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Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier (the borderline between civilization and the wilderness). They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins.
[The popularity of westerns has waxed and waned over the years. Their most prolific era was in the 1930s to the 1960s, and most recently in the 90s, there was a resurgence of the genre. They appear to be making an invigorating comeback (both on the TV screen and in theatres). Modern movie remakes, such as 3:10 To Yuma (2007) and the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) have also paid homage to their mid-20th century predecessors.]
AFI's 10 Top 10 - The Top 10 Western Films
See all Greatest Westerns Title Screens
This indigenous American art form focuses on the frontier West that existed in North America. Westerns are often set on the American frontier during the last part of the 19th century (1865-1900) following the Civil War, in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. However, Westerns may extend back to the time of America's colonial period or forward to the mid-20th century, or as far geographically as Mexico. A number of westerns use the Civil War, the Battle of the Alamo (1836) or the Mexican Revolution (1910) as a backdrop.
The western film genre often 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. Specific settings include lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, the isolated homestead, the saloon, the jail, the livery stable, the small-town main street, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization. They may even include Native American sites or villages. Other iconic elements in westerns include the hanging tree, stetsons and spurs, saddles, lassos and Colt .45's, bandannas and buckskins, canteens, stagecoaches, gamblers, long-horned cattle and cattle drives, prostitutes (or madams) with a heart of gold, and more. Very often, the cowboy has a favored horse (or 'faithful steed'), for example, Roy Rogers' Trigger, Gene Autry's Champion, William Boyd's (Hopalong Cassidy) Topper, the Lone Ranger's Silver and Tonto's Scout.
Western films have also been called the horse opera, the oater (quickly-made, short western films which became as commonplace as oats for horses), or the cowboy picture. The western film genre has portrayed much about America's past, glorifying the past-fading values and aspirations of the mythical by-gone age of the West. Over time, westerns have been re-defined, re-invented and expanded, dismissed, re-discovered, and spoofed. In the late 60s and early 70s (and in subsequent years), 'revisionistic' Westerns that questioned the themes and elements of traditional/classic westerns appeared (such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and later Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992)).
Westerns Film Plots:
Usually, the central plot of the western film is the classic, simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story. It is normally rooted in archetypal conflict - good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, white hat vs. black hat, man vs. man, new arrivals vs. Native Americans (inhumanely portrayed as savage Indians), settlers vs. Indians, humanity vs. nature, civilization vs. wilderness or lawlessness, schoolteachers vs. saloon dance-hall girls, villains vs. heroes, lawman or sheriff vs. gunslinger, social law and order vs. anarchy, the rugged individualist vs. the community, the cultivated East vs. West, settler vs. nomad, and farmer vs. industrialist to name a few. Often the hero of a western meets his opposite "double," a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy.
Typical elements in westerns include hostile elements (often Native Americans), guns and gun fights (sometimes on horseback), violence and human massacres, horses, trains (and train robberies), bank robberies and holdups, runaway stagecoachs, shoot-outs and showdowns, outlaws and sheriffs, cattle drives and cattle rustling, stampedes, posses in pursuit, barroom brawls, 'search and destroy' plots, breathtaking settings and open landscapes (the Tetons and Monument Valley, to name only a few), and distinctive western clothing (denim, jeans, boots, etc.).
Western heroes are often local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, or a skilled, fast-draw gunfighter. They are normally masculine persons of integrity and principle - courageous, moral, tough, solid and self-sufficient, maverick characters (often with trusty sidekicks), possessing an independent and honorable attitude (but often characterized as slow-talking). The Western hero could usually stand alone and face danger on his own, against the forces of lawlessness (outlaws or other antagonists), with an expert display of his physical skills (roping, gun-play, horse-handling, pioneering abilities, etc.).
Subgenres of Westerns:
There are many subgenres of the typical or traditional western, to name a few:
Influences on the Western:
In many ways, the cowboy of the Old West was the American version of the Japanese samurai warrior, or the Arthurian knight of medieval times. [No wonder that westerns were inspired by samurai and Arthurian legends, i.e., Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) served as the prototype for Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960). Le Mort D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory also inspired much of Shane (1953) - a film with a mythical western hero acting like a noble knight in shining leather in its tale of good vs. evil.] They were all bound by legal codes of behavior, ethics, justice, courage, honor and chivalry.
