The Western Film Genre

The Western is some­times described as a ‘pure’ genre, some­thing invented by the film industry; born in the early days of Holly­wood. It’s not quite that of course. Western stories and western heroes had been around since the nine­teenth century, featuring in folk tales and sensa­tion­al­ised in the press.

Dime magazines with lurid illus­tra­tions and, later, the novels of writers like Louis Lamour helped to manu­fac­ture the myths that the movies exploited but they were home-grown, Amer­ican myths, to be sure; and that was important in a world that was falling in love with America through movies. In this context, cowboys were glam­orous figures that embodied the pion­eering Amer­ican spirit.

In the decades that have followed those early days, films made in the Western Genre have been a reflec­tion not just of those myths but also of the gap between myth and reality. Each decade has produced versions of The Western with a different emphasis according to what was happening in the country’s zeit­geist. The death of The Western Genre has often been predicted but it’s a long way from expiring yet and it seems likely to survive in some form or another in decades to come.

Tropes and Themes

The Western genre has an elab­orate, rich history. The central themes of the Western play them­selves out in the classic Western, which was the predom­inant form until 1950. The central motifs of the Classic Western are as follows:

• The hero, a man alone, func­tions with a world­view that is both moral and decent.

• The hero has a distinct skill with guns and horses.

• The antag­onist has mercantile goals—the accu­mu­la­tion of money, land,cattle—and will recog­nize no person or ethic that stands in his way.

• The land plays a pastoral, but crit­ical, role. It not only repres­ents freedom, but also primitivism.

Civil­iz­a­tion is repres­ented by those forces that represent an organ­izing inlu­ence on life—the town, the army, married life, and children.

• The struggle between the forces of prim­it­ivism (such as the land and the Indians) and those of civil­iz­a­tion (such as the army and the town) forms a partic­ular dilemma for the Western hero. In which world will he reside? His heart sides with the forces of prim­it­ivism, but his head sides with the forces of civil­iz­a­tion. This is the classic conlict for the Western hero.

• The drama plays itself out in a ritu­al­ized form — gunfights, cattle drives and indi­vidual conlicts are acted out rather than negotiated.

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Having char­ac­ter­ized the classic Western, we should also recog­nize how the Western has changed since 1950. Revi­sions to the classic Western have attempted, as their primary goal, to make the Western less inno­cent. The hero is system­at­ic­ally demys­tiied: in The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck, the hero, is a victim of his repu­ta­tion; in Winchester ’73, James Stewart portrays a neu– rotic hero; and in The Wild Bunch, William Holden’s hero is a killer without a hint of the tender­ness of the classic hero.

Other West­erns have focused on the issue of civil­izing forces. Armies have been presented as more prim­itive than the prim­it­ives (that is, the Indians) as in Apache, The Outlaw Josey Wales and towns have been hell rather than heaven—as in High Plains Drifter. The nature of the central character’s struggle has become much more jaded and much less ideal­istic. Indeed, both The Culpepper Cattle Company and Heaven’s Gate are about the loss of idealism.”

Dancyger, Altern­ative Screenwriting

High Noon 1952

A marshall (Gary Cooper), married to a paci­fist, faces dilemma when he has to deal with four men coming to kill him and receives no support from the towns­folk he represents.

Often cited as a classic western, this is more like a tense little psycho­drama which has been held up vari­ously as a meta­phor for McCarthyism and the Communist Threat. Cooper’s health was failing when he made it and the pain and exhaus­tion he was in colours his perform­ance. Notwith­standing, it remains a good example of how flex­ible the genre can be when tack­ling the universal themes of moral respons­ib­ility and the individual’s place in society.

  All film clips can be expanded by clicking the x symbol in the bottom right corner 

The Glory Guys 1965

Tom Tryon, a better writer than actor, head­lines this fitfully enter­taining Western with a script by no less than Sam Peck­inpah.

Tryon plays a Calvary officer charged with whip­ping a group of green­horns into fighting men just in time to be used as expend­able fodder by an oppor­tun­istic general (Andrew Duggan) who plans to sacri­fice them in his battle against the Sioux.  Senta Berger appears as the woman caught between Tryon and Pres­nell, and James Caan makes an early impres­sion as an Irish recruit.

As always, timing is signi­ficant. In the mid 60’s the enemy (the Sioux) are given scant sympathy and the film emphas­ises the comrade­ship of military life. Not that different from movies like The Boys in Country C and the diamet­rical opposite of pro-indian films like Soldier Blue (see below) made just five years later after a radical change in public atti­tudes towards the war in Vietnam. A ‘tradi­tional’ western in many ways but already looking dated.

Butch Cassidy & The Sund­ance Kid

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Read the script

Extract from Butch Cassidy and The Sund­ance Kid (PDF) – a brief extract from the version published in paper­back in the 60’s. It’s missing sluglines but accur­ately conveys William Goldman’s flowing style with multiple CUT TO’s.

Ulzana’s Raid

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The Hunting Party 1971

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High Plains Drifter

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A Fistful Of Dollars

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The Hired Hand 1971

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The Great North­field Minnesota Raid 1972

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Lonely Are The Brave 1962

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Soldier Blue

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Little Big Man 1970

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Blazing Saddles

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Bad Company

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Dead­wood

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