Welcome to Almost Ginger’s easy guide to Westerns! I like focusing on a genre or style of filmmaking, a movement, and talking about it. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Westerns… But do you know what I am? A Beginner. Yes, we’re all beginners at everything and we shall all die beginners. But hopefully less of a beginner at Westerns. Does that make any sense?
Ardent film fans, read on knowing you will probably be able challenge what I’m going to write. And you can smile to yourself in delight at the basic-ness of my wisdom. However, I do know that lots of my readers aren’t huge film fans, However, they do still visit this site for the travel-y stuff about film. Therefore, they might appreciate some bite-sized knowledge about film every now and again. Y’know, to help in pub quizzes.
This month we’re looking at Westerns. A genre older than the film medium itself. Grab yer ten gallons and yer horses and let’s ev’ryone head down to the crick…
What is a ‘Western?’
Simply, in filmic terms the Western is a ‘genre’. Which means it’s films are subject to audience expectations of that genre. Those expectations are cemented over time to forge what we understand a Western film to be. Some genres are very loose in their requirements, such as a comedy film. A comedy, to me, means it simply needs to be funny. Westerns, in their basic sense can be characterized by iconography, character types, locations, narrative, and I’m sure a great many other intricate filmic elements. However, we’re going to stick with these for now.
Westerns definitely have their archtypes or stock characters. Much like Pantomime or Commedia dell’arte if you’re into theatre.
Firstly, you have the Cowboy, Outsider, Outlaw or Bounty Hunter. I think all four could potentially fit the same trope. He’s the man who isn’t very trusting. He’s either passing through town or new in town. Perhaps the slightly mysterious one who drops in to shake things up. This man is usually an expert gunslinger or maybe a retired outlaw/Bounty Hunter/Gunslinger who is pulled out of retirement for whatever reason. The hero, or anti-hero, of the Classic Western.
Then have have Marshals, Sheriffs, Prospectors, dumb silly Deputies that have an authority problem. And theycan’t protect their town for love nor money.
Getting into the heart of your townsfolk, there are several different characters you will see over and over again. You’ll probably have a rich greedy man who maybe runs a bank. There are fair maidens, damsels, homesteaders and doting widows. Eventually, someone dies and the Preacher and Undertaker will show up.
Let’s not forget the Miss Kitty character. She probably works in the local Saloon andisn’t quite as ‘damsel’-y as the other girls in town. And she looks after all of them hookers if you’re fancin’ it after a long trek across state.
There are quite often Native Americans in Western movies and are usually treated with inferiority in slave/menial labour positions. They tend to be who the gangs are hunting down/fighting. Westerns are very often all about the community. The gang, the impenetrable family-like bond and the breakdown of that Status Quo.
The locations of a Western are perhaps the most straightforward. A classic Western is set in the United States of America from the start of the 17th century to early 20th century. Though most take place sometime between 1850-1900. ‘Western’, ‘Old West’ or ‘Wild West’ literally just means ‘West of the Mississippi River‘. The Mississippi river stems from Mississippi all the way up to the top of Minnesota. It literally cuts right through the entire country.
Getting more general, Westerns often take place wholly or partly in frontier towns. Those wooden towns that have Saloons, a Sheriff’s office and a poorly guarded a bank. And they also usually have ranches and farms on the outskirts. Western films make good use of the vast but harsh American landscape and burgeoning industrial era and take place across many states and might feature steam trains and oil mines.
If you’ve never heard of the term ‘iconography’ before, you can still probably guess what it means. It’s used in film, literature, etc. to describe iconic props, costume or any kind of physical imagery that is iconic of a genre or style. You might also refer to iconography as motifs. Though, if we’re being picky, the two words have different meanings. A motif to me is more like a recurring theme or trait which is a bit more ambiguous and fluid than iconography.
For example, guns, horses, ten gallon hats, spurs, cow hide, bonnets, frills; all of these costumes and props give the audience the indicator that they’re watching a Western film. The same goes for the frontier towns I mentioned with the swinging Saloon doors and the throwing of shot glasses full of Sarsaparilla to and from the cowboy to the barkeep across the bar.
Finally, narrative ties together all of the jigsaw pieces I’ve mentioned above. Often, Westerns will have a mysterious, nomadic outsider who turns up at a new town. Think Lone Ranger (1956). He wears an actual Zoro mask and builds a grave for himself to pretend he’s dead when he’s not. You can’t get more mysterious than that. The outsider shakes things up. Maybe woos a fair maiden much to the horror of her rancher parents and people get upset by his presence in the town. Then there’s a scuffle of some sorts, and one thing leads to another and there’s a show down at High Noon.
One guy is at one end of town, the other guy is at the other and tumbleweed rolls past (hey! There’s another iconography example right there!) Only the quickest, sharpest on the draw wins. They might be heard saying things like “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!” or “Why you yellow-belly no-good stinkin’ outlaw!”
Honour is everything
There isn’t really such thing as the law as we know it in Western films, it’s more to do with honour and social justice and not being a cowardly buffoon. An immediate example that springs to mind is a recent Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Jesse James was, for all intents and purposes, a robber and an outlaw. There was a bounty of $10,000 on his head for Christ sakes. However, when Robert Ford (a supposed allie and member of the James gang) shoots him in the back of the head, people are more bothered about the fact he shot Jesse James in the back rather than to his face with honour. And no one actually thanked him for shooting a murderer.
