns made since that time has declined significantly.
In film, the genre was most popular from the 1930s and into the 1960s, but the number of Westerns made since that time has declined significantly.
Most of the characteristics of Westerns were part of 19th century popular Western literature and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Referred to as "dumbos" in film industry headlinese, Western films commonly feature as their protagonists stock characters such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, often depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival, and ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on faithful steeds.
Western films were enormously popular in the silent era although, in common with all films of this period, relatively few of the thousands of silent Westerns made have survived to the present. However, with the advent of sound in 1927-28 the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers, who 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 the release of John Ford's landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year and made John Wayne a major screen star.
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.
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 New Mexico, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Colorado or Wyoming. While many Westerns were filmed in California and Arizona, most of them depicted Texas. 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 as cinemascope (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 visions of the American West.
Western films, until recent times, had many anachronisms, particularly the firearms. Winchester 1892-model rifles were frequently used in films set in the 1870s. Since the late 1960s, however, films have shown more of the wide variety of period-appropriate arms used during the 1870s. For example, Arthur Hunnicutt carries a revolving rifle during part of El Dorado (1967) and Lee Van Cleef is equipped with a veritable arsenal of frontier firearms in For A Few Dollars More (1965).
Subgenres of Western film
The Western genre itself has sub-genres, such as the epic Western, the shoot 'em up, singing cowboy Westerns, and a few comedy Westerns. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was re-invented with the revisionist Western.
- Classical Westerns
- The first Western film was the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, a silent film directed by Edwin S. Porter and starring Broncho Billy Anderson. The film's popularity opened the door for Anderson to become the screen's first cowboy star, making several hundred Western film shorts. So popular was the genre that he soon had competition in the form of William S. Hart. The Golden Age of the Western film is epitomized by the work of two directors: John Ford (who often used John Wayne for lead roles) and Howard Hawks.
- Spaghetti Westerns
- During the 1960s and 1970s, a revival of the Western emerged in Italy with the "Spaghetti Westerns" or "Italo-Westerns". The most famous of them is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Many of these films are low-budget affairs, shot in locations (for example, the Spanish desert region of Almería) chosen for their inexpensive crew and production costs as well as their similarity to landscapes of the Southwestern United States. Spaghetti Westerns were characterized by the presence of more action and violence than the Hollywood Westerns.
- The films directed by Sergio Leone have a parodic dimension (the strange opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West being a reversal of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon opening scene) which gave them a different tone to the Hollywood Westerns. Charles Bronson, Lee van Cleef and Clint Eastwood became famous by starring in Spaghetti Westerns, although they were also to provide a showcase, for other noted actors such as Jason Robards, James Coburn, Klaus Kinski and Henry Fonda.
- Eastern-European-produced Westerns were popular in Communist Eastern European countries, and were a particular favorite of Joseph Stalin. "Red Western" or "Ostern" films usually portrayed the American Indians sympathetically, as oppressed people fighting for their rights, in contrast to American Westerns of the time, which frequently portrayed the Indians as villains. They frequently featured Gypsies or Turkic people in the role of the Indians, due to the shortage of authentic Indians in Eastern Europe.
- Gojko Mitić portrayed righteous, kind hearted and charming Indian chiefs (Die Söhne der großen Bärin directed by Josef Mach). He became honorary chief of the tribe of Sioux when he visited the United States of America in the 1990s and the television crew accompanying him showed the tribe one of his films. American actor and singer Dean Reed, an expatriate who lived in East Germany, also starred in several films.
- The Ostern genre developed in the Soviet Union as a home-grown counterpart to the American Western. Osterns are set in Central Asia or the Russian steppes during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. The historic setting of the Russian Civil War shared many of the iconic features of the Wild West: a romantic opposition of good and evil, a culture clash with occasionally hostile natives, horseback riding, trains, lawlessness, gunplay, and vast landscapes. The quintessential example of the Ostern is the cult film The White Sun of the Desert.
- Revisionist Western
- In genre studies, films that change traditional elements of a genre are called "revisionist." After the early 1960s, many American film-makers began to question and change many traditional elements of Westerns. One major change was in the increasingly positive representation of Native Americans who had been treated as "savages" in earlier films (Little Big Man). Audiences were encouraged to question the simple hero-versus-villain dualism and the morality of using violence to test one's character or to prove oneself right.
- Some recent Westerns give women more powerful roles. One of the earlier films that encompasses all these features was the 1956 adventure film The Last Wagon in which Richard Widmark played a white man raised by Commanches and persecuted by Whites, with Felicia Farr and Susan Kohner playing young women forced into leadership roles.
- Acid Western
- Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to makeshift 1960s and 1970s genre called the acid Western, associated with Dennis Hopper, Jim McBride, and Rudy Wurlitzer, as well as films like Monte Hellman's The Shooting, Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre experimental film El Topo (The Mole), and Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace. The 1970 film El Topo is an allegorical, cult Western and underground film about the eponymous character - a violent, black-clad gunfighter - and his quest for enlightenment. The film is filled with bizarre characters and occurrences, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy. Some spaghettis also crossed over into the acid genre, such as Enzo G. Castellari's mystical Keoma (released in 1976), a western reworking of Ingmar Bergman's metaphysical The Seventh Seal.
