Notebook Primer: The Western

The Western is a compendium of cultural dichotomies and iconic symbols, locations, and characters, with countless variations.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Above: The Great Train Robbery
The western has been around since nearly the advent of cinema. Some of Thomas Edison’s earliest films incorporated standard conventions of the genre, established in preceding works of popular fiction, and other key tropes were solidified in Edwin S. Porter’s pioneering The Great Train Robbery (1903). Primarily originating on the East Coast, American motion picture production soon made its general migration west where the geographic consequences only amplified the form, enticing the likes of producers and directors including Thomas Ince and Cecil B. DeMille. The western swiftly flourished as an exuberant, manifold survey of idealized, often exaggerated themes concerning heroism, progress, and the myth of the American dream. The genre became a beloved compendium of cultural dichotomies, iconic symbols, locations, and character types, evincing countless variations alongside the tried and true.
Above: Stagecoach
After silent western epics expanded the genre’s scope and gave it a sense of formal validity (1923’s The Covered Wagon, 1924’s The Iron Horse), the implementation of sound quickly capitalized on its characteristic aural effects. And with the increasing quantity of low-budget B-westerns, there also came the increasing quality of A-grade productions. Cimarron (1931) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only western to do so until 1990, and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), which features an astonishing star-making introduction to John Wayne (who had appeared in many films prior), tapped into the genre’s potential for societal commentary. While westerns of the 1940s became more serious (1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident) and more scandalous (The Outlaw, also 1943), post-war America faced dramatic shifts in its cultural constitution, and westerns followed suit by incorporating model elements in a comfortable, traditional style (1953’s Shane) but also by breaking new ground in form and content. Combating the influence of television (where western stories were also crucial), various widescreen formats sought to intensify the genre’s big-screen standing, as in Hondo (1953), which was also shot in 3-D, the Superscope production Vera Cruz (1954), and the Cinerama release of How The West Was Won (1963). The Big Trail had anticipated the draw of an expanded canvas in 1930, using a short-lived format called Grandeur, which, like its successors, exploited the western’s inherent capacity for landscape photography, horizontal mobility, and the placement of individuals within awesome, panoramic surroundings. Given the term “superwesterns” by French writer and theorist Andre Bazin, renewed genre entries soon featured “an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” These included the “good bad men” of Budd Boetticher's films, the Cold War allegory of High Noon (1952), and the dark, unsettling characterizations found in Anthony Mann’s noirish westerns with James Stewart.
Top: How the West Was Won. Above: The Man from Laramie.
Throughout its history, however, the western struggled with substantive minority and Indigenous representation and a thoughtful depiction of the female experience. While many films routinely resorted to stale, simplistic, and at times purely offensive stereotypes, certain features did aim to correct, or at least develop, these cliched portraits. There were, for example, Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway (both 1950), Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957), and, years later, adopting a Vietnam-era consciousness, A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, and Soldier Blue (all from 1970). Women were also given their due in some of the more interesting westerns ever made, including Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), a Joan Crawford vehicle Pam Cook called “perhaps the nearest Hollywood has come to a feminist Western,” and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952). This gender-based reconsideration intermittently continued with Cat Ballou (1965) and a string of features in the 1990s: The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), Bad Girls (1994), and The Quick and the Dead (1995).
Above: Johnny Guitar
By the 1960s, though, the western was in a state of precarious and precipitous decline, and as the genre’s popularity waned, archetypal motifs instead began appearing in modern-day settings, as in Easy Rider (1969), with characters named Wyatt and Billy, Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Clint Eastwood’s action films of the 1970s. Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972) was a somber tribute to customary western philosophy, while his Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) took the border western to its nihilistic extreme. Meanwhile, inventive “revisionist” westerns affirmed the genre’s long-standing ability to engage in a revelatory dialogue with itself. The iconoclastic Robert Altman made McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971, which confronted prevailing notions of the ideal Western hero, and in 1976, Buffalo Bill and The Indians (or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson), a self-conscious assessment of western mythmaking. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) irreverently touched on issues of race and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) sought to recapture a sense of grandiosity. But times had undeniably changed, and the western’s devotion to 19th century paradigms became widely outmoded, especially in terms of commercial tastes.
Above: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Nevertheless, attempts were repeatedly made to revive this classic genre, from star-studded features like Silverado (1985) and Young Guns (1988) to the prestige release of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990). There were popular westerns like Tombstone (1993), comedic westerns like Maverick (1994), and art-house efforts like Dead Man (1996). And despite everything seemingly stacked against the western, recent years have actually featured some of the genre’s more extraordinary efforts: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Django Unchained (2012), and Slow West (2014), among them. The western had been written off many times before. As early as 1911, a writer for a film trade journal proclaimed the “gold mine … had been worked to the limit.” But as Anthony Mann once commented, “I think the reason why [the western is] the most popular and long-lasting genre is that it gives you more freedom of action, in landscape, in passion. It’s a primitive form. It’s not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoorness. It is legend—and legend makes the very best cinema.”
