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The Western is a fiction genre seen in film, television, radio, literature, painting and other visual arts. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in what became the Western United States (known as the American Old West or Wild West), but also in Western Canada, Mexico (The Wild Bunch, Vera Cruz), Alaska (The Far Country, North to Alaska) and even Australia (Quigley Down Under, The Proposition). Some Westerns are set as early as the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 but most are set between the end of the American Civil War and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, though there are several "late Westerns" (e.g., The Wild Bunch and 100 Rifles) set as late as the Mexican Revolution in 1913. In the 1930s many B-Westerns were set in the present. There are also a number of films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings where they don't fit in, such as Junior Bonner set in the 1970s, and Down in the Valley and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in the 21st century.

Westerns often portray how primitive and obsolete ways of life confronted modern technological or social changes. This may be depicted by showing conflict between natives and settlers or U.S. Cavalry or between sheep and cattle farmers, or by showing ranchers being threatened by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. American Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s emphasize the values of honor and sacrifice. Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West. Despite being tightly associated with a specific time and place in American history, these themes have allowed Westerns to be produced and enjoyed across the world.



The Western genre, particularly in films, 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. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice (such as the feud[1]), rather than any rationalistic, abstract law, in which persons have no social order larger than their immediate peers, family, or perhaps themselves alone. The popular perception of the Western[2] is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter.

In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of an earlier extensive genre. 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 only to his own innate code of honor. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many of the characteristics equated with the image of the ronin in modern Japanese culture.

The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples (e.g. the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) are 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, it is usually the saloon that emphasizes that this is the "Wild West": it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), girls (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".




Most of the characteristics of Westerns were part of 19th century popular Western literature and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form.[3] Western films commonly feature as their protagonists stock characters such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, 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 faithful steeds.

Western films were enormously popular in the silent era although, in common with all films of this period, relatively few of the thousands of silent Westerns made have survived to the present. 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 the release of John Ford's landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year and made John Wayne a major screen star.

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 terrorising small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.

Western set at Universal Studio in Hollywood

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 New Mexico, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Colorado or Wyoming. While many Westerns were filmed in California and Arizona, most of them depicted Texas. 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 wide screen 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".[4]

Western films, until recent times, had many anachronisms, particularly the firearms. Winchester 1892-model rifles were frequently used in films set in the 1870s. Since the late 1960s, however, films have shown more of the wide variety of period-appropriate arms used during the 1870s. For example, Arthur Hunnicutt carries a revolving rifle during part of El Dorado (1967) and Lee Van Cleef is equipped with a veritable arsenal of frontier firearms in For A Few Dollars More (1965).


The Western genre itself has sub-genres, such as the epic Western, the shoot 'em up, singing cowboy Westerns, and a few Comedy Westerns. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was re-invented with the revisionist Western.

Classical Westerns
The first Western film was the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, a silent film directed by Edwin S. Porter and starring Broncho Billy Anderson. The film's popularity opened the door for Anderson to become the screen's first cowboy star, making several hundred Western film shorts. So popular was the genre that he soon had competition in the form of William S. Hart. The Golden Age of the Western film is epitomized by the work of two directors: John Ford (who often used John Wayne for lead roles) and Howard Hawks.

Northern (genre) A term to describe the Western format taking place in Canada or Alaska.