- More recent films include Alex Cox's Walker, and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. Rosenbaum describes the "acid Western" as "formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda." Ultimately, the "acid Western" expresses a counterculture sensibility to critique and replace capitalism with alternative forms of exchange.
- Contemporary Westerns
- Although these films have contemporary American settings, they utilize Old West themes and motifs (a rebellious anti-hero, open plains and desert landscapes, and gunfights). For the most part, they still take place in the American West and reveal the progression of the Old West mentality into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This sub-genre often features Old West-type characters struggling with displacement in a "civilized" world that rejects their outdated brand of justice.
- Examples include Hud starring Paul Newman (1963), Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974); John Sayles' Lone Star (1996); Robert Rodríguez's El Mariachi (1992); Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005); Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking (2005); and the Coen brothers' Academy Award-winning No Country For Old Men (2007).
- Science fiction Western
- These films introduces science fiction themes or futuristic elements into a Western setting. Examples include The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Back to the Future Part III, Westworld, Wild Wild West, Serenity and Bravestarr.
- Curry Western
- The ever-popular spaghetti westerns laid the place for Sholay first in line for a line of Indian westerns, affectionately called curry westerns.
Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. For instance The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and both A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing were remakes of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, most especially John Ford.
Despite the Cold War, the Western was a strong influence on Eastern Bloc cinema, which had its own take on the genre, the so called "Red Western" or "Ostern". Generally these took two forms: either straight Westerns shot in the Eastern Bloc, or action films involving the Russian Revolution and civil war and the Basmachi rebellion in which Turkic peoples play a similar role to Mexicans in traditional Westerns.
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, and the computer game series Fallout. Many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the Western genre. This is particularly the case in the space Western subgenre of science fiction. Peter Hyams' Outland transferred the plot of High Noon to interstellar space. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars".
More recently, the space opera series Firefly used an explicitly Western theme for its portrayal of frontier worlds. Anime shows like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star have been similar mixes of science fiction and Western elements. The science fiction Western can be seen as a subgenre of either Westerns or science fiction. Elements of Western films can be found also in some films belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war film, but action and characters are Western-like. The British film Zulu set during the Anglo-Zulu War has sometimes been compared to a Western, even though it is set in South Africa.
The character played by Humphrey Bogart in film noir films such as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - an individual bound only by his own private code of honor -has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western, has also explored noir elements, as with the film Sugar Creek.
In many of Robert A. Heinlein's books, the settlement of other planets is depicted in ways explicitly modeled on American settlement of the West. For example, in his Tunnel in the Sky settlers set out to the planet "New Cannan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in Conestoga wagons, their captain sporting mustaches and a little goatee and riding a Palomino horse - with Heinlein explaining that the colonists would need to survive on their own for some years, so horses are more practical than machines.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that meshes themes of Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction and horror. The protagonist Roland Deschain is a gunslinger whose image and personality are largely inspired by the "Man with No Name" from Sergio Leone's films. In addition, the superhero fantasy genre has been described as having been derived from the cowboy hero, only powered up to omnipotence in a primarily urban setting. The Western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff!, Cat Ballou, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody.
George Lucas's Star Wars films use many elements of a Western, and Lucas has said he intended for Star Wars to revitalize cinematic mythology, a part the Western once held. The Jedi, who take their name from Jidaigeki, are modeled after samurai, showing the influence of Kurosawa. The character Han Solo dressed like an archetypal gunslinger, and the Mos Eisley Cantina is much like an Old West saloon.
In the 1960s academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. With the increased attention, film theory was developed to attempt to understand the significance of film. From this environment emerged (in conjunction with the literary movement) an enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structuralist approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning.
Westerns usually have certain codes: For example, a hero wears a white hat, while the villain wears a black hat; when more than one cowboy faces the other with no one in between them, there will be a shootout; ranchers and mountainmen don't talk to people and live alone, while townsfolk are family and community-minded, etc. All Western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes.
One of the results of genre studies is that some have argued that "Westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th century, as the codes can be found in other types of films. For example, a very typical Western plot is that an eastern lawman heads west, where he matches wits and trades bullets with a gang of outlaws and thugs, and is aided by a local lawman who is well-meaning but largely ineffective until a critical moment when he redeems himself by saving the hero's life. This description can be used to describe any number of Westerns, as well as the action film Die Hard. Hud, starring Paul Newman, and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, are other frequently cited examples of films that do not take place in the American West but have many themes and characteristics common to Westerns. Likewise, films set in the old American West may not necessarily be considered "Westerns."
- Acid Western
- American Old West
- American West
- Dime Western
- Frederic Remington
- Charles Russell
- Earl W. Bascom
- Golden Boot Awards
- History of United States continental expansion
- List of film genres
- List of Western fiction authors
- List of Western films
- TV Western
- Movie ranches
- Northern (genre)
- Owen Wister
- List of Western computer and video games
- Western Writers of America
- Science fiction Western
- Space Western
- Spaghetti Western
- Weird West