Western

Whether it is considered Spaghetti or not, who else makes a better Western than, the Duke – John Wayne. Some other great actors in our collection include: Lee Van CleefMarlon BrandoHenry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and Gabby Hayes; Terence Hill, Leif Garrett, Jack Palance, Montgomery Cliff, Burl Ives, David Carridine, Warren OatesJack Nicholson and Jane Russell; Maureen O’Hara, Stephanie Powers, Jean Martin, Millie Perkins, Sybil Danning, Coleen Gray and Sam Peckinpah. Some of our great Western directors are Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks, Monte Hellman, Gianfranco Parolini, Tim Whelan, George Templeton, John Sturges and Giancarlo Santi.

The Western is a genre of various arts, such as film, television, radio, fiction and art. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in the American Old West, hence the name. Many feature cowboys, bandits, lawmen, soldiers and American Indians, as well as spectacular mountain scenery. Some are set in the colonial era. There are also a number of films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings, such as Junior Bonner set in the 1970s and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in the 21st century. The Western was one of the best-known Hollywood genres from the early 20th century to the 1960s.

The Western genre sometimes 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, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier.  The Western genre depicts a society organized around codes of honor, and personal, direct or private justices such as the feud, rather than a justice organized around rationalistic, abstract law, in which social order is maintained through relatively impersonal institutions. The popular perception of the Western is as a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter. A showdown or duel at high noon featuring two or more gunfighters is another stereotypical scene in the popular conception of Westerns.

In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight-errant, which stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian Romances. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight-errant of the earlier European tales and poetry, was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds and bound to no fixed social structures, but his own innate code of honor. Similarly, this robust code of honor is a feature also shared by the ronins of modern Japanese culture. A common feature to the knights-errant, and the heroes of Westerns trope is the rescue of a damsel or damsels in distress.

 

The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples like: the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, are viewed as more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape. Specific settings include isolated forts, ranches and homesteads; the Native American village; or the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse. Apart from the wilderness, the visual cues usually include the saloon that emphasizes the message of the Wild West: it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where civilization has arrived, the town has a church and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is as Sergio Leone said, “Where life has no value.”

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 term Western, used to describe a narrative film genre, appears to have originated with a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World Magazine. Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of 19th century popular Western fiction and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Western films commonly feature protagonists such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, and are often depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival, and ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on trusty steeds.

Western films were enormously popular in the silent era. However, with the advent of sound in 1927-28, the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers, who churned out countless low-budget features and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s the Western film was widely regarded as a ‘pulp’ genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in 1939 by such major studio productions as: Dodge City (starring Errol Flynn), Jesse James (with Tyrone Power in the title role), Union Pacific (with Joel McCrea), Destry Rides Again (featuring James Stewart in his first western, supported by Marlene Dietrich) and perhaps most notably, the release of John Ford’s landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year released through United Artists. Stagecoach made John Wayne a mainstream star in the wake of a decade of headlining B-movie westerns. Wayne had been introduced to the screen ten years earlier as the leading man in director Raoul Walsh’s widescreen classic The Big Trail, which failed at the box office due to exhibitors’ inability to switch over to widescreen during the Depression.

Western films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early Eurocentric Westerns frequently portray the “Injuns” as dishonorable villains, the later and more culturally neutral Westerns (notably those directed by John Ford), gave Native Americans a more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include Western treks or perilous journeys (e.g. Stagecoach), or groups of bandits terrorizing small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.

Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, just like other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of ArizonaCaliforniaColoradoKansasMontanaNevadaNew MexicoOklahomaTexasUtah, or Wyoming. Productions were also filmed on location at movie ranches.

Often, the vast landscape becomes more than a vivid backdrop; it becomes a character in the film. After the early 1950s, various widescreen formats such as cinemascope (1953) and VistaVision used the expanded width of the screen to display spectacular Western landscapes. John Ford’s use of Monument Valley as an expressive landscape in his films from, Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1965), “present us with a mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West, embodied most memorably in Monument Valley, with its buttes and mesas that tower above the men on horseback, whether they be settlers, soldiers, or Native Americans.”