Above: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
More than any other filmmaker, director John Ford is synonymous with the western, having made some of the most celebrated considerations of legendary places, characters, and the very nature of western— indeed American—storytelling: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” states a character in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). His classics also include My Darling Clementine (1946) and the films of his Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). But arguably his best western, certainly his most complex, is The Searchers (1956). Aside from directly confronting racist attitudes toward Native Americans, this film, through the personage of Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne in what is perhaps his finest performance, is a disturbing, multileveled look at barbarism and civilization and the conflicts raging inside one man. The picture’s stunning visuals provide a gorgeous backdrop for Ford’s penetrating delineation of familial responsibility, pathological destruction, and, in the end, the chance for redemption.
Above: The Searchers
The interplay of generic icons and the emergence of the auteur theory were well-suited to the work of Howard Hawks, and his westerns were especially prone to such analysis. Rio Bravo (1959), his second of four films with Wayne, is a notable case in point for its integration of, and deviation from, typically western and typically Hawksian components. Shot on location in Old Tucson, the film eschews the common canvassing of the western landscape and its attendant action as Hawks instead slows down the drama and interiorizes the discord. Rio Bravo is a casual, chatty film, with memorable characters engaging in all sorts of leisurely behavior while also respecting their steadfast call of duty. The western’s distinctive structures and props are highlighted together with the unique traits of its stellar cast, each of whom likewise bank on their popular traits.
The western, Bazin proclaimed, is the “American genre par excellence,” yet a frequent aspect of the genre’s history has been its international appeal and the universal resonance of this markedly American form. Foreign filmmakers had been making westerns for decades, but it was the Italian Sergio Leone who cemented the influential value of the spaghetti western subgenre and was expressly accountable for the genre’s global expansion. Following a trio of low-budget westerns made in Spain and Italy, the films of his so-called Man With No Name Trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)—Leone crafted an epic, self-reflexive annotation on the genre. Complemented by Ennio Morricone’s distinguished score, the sweeping Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), like earlier Leone films, is embellished by its overt stylization, its jarring juxtapositions of close-ups and wide shots, its choreographed movement, and its harsh, brutal landscapes. Partly shot in the hallowed ground of Monument Valley, the film’s cast also boasts a roster of talent equally identified for their generic significance. 
Above: Once Upon A Time in the West
Aligning with the modifications of Hollywood’s studio system and America’s own shifting predilections, the western itself underwent a significant period of revision, and one of the earliest films to hint at this evolution was Sam Peckinpah’s second film, Ride the High Country (1962), staring Joel McCrea and western pillar Randolph Scott, in his final role. But Peckinpah would most explosively tackle the redefining of the west and the western with The Wild Bunch (1969), where the threat of modernity lingers within the very soul of its archaic antiheroes. The changing west is leaving behind these men who do not easily abide to society’s conformist rules and regulations, these men who are ever reluctant to go any further into the 20th century. Starring Western exemplars William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Ben Johnson, the presence of such legendary individuals assesses the very real aging process of western film performers while the film’s graphic bloodshed came as a shock to the norms of genre expectation.
The western has always been a predominantly male-driven genre, for better or worse. But in that regard, it has also been open to astute observations concerning masculinity and man’s relationship with violence. Clint Eastwood, in his roles for Leone and as star and director of films such as High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992), exemplifies this concern. Unforgiven, in particular, offers a treatise on not only masculine suppositions but also on the causes and consequences of accepted carnage. Eastwood’s William Munny has led a wickedly brutal life, but upon his acceptance of a hesitant domesticity he reforms and shuns his old ways. A series of events complicate this reformation, though, and the resurrection of his former self, with all that implies, leads to one of the genre’s most poignant evocations of despair and moral conflict; the film is a multifaceted discourse on violence that still resonates today.
Above: Unforgiven
An extensive rundown of the western can be found at, part of the AMC Network. Covering many of the pivotal moments in the history of the genre and citing its seminal films and filmmakers, the site posits that “Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier [and] one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins.” On the other hand, Michael Agresta’s 2013 piece for The Atlantic, “How the Western Was Lost (and Why It Matters),” is among the more insightful examinations of why and how the western has fallen generally out of favor. Picking up from the box office failure 2013’s The Lone Ranger (hardly the best test case for Western fortitude), the article looks at the social, commercial, and political factors at play in determining the genre’s durability.
The niche popularity of the spaghetti western is one reason the western still endures. These sometimes-eccentric titles have cultivated an impassioned following, and The Spaghetti Western Database seeks to provide the ultimate resource on such content, guiding readers toward related films and supplemental information. Recent Westerns have varied greatly in value, but there has certainly been no shortage in material to scrutinize. While the lesser of these films have only served to bolster the denigrated opinion of the Western in current times, the better of these features, as illustrated in the multiple “listicles” found online, including those at The Ringer, Collider, and IndieWire, suggest just the opposite, presenting several examples to spark continued interest and affirm the genre’s continued progression. The western has a long, prolific history of scholarship, and few have contributed to this area of study as prominently as Jim Kitses. His “Horizons West” is a formative text covering many of the genre’s important films and figures and its lasting legacy—“The Western is one of America’s grandest inventions,” he writes to open the text—while a volume he co-edited with Gregg Rickman, “The Western Reader,” remains a fascinating collection of essays exploring the sometimes unrecognized diversity of these films.


ColumnsWesternsNotebook Primer
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.