The Western is a genre of art that may be found in film, television, radio, literature, painting and other visual arts. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the latter half of the 19th century in the American Old West. Some Westerns are set as early as the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 but most are set between the end of the American Civil War (1865) and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. There are also a number of films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings, such as Junior Bonner set in the 1970s and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in the 21st century.
Westerns often portray how primitive and obsolete ways of life confronted modern technological or social changes. This may be depicted by showing conflict between natives and settlers or U.S. Cavalry or between cattle ranchers and farmers ("sodbusters"), or by showing ranchers being threatened by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. American Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s emphasize the values of honor and sacrifice. Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have a more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West. Despite being tightly associated with a specific time and place in American history, these themes have allowed Westerns to be produced and enjoyed across the world.
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 inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice (such as the feud), rather than any rationalistic, abstract law, in which persons have no social order larger than their immediate peers, family, or perhaps themselves alone. 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.
In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of an earlier extensive genre. 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 a damsel 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) are more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness 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. 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 and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is, as Sergio Leone said, "where life has no value".
The American Film Institute defines western films as those "set in the American West that embody the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier." Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of 19th century popular Western literature and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. 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.
Western set at Universal Studios in HollywoodEarly 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. 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 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".
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).
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.
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 and Howard Hawks (both of whom often used John Wayne in lead roles).
The Northern genre is a subgenre of Westerns taking place in Western Canada or Alaska. Examples include The Far Country and North to Alaska.
This is a colloquial idiom often used to describe Western films made in Western Europe. The term can sometimes, but not necessarily, include the Spaghetti Western subgenre (see below). One example of a Euro Western is the 1961 Anglo-Spanish film The Savage Guns. Several such films were made in Germany, derived from stories by novelist Karl May.
See also: Zapata Western and Weird West 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 Almeria) 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. Also, the protagonists usually acted out of more selfish motives (money or revenge being the most common) than in the classical 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 (e.g. in 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.
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, Dances With Wolves). 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 Comanches and persecuted by whites, with Felicia Farr and Susan Kohner playing young women forced into leadership roles.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to a 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.
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); Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974); Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi (1992); John Sayles' Lone Star (1996); Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); 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 introduce science fiction themes or futuristic elements into a Western setting. Examples include Bravestarr, Back to the Future Part III, Westworld, Wild, Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, Outland, and Firefly (as well as the film Serenity based on Firefly).
Spaghetti Westerns laid the groundwork for Sholay, first of a line of Indian Westerns, called Curry Westerns.
A developing sub-genre, with roots in films such as Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), which depicts the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid fighting against the notorious vampire. The same year, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter paired another famous outlaw with another fictional horror character. The Ghoul Goes West was an unproduced Edward D. Wood, Jr. film to star Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the Old West. The 2008 film The Burrowers is a recent example of the genre: a posse sets out to look for a band of Indians believed to have abducted several white women, only to discover that what they are hunting may not be human and that they in fact may be the prey.
This subgenre blends elements of a classic Western with other elements. The Wild Wild West and its later film adaptation blends the Western with steampunk and Jonah Hex blends the Western with superhero elements. This subgenre can encompass others, such as the Horror Western and the Science Fiction Western, e.g. Firefly.
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 A Fistful of Dollars was a remake 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 Io, a moon of Jupiter. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars". The Book of Eli depicts the post apocalypse as a Western with large knives.
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 Canaan", 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.
Meanwhile, films such as The Big Lebowski, which plucked actor Sam Elliott out of the Old West and into a Los Angeles bowling alley, and Midnight Cowboy, about a Southern-boy-turned-gigolo in New York, transplanted Western themes into modern settings for both purposes of parody and homage.
- More information is available at [ Wikipedia:Television Westerns ]
Television Westerns are a sub-genre of the Western. When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV Westerns quickly became an audience favorite. Beginning with re-broadcasts of existing films soon a number of movie cowboys had their own TV shows. As the Western became more in demand new stories and stars were introduced. A number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Rawhide, The Virginian, and Wagon Train.
The peak year for television Westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. Increasing costs of American television production led to most action half hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long television shows, increasingly in color. In the 1970s, new elements were incorporated into TV Westerns, such as crime drama and mystery whodunit elements. Western shows from the 1970s included McCloud, Hec Ramsey, Little House on the Prairie, and Kung Fu. In the 1990s and 2000s, hour-long Westerns and slickly packaged made-for-TV movie Westerns were introduced. Examples include Lonesome Dove and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. As well, new elements were once again added to the Western formula, such as the Western-science fiction show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon in 2002. Deadwood was a critically-acclaimed Western series which aired on HBO from 2004 through 2006.
Why is this article included on the SM-201 site?
The television "Western" was a very big part of my early childhood. In a lot of ways, it helped form my "Damsel in distress" interests. To this day, I have very fond memories of Penny on "Sky King", almost intentionally getting captured and tied up by some villian or another.
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