Thursday, November 4, 2010

Getting to Know the Western Genre

There were pretty much two things my grandfather would watch if they were on television… guaranteed: Warner Brother’s cartoons and westerns. As a kid, I of course understood the first, but I never could appreciate his love of cowboy movies. They were long, formulaic and old looking. A lot of them seemed to be so much cheap and dated pulp. A few contemporary westerns that came out in the 80s and 90s caught my attention, but they were exceptions to the rule. Then I saw some real classics like Stagecoach and The Searchers and my opinion changed.

Westerns have the potential to be perfect films for the likes of this blog and its objectives, and it is my intention to start incorporating more westerns into the rotation of reviews. It is a set genre with very narrowly defined types and storylines, but it has been used to deliver some powerful messages. I am woefully underexposed to this genre so as I view and review them I will be learning and probably miss some important ideas and entries. For now, and leading up to the Coen Brothers highly anticipated release later this year (January in Germany) I plan a series of posts in this genre.


A little background: Between 1910 and 1960 the Western was the most important genre in cinema. (That explains while a child of the seventies and eighties failed to appreciate it at first.) The genre is tightly defined. Most all of the stories occur between 1865 and 1890 and deal with the expansion of society into the wilds of the west, with the wars against the native population, the establishment of the new civilization, and the gradual order that was achieved. In exploring this period of American history, the Western has become the true mythology of America. It explains a lot of American mentality and why the United States is the way it is. In the telling of its stories, it clarifies a lot about the context of the culture when the stories are told, thereby serving as an exploration of American culture throughout our history and not just the years following the Civil War when the stories take place.

The hero of the Western is an introverted, self-made man who has his own individual code that he lives by. He is a moral person, but his morality is limited to what he believes and what makes sense to him. The society of the Western is on the edge of wilderness and struggling to find itself. There is always the danger that society will completely fall apart, and at times that is not really seen as a bad thing.

Philip French (Westerns 1973) classifies the genre into seven stories: the railway story, the ranch story, the cattle empire story, the revenge story, the cavalry versus Indians story, the outlaw story and the marshal or law and order story. Norbert Grob and Bernd Keifer (Filmgenres: Western 2003) list nine basic plots: discovering new frontiers, the war against Indians, the process of civilization, crime and revenge, town tamer stories, the call of the wild, Indian adventures, the fall of a dynasty, and the building of legends.


I am open to suggestions, but for now here are some of the titles I have in mind to check out or revisit: Stagecoach (1939); Winchester ’73 (1950) and all the Stewart/Mann efforts; The Searchers (1956); Rio Bravo (1959); The Magnificent Seven (1960); Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (1964-); True Grit (1969); Silverado (1985); Dances With Wolves (1989); 3:10 to Yuma (2007); and or course, True Grit (2010).


  1. Mema and Papa Bill liked westerns, and they were some of the few movies we saw together as a family. (Once I was old enough, Leabeth and I often went to Sat. matinee kids' movies...safer times then). I remember seeing "The Sons of Katie Elder" and liking it at the time, though I couldn't tell you much of the plot now. And I remember Stagecoach, which was good. I did NOT like True Grit,the original, but I'm interested in seeing the new one.
    I can't believe you didn't mention my favorite western of all times, Silverado. Is it too recent?
    Also, I remember one I liked which starred George Peppard, but I can't remember the name. Hmmm, I'll have to google

  2. Silverado is in the list up there. Here is the more extensive list of 40 that I'm considering, even though I won't hit all of them and it still could change:

    The Virginian
    The Big Trail
    My Darling Clementine
    Bend of the River
    The Naked Spur
    High Noon
    The Far Country
    The Man from Laramie
    The Searchers
    Rio Bravo
    Magnificent Seven
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    Fist Full of Dollars
    Cat Ballou
    For a Few Dollars More
    Good Bad and Ugly
    Once Upon a Time in the West
    True Grit
    The Wild Bunch
    Little Big Man
    High Plains Drifter
    The Outlaw Josey Wales
    The Shootist
    Heaven’s Gate
    Pale Rider
    Young Guns
    Dances with Wolves
    Dead Man
    Open Range
    The Proposition
    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
    3:10 to Yuma
    True Grit


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