April 25, 2012
Elements of Film- Hammond
The Western Genre of Film
Western films are a major defining genre of the American film industry and are a reminder of the untamed American frontier. Westerns are a part of a genre that concentrates on telling stories that are primarily set in the late 19th century in the American Old West. Most Westerns are set between the end of the American Civil War (1865) and the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), and often portray how primitive and archaic life was in the old west. Along with the old fashioned way of life, this genre also does a great job of depicting how the white man attempts to conquer the wilderness and subordinate nature in the rightful name of civilization (Newman, 1990). These conquests are strongly portrayed in movies such as the 1990 Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves. It struck on the major conflict between Native Americans, as many westerns do, and also showed the destruction of the natural land. As time progressed, the western genre of film developed new and exciting sub-genres like revisionist westerns, romantic westerns, and science fiction westerns just to name a few. Although this genre evolved, it still retains traditional western themes and romanticizes ideas of loyalty and virtue.
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”. The men featured in these struggles were depicted as nomadic wanders that usually came in the form of a gun-slinging cowboy with a hat, bandanna, spurs, a gun, and a horse. They were written to be either rebels or heroes, or rebellious heroes. These nomadic cowboys were typically involved in a plot that seems to be a classic central plot for westerns…the goal of maintaining law and order on the vast frontier in a fairly quick-tempo action story rooted in a good versus evil conflict.
Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903 and marked the birth of the Western genre. This film is credited with establishing the movies as a commercial entertainment medium, as well as being a template for excellent editing (McMahon, 2002). Some famous actors that were involved in the growth and expansion of the Western genre include Gilbert M. Anderson who was the first western film hero and star, Tom Mix, Harry Carey, and Hoot Gibson. Aside from the early stars that are probably not as well known as they should be are the newer more recognizable faces of the Western hero. This group consists of John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, William Holden, and Clint Eastwood. Although men are mainly recognized in these movies, they would be nothing without their spunky female costars. Some notable famous females in this genre include Joanne Dru, Katy Jurado, and Olivia de Havilland.
Western films were highly popular in the silent era, but only a few of the hundreds of silent Westerns survived to the present. With the new idea of sound hitting the movie industry in 1927, the major Hollywood studios dumped the Westerns, leaving it to the smaller studios and producers. The Western film was regarded as a dead genre in Hollywood by the late 1930s, but its popularity was resurrected by the release of the 1939 John Ford’s Stagecoach. Stagecoach became one of the biggest hits of the year and transformed John Wayne into a Western film icon.
A little further down the line a new subgenre known as “Spaghetti Westerns” emerged. Also known as Italo-western, this genre came about during the 1960s in the wake of Sergio Leone’s unique and applauded film-making style, and was nicknamed the “Spaghetti Westerns” because most of the movies were directed and produced by Italians. Although the movies were made by Italians and Spaniards, they often starred young, up and coming American actors such as Clint Eastwood who was featured in three of Leone’s films. The most notable of the Spaghetti Western films are Fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Typical themes in Spaghetti Westerns include the Mexican Revolution, a focus on revenge, and the myth of the bounty hunter. The films from this subgenre possessed a dimension of parody, which set them apart from Hollywood westerns (Smith, 1950).
The Good the Bad and the Ugly, 1966. Directed by Sergio Leone
After the 1960s American film makers began to question and change many of the traditional elements of the western genre. This era marks the beginning of the revisionist westerns, which is composed of emerging film makers who saw the Western as an opportunity to expand their criticism of American society and values. The new subgenre included darker elements and more cynical tones with a focus on the lawlessness of the time period, favoring realism over romanticism (Cowie, 2004). Although they had a more negative overtone than previous western movies, they also spread more positive messages of certain groups that were often discriminated against throughout history. In early films Native Americans were treated as savages and enemies of the white man, but revisionist westerns started to paint them in an increasingly more positive light. Along with the Native Americans and Mexicans gaining a slightly better image, women were given more powerful roles. The revisionist westerns encouraged audiences to question the dualism of hero-versus-villain and the morality of using violence as a means of gaining respect (Cowie, 2004). One of the films that encompasses all of these features is the 1956 adventure film The Last Wagon, in which a white man is raised by the Comanche tribe and therefore is persecuted by his fellow white population. There are also two young women in the movie who are forced into leadership roles, which helps to portray women as strong, able individuals.The Last Wagon, 1956. Directed by Delmar Daves
Another highly popular subgenre of Western film is contemporary western, which features movies such as Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico and the more recent No Country For Old Men which was directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen. These films use a contemporary American setting, but utilize the traditional western themes and motifs. The contemporary western subgenre reveals the progression of the Old West mentality into the late 20th and early 21st century.
No Country For Old Men, 2007. Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen
Revisionist westerns and contemporary westerns are two of the more popular subgenres of western film. But there are other subgenres that are popular with the American public such as science fiction western, space western, horror western, romance western, and even animated western. Movies like Cowboys and Aliens from the science fiction western subgenre take the traditional ideals of a western film and combine it with the futuristic ideas and technologies of the future and science fiction. These two categories combine to form an interesting and exciting genre of film that opens the doors for creative new ideas and projects in the film industry. Romance western movies include the controversial film Brokeback Mountain and All the Pretty Horses. Brokeback Mountain falls into the contemporary western subgenre as well because it portrays a whole new kind of cowboy and creeps across the thin line of displaying homosexuality in such an open manner.
Brokeback Mountain, 2005. Directed by Ang Lee
The western film genre is a noted and important part of American history as well as the American culture, and continues to be a notably popular one today with all of the possibilities of special effects and the improvements in technology. The older movies and more recent movies such as American Outlaws, 3:10 to Yuma, Comanche Moon, and True Grit all serve as a reminder of the way we use to live before the many conveniences of technology emerged. It marks the struggle and endeavor for justice, and the forward movement of the American traditions. We may not live in this particular time and age any longer, but we can always make sure to acknowledge it and to stand in awe of the amazing and adventurous lives we once led.
Cowie, Peter. John Ford and the American West. New York City: Harry Abrams, Inc., 2004. Web.
McMahon, Alison. Alice Guy Blanch: Lost Vision of the Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2002. 133. Web.
Smith, Henry. Virgin Land: THe American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950. Web.