Euro Westerns
This is a colloquial idiom often used to describe Western films made in Western Europe. The term can sometimes, but not necessarily, include the Spaghetti Western subgenre (see below). One example of a Euro Western is the 1961 Anglo-Spanish film The Savage Guns.
Spaghetti Westerns
During the 1960s and 1970s, a revival of the Western emerged in Italy with the "Spaghetti Westerns" or "Italo-Westerns". The most famous of them is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Many of these films are low-budget affairs, shot in locations (for example, the Spanish desert region of Almería) chosen for their inexpensive crew and production costs as well as their similarity to landscapes of the Southwestern United States. Spaghetti Westerns were characterized by the presence of more action and violence than the Hollywood Westerns. Also, the protagonists usually acted out of more selfish motives (money or revenge being the most common) than in the classical westerns.
The films directed by Sergio Leone have a parodic dimension (the strange opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West being a reversal of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon opening scene) which gave them a different tone to the Hollywood Westerns. Charles Bronson, Lee van Cleef and Clint Eastwood became famous by starring in Spaghetti Westerns, although they were also to provide a showcase for other noted actors such as Jason Robards, James Coburn, Klaus Kinski and Henry Fonda.
Eastern-European-produced Westerns were popular in Communist Eastern European countries, and were a particular favorite of Joseph Stalin. "Red Western" or "Ostern" films usually portrayed the American Indians sympathetically, as oppressed people fighting for their rights, in contrast to American Westerns of the time, which frequently portrayed the Indians as villains. They frequently featured Gypsies or Turkic people in the role of the Indians, due to the shortage of authentic Indians in Eastern Europe.
Gojko Mitić portrayed righteous, kind hearted and charming Indian chiefs (e.g. in Die Söhne der großen Bärin directed by Josef Mach). He became honorary chief of the tribe of Sioux when he visited the United States of America in the 1990s and the television crew accompanying him showed the tribe one of his films. American actor and singer Dean Reed, an expatriate who lived in East Germany, also starred in several films.
The Ostern genre developed in the Soviet Union as a home-grown counterpart to the American Western. Osterns are set in Central Asia or the Russian steppes during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. The historic setting of the Russian Civil War shared many of the iconic features of the Wild West: a romantic opposition of good and evil, a culture clash with occasionally hostile natives, horseback riding, trains, lawlessness, gunplay, and vast landscapes.
Revisionist Western
In genre studies, films that change traditional elements of a genre are called "revisionist." After the early 1960s, many American film-makers began to question and change many traditional elements of Westerns. One major change was in the increasingly positive representation of Native Americans who had been treated as "savages" in earlier films (Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves). Audiences were encouraged to question the simple hero-versus-villain dualism and the morality of using violence to test one's character or to prove oneself right.
Some recent Westerns give women more powerful roles. One of the earlier films that encompasses all these features was the 1956 adventure film The Last Wagon in which Richard Widmark played a white man raised by Comanches and persecuted by whites, with Felicia Farr and Susan Kohner playing young women forced into leadership roles.
Acid Western
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to a makeshift 1960s and 1970s genre called the acid Western, associated with Dennis Hopper, Jim McBride, and Rudy Wurlitzer, as well as films like Monte Hellman's The Shooting, Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre experimental film El Topo (The Mole), and Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace. The 1970 film El Topo is an allegorical cult Western and underground film about the eponymous character, a violent black-clad gunfighter, and his quest for enlightenment. The film is filled with bizarre characters and occurrences, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy. Some spaghettis also crossed over into the acid genre, such as Enzo G. Castellari's mystical Keoma (released in 1976), a Western reworking of Ingmar Bergman's metaphysical The Seventh Seal.
More recent films include Alex Cox's Walker, and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. Rosenbaum describes the "acid Western" as "formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda." Ultimately, the "acid Western" expresses a counterculture sensibility to critique and replace capitalism with alternative forms of exchange.[5]
Contemporary Westerns
Although these films have contemporary American settings, they utilize Old West themes and motifs (a rebellious anti-hero, open plains and desert landscapes, and gunfights). For the most part, they still take place in the American West and reveal the progression of the Old West mentality into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This sub-genre often features Old West-type characters struggling with displacement in a "civilized" world that rejects their outdated brand of justice.
Examples include Hud starring Paul Newman (1963); Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974); Robert Rodríguez's El Mariachi (1992); John Sayles' Lone Star (1996); Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005); Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking (2005); and the Coen brothers Academy Award–winning No Country For Old Men (2007).
Science fiction Western
These films introduce science fiction themes or futuristic elements into a Western setting. Examples include Bravestarr, Back to the Future Part III, Westworld, Wild, Wild West, Firefly, and the film Serenity based on it.
Curry Western
Spaghetti Westerns laid the groundwork for Sholay, first of a line of Indian Westerns, affectionately called Curry Westerns.
Horror Western
A developing sub-genre, with roots in films such as Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), which depicts the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid fighting against the notorious vampire. The same year, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter paired another famous outlaw with another fictional horror character. The Ghoul Goes West was an unproduced Edward D. Wood, Jr. film to star Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the Old West. The 2008 film The Burrowers is a recent example of the genre: a posse sets out to look for a band of Indians believed to have abducted several white women, only to discover that what they are hunting may not be human and that they in fact may be the prey.
Weird Western
This subgenre blends elements of a classic Western with other elements. The Wild Wild West and its later film adaptation blends the Western with steampunk and Jonah Hex blends the Western with superhero elements. This subgenre can encompass others, such as the Horror Western and the Science Fiction Western, e.g. Firefly (see above).

