The romanticism of the western genre has been a mainstay in film since the 1930’s. Nearly a century later, the western genre still has a huge influence on the films we watch today, with many aspects of the genre being present in other films. References to westerns still pop up in modern day films, with some filmmakers continuing to make traditional westerns in the modern age, such as Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers. The stoic lone gunman, breathtaking scenery, and tales of outlaws and revenge have captivated audiences for years.
Western’s popularity first rose in the 1930’s with regular audience attendance, rising to become the most popular genre by the 1960’s. However, Westerns have had a place in cinema since the 1900’s. The silent film The Great Train Robbery debuted in 1903, and is often considered the first Western.
Thematically, the film contained one of the many tropes westerns adopted. The film used many techniques that were groundbreaking at the time, such as moving cameras, composite editing and on-location shooting.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, the genre saw further financial success, with classic such as The Searchers and High Noon seeing critical acclaim. While the popularity of westerns gradually decreased, we still occasionally see traditional westerns released today, often to high praise. Examples can be the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit, or Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
Codes & Conventions
Westerns have several hallmarks that are well recognised. Traditional Westerns often are set in the New Frontier, and depict the struggles and eventual downfall of that era of American history. Epic establishing shots of canyons and mountains often show up, showing the vastness of the Frontier, with very few people living with the emptiness.
The stress of life was often characterised in early Westerns by revolving around situations such as railroad construction, or towns living in fear of bandits, often resolved by the appearance of a lone ranger, who arrives in town and deals with the bandits alone.
These solitary figures became a staple of the western genre, and often translate into genre-crossovers as well. The confrontations would end in a shoot-out, providing areas of tension, as well as satisfaction when the hero would win. Predating car chases, pursuits on horseback were also common.
There are many Westerns worth exploring, starting with the aforementioned The Great Train Robbery. Being able to see the beginnings of any genre is always valuable, and this is an excellent example. 1939’s Stagecoach launched John Wayne’s career, a mainstay of the Western genre, being a critical and commercial success. With the popularity of the Spaghetti Western in the 50’s and 60’s, films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch display the disparity of the Frontier, along with many other previously mentioned themes. Some noteworthy modern westerns are There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.
Directors, Cast & Crew
Here are some notable people within the Western genre:
Often viewed as the creator of the Spaghetti Western, Leone directed several notable Westerns such as the Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. Pioneering lengthy takes as well as extreme close-ups (a great example of this is A Fistful of Dollars); Leone added much to the Western genre in the 1960’s.
The epitome of the Western’s lone gunman, Clint Eastwood rose to fame off the back of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Becoming a cultural icon in these roles, many characters since have been influenced by him. Eastwood has also directed Westerns, such as Pale Rider.
Director of respected Westerns such as The Searchers, Rio Grande and Stagecoach, multi-Oscar winner John Ford directed over a staggering 140 films. Deeply respected by other directors, Ford was influential to many and made use of on-location shooting and long takes.
The Western genre has been combined with various others to create many sub-genres. Space-Westerns such as Star Wars and Serenity use many Western tropes within sci-fi settings (the Russian poster for Star Wars actually featured an image of a cowboy made of metal). Romance is also quite common in a variety of Westerns such as Rio Grande.