Early Western films…
The Western genre already existed in literature by the time the film medium was brought to the public. The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often seen as the first Western film, but Westerns didn’t really kick off until the 1930s. A lot of these starred John Wayne so there’s no wonder he’s completely synonymous with the genre. He was there right at the beginning and until the very end of it’s popularity. Stagecoach (1939) is a famous one that comes to mind and was directed by John Ford. Ford was a famous director of Westerns, and Stagecoach also features the iconic setting of Monument Valley.
Annie Oakley (1935) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Billy the Kid (1930) were based on real life people and was common of Western stories. I think knowing that these people really existed helps with the realism of the times.
Popular Classic Western films…
The 1950s and the 1960s were when Westerns really came into their own. I think they were the most popular Hollywood genre in these two decades. The Searchers (1954) directed by John Ford and starring, you guessed it, John Wayne was a fantastic success and nowadays is basically considered a masterpiece. It regularly features on ‘The best films of all time’ lists. The Big Country (1958) also directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda was popular on it’s release and Henry Fonda was in a fair few Westerns himself. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is another well-known classic Western and is technically a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and stars Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.
One of my personal favourites is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Unsurprisingly because it features my all time favourite actor James Stewart. Shane (1953) and High Noon (1952) are also well worth a watch.
Subverting the genre
What happens when you get a genre that is so defined and so iconic as the Western and whose popularity is overwhelming? You change it. You parody it, you homage it, you splice it with another genre. Mix it up, subvert it. Because where’s the fun in watching the same thing over and over again?
Towards the end of the 1960s, you had directors, actors and film makers playing around with the Western genre. Keeping it fresh and getting creative. Some of you might have realised that I haven’t even mentioned the Spaghetti Western yet. An Italian take on the Western (quite bizarre really if you think about it) emerged in the 1960s. Directors like Sergio Leone shot with low budgets and on location in Spain and Italy. The Mediterranean landscapes standing in perfectly for US or the Mexican deserts. Honestly, there were hundreds and hundreds of these Italian Western films shot in such a short space of time.
Spaghetti Westerns and Classic Westerns ARE different
The main difference between these Westerns and the Classic Westerns were usually the motives of the characters. Remember how I said that the characters in Classic Westerns liked to rule with honour? The characters of Spaghetti Westerns were usually selfish, and more violent than the gentlemanly shoot out at high noon in Classic Westerns. Clint Eastwood is of course worth mentioning at this point, having starred in Westerns since the 1940s. (HOW is he still alive and still directing?!) and was the Man with No Name in Leone’s renowned Fistful Trilogy (1964-1966).
The Wild Bunch (1969) directed by Sam Peckinpah also slightly subverts the traditional Western. If we’re getting down to specifics, Classic Westerns take place before 1912 when the last state lines were admitted. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913 when some people where having a hard time adjusting to the new world. The Wild Bunch could be referred to as a Contemporary Western, as it uses Western themes and ideas in a more contemporary setting. But we’ll get onto Contemporary Westerns soon.
The list of other subversions of the Western genre is limitless. Blazing Saddles (1974) is a Satirical Western. Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Calamity Jane (1953) are Musical Westerns and the recently released Bone Tomahawk (2015) starring Kurt Russell is a Horror Western.
Use in other genres
Just because a film isn’t a straight up Western and doesn’t contain enough iconography to identify it as one, doesn’t mean to say it isn’t influenced by Western themes a teensy bit. Think back to the classic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) in the Cantina where Han Solo shoots Greedo. It’s classic Western shoot out at High Noon! It’s just in a Saloon!
Also, think of every period war film you’ve ever watched where the Soldiers are on horses and the epic music starts as they gallop across the fields with miles of mountains in the background. Total Western rip off.
Modern Western films…
Westerns haven’t quite died out, but we’ll never get the same kind of Westerns as we did mid-20th century. Westerns need to continually adapt to it’s changing audience. The themes need to be relevant and we do get tired of watching the same thing. Enter Contemporary Westerns! You might say that Contemporary Westerns are simply a splicing of genres between Western and something else, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. No Country for Old Men (2007) directed by the Coen Brothers is set on the Mexican border and contains the beautiful desert landscapes, shoot outs (of sorts), an outsider and a damsel. However, the violence is much colder and the characters more selfish like a Spaghetti Western. But it’s set in present day. Is this a Thriller Western? A Drama Western? Just doesn’t sound right to me.
What about Brokeback Mountain (2005) directed by Ang Lee? If I recall it’s set in Wyoming which is definitely Western territory. And features two cowboys, so we’re definitely ticking boxes. But would you say it’s a Romantic Western? My head is starting to hurt.
Over to you…
Maybe some homework is to watch the original True Grit (1969) starring John Wayne. He won an Oscar for his lazy portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in this film and I’m still seething at this. Then, watch the Coen Brothers version of True Grit (2010). What are the main differences between the two? What are the character’s motives? Are they motivated by fear or by honour? Do their motives change throughout the movie? Who do we empathise with? Do the characters fit the archetypes of a Western or not?
I hope you feel like you’ve learned something! Do you like the Western genre? Have I convinced you to how diverse and totally awesome the Western genre is?