Genre studies

Tom Mix in Mr. Logan, U.S.A., c. 1919

In the 1960s academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. With the increased attention, film theory was developed to attempt to understand the significance of film. From this environment emerged (in conjunction with the literary movement) an enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structuralist approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning.

Westerns usually have certain codes: for example, a hero wears a white hat, while the villain wears a black hat; when more than one cowboy faces the other with no one in between them, there will be a shootout; ranchers and mountain men don't talk to people and live alone, while townsfolk are family and community-minded; etc. All Western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes.

One of the results of genre studies is that some have argued that "Westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th century, as the codes can be found in other types of films. For example, a very typical Western plot is that an eastern lawman heads west, where he matches wits and trades bullets with a gang of outlaws and thugs, and is aided by a local lawman who is well-meaning but largely ineffective until a critical moment when he redeems himself by saving the hero's life. This description can be used to describe any number of Westerns, but also the action film Die Hard. Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is another frequently cited examples of a film that does not take place in the American West but has many themes and characteristics common to Westerns. Likewise, films set in the old American West may not necessarily be considered "Westerns."


Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. For instance The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, most especially John Ford.[6]

Despite the Cold War, the Western was a strong influence on Eastern Bloc cinema, which had its own take on the genre, the so called "Red Western" or "Ostern". Generally these took two forms: either straight Westerns shot in the Eastern Bloc, or action films involving the Russian Revolution and civil war and the Basmachi rebellion in which Turkic peoples play a similar role to Mexicans in traditional Westerns.

An offshoot of the Western genre is the "post-apocalyptic" Western, in which a future society, struggling to rebuild after a major catastrophe, is portrayed in a manner very similar to the 19th century frontier. Examples include The Postman and the Mad Max series, and the computer game series Fallout. Many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the Western genre. This is particularly the case in the space Western subgenre of science fiction. Peter Hyams' Outland transferred the plot of High Noon to interstellar space. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars". "The Book of Eli" depicts the post apocalypse as a Western with large knifes.

More recently, the space opera series Firefly used an explicitly Western theme for its portrayal of frontier worlds. Anime shows like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star have been similar mixes of science fiction and Western elements. The science fiction Western can be seen as a subgenre of either Westerns or science fiction. Elements of Western films can be found also in some films belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war film, but action and characters are Western-like. The British film Zulu set during the Anglo-Zulu War has sometimes been compared to a Western, even though it is set in South Africa.

The character played by Humphrey Bogart in film noir films such as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—an individual bound only by his own private code of honor—has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western, has also explored noir elements, as with the film Sugar Creek.

In many of Robert A. Heinlein's books, the settlement of other planets is depicted in ways explicitly modeled on American settlement of the West. For example, in his Tunnel in the Sky settlers set out to the planet "New Canaan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in Conestoga wagons, their captain sporting mustaches and a little goatee and riding a Palomino horse—with Heinlein explaining that the colonists would need to survive on their own for some years, so horses are more practical than machines.

Stephen King's The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that meshes themes of Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction and horror. The protagonist Roland Deschain is a gunslinger whose image and personality are largely inspired by the "Man with No Name" from Sergio Leone's films. In addition, the superhero fantasy genre has been described as having been derived from the cowboy hero, only powered up to omnipotence in a primarily urban setting. The Western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff!, Cat Ballou, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody.

George Lucas's Star Wars films use many elements of a Western, and Lucas has said he intended for Star Wars to revitalize cinematic mythology, a part the Western once held. The Jedi, who take their name from Jidaigeki, are modeled after samurai, showing the influence of Kurosawa. The character Han Solo dressed like an archetypal gunslinger, and the Mos Eisley Cantina is much like an Old West saloon.

Meanwhile, films such as The Big Lebowski, which plucked actor Sam Elliott out of the Old West and into a Los Angeles bowling alley, and Midnight Cowboy, about a Southern-boy-turned-gigolo in New York, transplanted Western themes into modern settings for both purposes of parody and homage.[7]


Television Westerns are a sub-genre of the Western. When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV Westerns quickly became an audience favorite. Beginning with re-broadcasts of existing films soon a number of movie cowboys had their own TV shows. As the Western became more in demand new stories and stars were introduced. A number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and Bonanza.

The peak year for television Westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. Increasing costs of American television production led to most action half hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long television shows, increasingly in color.[8] In the 1970s, new elements were incorporated into TV Westerns, such as crime drama and mystery whodunnit elements. Western shows from the 1970s included McCloud, Hec Ramsey, Little House on the Prairie, and Kung Fu. In the 1990s and 2000s, hour-long Westerns and slickly packaged made-for-TV movie Westerns were introduced. As well, new elements were once again added to the Western formula, such as the Western-science fiction show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon in 2002. Deadwood, which aired on HBO, was a critically-acclaimed Western series which aired from 2004 through 2006.


Western fiction is a genre of literature set in the American Old West and most commonly between the years of 1860 and 1900. The first critically recognized Western was the Virginian by Owen Wister. Well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey from the early 1900s and Louis L'Amour from the mid 20th century. Many writers better known in other genres like Elmore Leonard, Leigh Brackett, and Larry McMurtry have also written Western novels The genre's popularity peaked in the 1960s, due in part to the end of many pulp magazines, the popularity of televised Westerns, and the rise of the spy novel. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most book stores, outside of a few Western states, only carry a small number of Western novels and short story collections.

Literary forms that share similar themes include stories of the American frontier, the gaucho literature of Argentina and tales of the settlement of the Australian Outback.

Visual art

A number of visual artists focused their work on representations of the American Old West. American West-oriented art is sometimes referred to as "Western Art" by Americans. This relatively new category of art includes paintings, sculptures and sometimes Native American crafts. Initially, subjects included exploration of the Western states and cowboy themes. Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell are two artists who captured the "Wild West" on canvas. Some art museums and art collectors feature American Western Art.

Other media

The Western genre is also used in comic books, computer and video games, anime, and role playing games. In comics, the Western has been done straight, as in the classic comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s, or as cartoon and parody, such as Lucky Luke and Cocco Bill; in the 1990s and 2000s, the Western comic has been done in a more Weird West fashion, usually involving the supernatural with vampires and ghouls or as in The Preacher with God and angels. In anime this genre is usually a "Science Fiction Western" or "Space Western" (Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star, etc.) however traditional Westerns do exist such as El Cazador de la Bruja (although it is set in modern day Mexico). In computer games, the Western genre is either straight Western or a Western-horror hybrid. Some Western themed-computer games include the 1970s game The Oregon Trail, the 1990s game Outlaws (a first-person shooter), and the 2000s-era Gun (video game), Red Dead Revolver, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Juarez. Another game that falls into the space-Western category is the 2000 game Gunman Chronicles in which one plays a gunman, against an oppressive general who is robed in uniform much like that used during the American Civil War. Enemies would include outlaws and bounty hunters armed with laser pistols and other weapons (as well as aliens and even dinosaurs on some levels). One level takes place on a desert planet, looking much like the old American West.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ this entire section largely summarizes the analysis of Kim Newman: Wild West Movies
  3. ^ Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1950.
  4. ^ Peter Cowie, see below
  5. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (June 26, 1996). "Acid Western: Dead Man". "Chicago Reader". 
  6. ^ Patrick Crogan. "Translating Kurosawa." Senses of Cinema.
  7. ^ Robert Silva. "Not From 'Round Here... Cowboys Who Pop Up Outside the Old West." Future of the Classic.
  8. ^ Kisseloff, J. (editor) The Box: An Oral History of Television
  • Cowie, Peter, John Ford and the American West, Harry Abrams Inc., New York, 2004 ISBN 0810949768
  • Newman, Kim, Wild West Movies, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1990
  • Yarbrough, Tinsley, "Those Great Western Movie Locations," 2008,

External links

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