Western Film Roots:
The roots of the film western are found in many disparate sources, often of literary origins:
The most often-portrayed western heroes on screen have been (in descending order): William Frederick Cody ("Buffalo Bill"), William Bonney ("Billy the Kid"), Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Gen. George A. Custer, and Wyatt Earp.
The western was among the first film genres, growing in status alongside the development of Hollywood's studio production system. There were only a few great silent westerns, although the best ones established some of the archetypes that are part of the genre even today. The earliest westerns (silent films without the sound of gunfire, horse's hoofbeats, and the cattle trail) are gems of American history. A few of the earliest western-like films were two shorts from Thomas Edison's Manufacturing Company:
Edwin S. Porter's Pioneering Western:
But the 'first real movie' or commercially narrative film that gave birth to the genre was Edwin S. Porter's pioneering western The Great Train Robbery (1903). Porter (named 'the father of the story film') was responsible for the one-reel, 10-minute long film, shot - curiously - on the East Coast (New Jersey and Delaware) rather than the Western setting of Wyoming. [The first westerns were shot, until 1906, on the East Coast.] Porter had also directed and filmed Edison's short publicity western-themed film A Romance of the Rail (1903).
Almost all the essential elements or conventions of typical westerns were included: good guys vs. bad guys, a robbery or wrong-doing, a chase or pursuit, and a final showdown, all in a natural setting. The film ended (or began) with a stunning close-up (the first!) of a gunman (George Barnes) firing directly into the camera - and audience. It was the most commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era.
Porter's film was a milestone in film-making for its storyboarding of the script, the first use of title cards, an ellipsis, and a panning shot, and for its cross-cutting editing techniques. One of its stars with multiple roles, Gilbert M. Anderson (Max Aronson), later took the name "Broncho Billy" Anderson and became famous as the first western film hero - the genre's first cowboy. As in other genres, westerns quickly became character-driven and stars began to be developed.
Porter's other film in the same year was a non-Western, Life of An American Fireman (1903) featuring more overlapping action and cross-cut editing, and a last-minute rescue of a mother and child in a burning building. And Edison's A Race for Millions (1907) also featured typical western plot elements - a high-noon shootout, and claim-jumping. In fact, a number of major film studios were making westerns as early as 1907, and by the end of the first decade of the century, about twenty percent of all of Hollywood's films were westerns.
Other Early Westerns and Their Directors/Producers:
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. claimed to have made the first western one year before Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). A few early westerns copyrighted by Biograph were the 21-minute long Kit Carson (1903) and the 15-minute The Pioneers (1903). The first western produced in the West was Biograph's A California Hold Up (1906). Note: The first sagebrush sagas were either shot on soundstages or made on the East Coast, until the wide expanse of the West opened up for on-location shoots.
D. W. Griffith dabbled in silent westerns at Biograph Studios between 1908 and 1913, producing such pictures as:
The first feature-length western was Lawrence B. McGill's six-reel Arizona (1913). The first film to feature an all-Native American cast was Hiawatha (1913), made by the Colonial Motion Picture Corporation and based on Longfellow's poem.
Young Cecil B. De Mille's first motion picture was The Squaw Man (1914), usually credited as the first feature filmed entirely in Hollywood. [De Mille remade the film in 1918 and 1931.] Even in the early days of the film industry, some real-life cowboys and legendary western figures appeared in films:
Thomas Ince (1882-1924), known for inventing the studio system, was the first studio executive who embraced the western in the teen years. He arrived in California in 1911, where he produced detailed scripts with new situations and characters for a vast number of classic westerns. In 1912, his Bison Company production studios (known as Inceville) purchased the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and the Wild West Show to use their props and performers for his assembly-line, mass-produced films. In the early 1910s, famed director John Ford's older brother Francis was directing and starring in westerns in California for producer Ince, before joining Universal and Carl Laemmle in 1913.
The First Westerns Super-Star of the Silent Era: William S. Hart
Ince was responsible for discovering and bringing Shakespearean actor William S. Hart (1870-1946) to prominent stardom by signing him up in his New York Motion Picture Company. Hart served as both actor and director after moving to Hollywood, and was often portrayed as a "good bad man" on the screen (with his Pinto pony named Fritz). He emerged as one of the greatest Western heroes in the mid-1910s, until the release of his last film in 1925: