Westerns Films


Westerns Films are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostaligic 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. 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.

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 small-town main street, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization. Other iconic elements in westerns include the hanging tree, stetsons and spurs, lassos and Colt .45’s, stagecoaches, gamblers, long-horned cattle and cattle drives, prostitutes (or madams) with a heart of gold, and more.

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.

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.).

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.

Westerns Film Roots:

The roots of the film western are found in many disparate sources, often of literary origins:

  • The Last of the Mohicans - 1920folk music of the colonial period
  • James Fenimore Cooper’s novels such as his 1826 story The Last of the Mohicans (re-made as a feature film at least three times – Clarence Brown’s 1920 version, a 1932 version starring Harry Carey, and George Seitz’ 1936 version with Randolph Scott, and most recently as the popular film The Last of the Mohicans (1992) starring Daniel Day Lewis as the heroic white frontiersman scout named Hawkeye, raised as a Mohican)
  • Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849)
  • Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain) Roughing It (1872)
  • Bret Harte’s short stories
  • dime novels about Western heroes
  • Owen Wister’s influential The Virginian, published in 1902, the first modern western novel
  • prolific Zane Grey’s (1875-1939) 60+ novels that inspired dozens of films, including his best-known western Riders of the Purple Sage (1918, 1925, 1931, 1941); also The Rainbow Trail (1918, 1925), George Seitz’s The Vanishing American (1925) – the first film made in Monument Valley, Rangle River (1937), The Mysterious Rider (1933, 1938), Lone Star Ranger (1942), Nevada (1927, 1936, 1944), Western Union (1941), Gunfighters (1947), and
    Red Canyon (1949)
  • other mythologies (tales of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Gen. George A. Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson), and outlaws (such as the James Brothers, the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Billy the Kid)
  • screen cowboy Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code” (or Cowboy Commandments) written in the late 1940s – a collection of moralistic principles and values that cowboys reportedly live by, including such tenets as: the cowboy never shoots first or takes unfair advantage, always tells the truth, must help people in distress, and is a patriot

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.

Silent Westerns:

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.

The earliest cowboy films were Thomas Edison’s Cripple Creek Bar Room Scene (1898) and Poker at Dawson City (1898), followed by Edison’s publicity film Romance of the Rails (1902) (made by Edison’s cameraman Edwin S. Porter). Other early westerns copyrighted by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. were the 21-minute long Kit Carson (1903) and the 15-minute The Pioneers (1903).

Edwin S. Porter’s Pioneering Western:

The Great Train Robbery - 1903But 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. The first western produced in the West was Biograph’s A California Hold Up (1906).]

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.

Cinema of Edwin S. PorterPorter’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:

D. W. Griffith dabbled in silent westerns at Biograph Studios, producing such pictures as:

  • Last Drop of Water (1911), with the western’s first characteristic scenes of a wagon train siege and a cavalry rescue
  • the innovatively-filmed Fighting Blood (1911) about conflict between white settlers and Sioux Indians in the Dakota territory of 1899
  • The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914), a two-reel pre-cursor to his most (in)famous landmark film, Birth of a Nation (1915)

The first feature-length western was Lawrence B. McGill’s six-reel Arizona (1913). 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:

  • Wyatt Earp in The Half-Breed (1919)
  • Buffalo Bill Cody in The Adventures of Buffalo Bill (1917)

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.

William S. Hart: The First Westerns Super-Star of the Silent Era

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:

  • Tumbleweeds - 1925The Disciple (1915)
  • The Taking of Jim McLane (191
  • Devil’s Double (1916)
  • Hell’s Hinges (1916)
  • The Return of Draw Egan (1916)
  • Truthful Tulliver (1916)
  • The Narrow Trail (1917), Hart’s first feature production for Paramount
  • Branding Broadway (1918), set in modern-day New York City!
  • Riddle Gawne (1918)
  • Breed of Men (1919)
  • The Money Corral (1919)
  • Sand (1920), reportedly Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s favorite Hart film
  • The Testing Block (1920)
  • The Toll Gate (1920), Hart’s first film with his own production company
  • The Three Word Brand (1921), with Hart playing three roles
  • White Oak (1921)
  • Travelin’ On (1922)
  • Wild Bill Hickok (1923)
  • Singer Jim McKee (1924)
  • Tumbleweeds (1925), Hart’s best-known and greatest western, by director King Baggot and from UA – about the Cherokee Strip (Oklahoma) Gold Rush; the film’s title referred to a breed of roaming cowboys

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