Broncho Billy Anderson, from "The Great Train Robbery"
The Western movie is one of the classic American film genres. Westerns are art works – films, literature, sculpture, TV shows and paintings – devoted to telling romanticized tales of the American West.
While the Western has been popular throughout the history of movies, as the United States progresses farther away from the period depicted it has begun to diminish in importance. The Kevin Costner western, Open Range, is seen by some as a revival of the genre.
What a Western is
The fundamental plots of Westerns are simple. Life is reduced to its elements: there are no computers, no cellphones, no cars, no electricity. No twenty-first century technology, no "modern life." Technology is usually limited to that found in rural areas in the mid-19th century. You have:
- The clothes on your back.
- Your gun, and
- Your horse.
And that's usually it. The horse may be optional. The high technology of the era – such as the telegraph, printing press, and railroad – do sometimes appear, occasionally as a development just arriving, and symbolizing that the idealized frontier lifestyle is transitory, soon to give way to the march of civilization.
The art of the Western takes these simple elements and uses them to tell simple morality stories, setting them against the spectacular scenery of the American West. With the best Western directors, the scenery essentially became a star of the movie.
- See also: Frederic Remington, Indian Wars, Continental Expansion of the U.S., Manifest Destiny, The West
Origins of the "Western idea"
The idea of the "Wild West" traces at least to Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows which 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. His books were a major influence on the founder of Universal Pictures, the German immigrant Carl Laemmle; and May himself 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,Louis L'Amour and Elmore Leonard.
Popular culture and Westerns
American popular culture loves cultures of honor, as opposed to cultures of law. The Western portrays a society in which persons have no social order larger than their immediate peers, family, or perhaps themselves alone. Here, one must cultivate a reputation by acts of violence; or they can be generous, because generosity creates a dependency relationship in the 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 Hollywood
A genre in which description and dialogue are lean, and the landscape spectacular, is well suited to a visual medium. Western movies, usually filmed in desolate corners of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado or Wyoming, 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. The Western re-invented itself in the revisionist Western.
Cowboys and Gunslingers play prominent roles in Western movies. Often fights with 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 in The Magnificent Seven.
, a singing cowboy; he sang the theme from High Noon
The Great Train Robbery, the first narrative film produced in the United States, was a Western
In film, the western traces its roots back to The Great Train Robbery, a 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.
Beginning in the 1960s, many people questioned many traditional themes of westerns; aside from the portrayal of the Native American as a "savage", 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 Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven. Some "modern" Westerns give women more powerful roles, such as Open Range and The Missing.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a considerable revival coming from Italy with the "Spaghetti Westerns" or "Italo-Westerns". Many of these films were fairly low-budget affairs, shot in locations principally chosen for the cheapness of shooting film, and are characterised by high-action and violence. But the best of the genre, notably films directed by Sergio Leone, have some 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). 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, Klaus Kinski and Henry Fonda.
Genre Studies and Westerns
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) a enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structural approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning. So long derided for its simplistic morality, the western film genre was seen instead as a series of conventions and codes that acted as a short-hand communication methods with the audience. For example, a white hat represents the good guy, a black hat represents the bad guy; two people facing each other on a deserted street leads to the expectation of a showdown; cattlemen are loners, townsfolk are family and community minded; and so forth. All western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes. Since the 1970s, the western genre has been unraveled through a series of films that used the codes but primarily as a way of undermining them. Little Big Man and Maverick did this through comedy. Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves actually resurrected all the original codes and conventions and reversed the good vs. bad polarity (the Native-Americans were good, the U.S. Cavalry was bad). Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven uses every one of the original conventions, only reverses the outcomes (instead of dying like a man characters whine, cry, and beg; instead of a good guy saving the day, unredeemable characters execute revenge; etc.)
Due to genre studies, some have argued that "westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th Century. Hud starring Paul Newman and Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) are possible examples of this. Likewise, films set in the old American West, may not necessarily be considered "Westerns."
Other influences to and by 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, and both A Fistful of Dollars & Last Man Standing were remakes of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Despite the Cold War, the western was actually quite 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 Fallout.
In fact, many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the western genre. 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.
Elements of western movies can be found also in some movies belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war movie, but action and characters are western-like. The British film Zulu set during the Anglo-Zulu War is essentially Western in character but set in South Africa.
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, and Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles.
The 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.  (http://www.cowboydirectory.com/J/J-ea.html). Bill Pickett, an African American rodeo performer, also appeared in early western films for the same audience  (http://www.famoustexans.com/billpickett.htm).
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 Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Maverick, and many others.
The 1970s saw a revision of the western, with the incorporation of many new elements. McCloud, which premiered in 1970, was essentially a fusion of the sheriff-oriented western with the modern big-city crime drama. Hec Ramsey was a western who-dunnit mystery series. Little House on the Prairie was set on the frontier in the time period of the western, but was essentially a family drama. Kung Fu was in the tradition of the itinerant gunfighter westerns, but the main character was a Chinese monk who fought only with his formidable martial art skill. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was a family adventure show about a gentle mountain man with an uncanny connection to wildlife who helps others who visit his wilderness refuge.
The 1990s saw the networks getting into filming Western movies on their own. Like Louis L'Amour ‘s Conagher, Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, The Last Outlaw, The Jack Bull etc. A few new comedies like The Cisco Kid,, The Cherokee Kid, , and the gritty TV series Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.
This century started off with Louis L'Amour’s Crossfire Trail, Monte Walsh, and Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, & A Thief of Time. DVDs offer a second life to TV series like Peacemakers, and HBO’s Deadwood..
It is pretty clear that Westerns are not dead, but have moved smoothly from the first color TV series The Cisco Kid, through the half hour, shoot-um-ups, "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp", Have Gun - Will Travel, " of the 1950’s. Later hour long adult westerns, to the slickly packaged made for TV westerns of today.
- "As far as I'm concerned, Americans don't have any original art except Western movies and jazz."
- — Clint Eastwood, classic actor in Westerns