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The Wild! Wild! Western!

Updated: May 12, 2022

Cinema of the West - Westerns

Do you Know Orson Welles watched Stagecoach (1939) numerous times until he lost count before making the infamous Citizen Kane (1941)? Sam Peckinpah commented upon western film:

“I know it’s an anachronism. I know it's fascist. I know it’s sexist. I know it’s evil and out of date. But, God help me, I love it so”.

Why is it that the frontier is considered so important in the American Landscape? Why people are obsessed with sweaty tanned men wearing cowboy hats fighting over their imbued masculinity? Well, these are questions of cultural and historical studies and how history shaped cinema and vice – versa. There is still a lot to be discovered in this particular context.

A shot from Stagecoach (1939), © Walter Wanger Productions

For scholars and critics, westerns established the techniques of filmmaking with films as early as The Great Train Robbery (1903). In film schools, documentaries like Interpretation and Values: the Filming of a Sequence from the Television Series (1958) have been taught and analyzed to establish this connection between westerns and their role in filmmaking. The Frontier is a great landscape to represent the past, present and what is to come. We have seen this in web series like Westworld (2016), and in movies like Cowboys and Aliens (2011) and John Carter(2012). Whether the premise is futuristic, dreamy or deals with nuisances of science the underlying concept is the conflict between overdevelopment and Darwinism.

A shot from Westworld (2016), © Warner Bros. Television Studios

This conflict is the most important aspect of the Western and has been quite popular among the producers, directors and critics. No Wonder Why! In the AFI (American Film Institute) list of top 100 American films of the decade, ten are Westerns. The list includes films like Shane (1953), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Giant (1956). While several films and cinema movements over the years have paid homage to the famous genre like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). The influence transcended boundaries and led to the emergence of Spaghetti Westerns and Bushranger films of Australia. Critics like Robert Warshaw, Andre Bazin and Peter Rollins wrote quite many texts on westerns their influence and discussed the tropes of it. In recent times we have witnessed genre-blending as the go-to thing for literary authors and film auteurs.

A shot from Midnight Cowboy (1969), © Jerome Hellman Productions © Mist Entertainment

But Core Western content has diminished in quantum except for a bunch of films like The Hateful Eight (2015), No Country for Old men (2007) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) which have kept the genre alive. The important argument is what led to this decay? Is it the conflict at the frontiers, demarcated territorial boundaries, masculine toxicity or the chauvinistic outlook of the genre that caused it? One simple answer is that today we have a lot to consume, and as the choices have increased the genre boundaries have been reduced. This millennium started with a shout-out “We want all-in-one”. The creator’s perceptions have been altered thus.

A shot from No Country for Old men (2007), © Scott Rudin Productions © Mike Zoss Productions

For the eras, before cinema, paintings, literature, sculptures and other plastic arts conveyed the myth of the west. The novels of James Fennimore Cooper like The Pioneers (1823) specified the archetypes of the genre, the characters, the landscape and American apprehension for the frontier. The Famous F.J. Turner coined the “Turner Thesis” which states that aristocratic pretensions and cultural assumptions brought about by immigrants to Americans have no significance at the frontier. The Painters of the “Rocky Mountain School” like Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole conveyed the themes of the Western in their body of Work.

Thomas Cole's painting The Consummation of Empire depicts a society in excess.

A narrative was frequent in these paintings that great nations stand on the pedestal of nature, with development they move from the wild and as this development is saturated they suffer the inevitable course of decay and death. Photographers like Ansel Adams captured western themes with the lenses of photography. Historically western life has been embraced a lot. Theodore Roosevelt embraced the ‘Strenuous Life’ due to his struggles as a rancher on the Western front.

Ansel Adams photograph The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)


Throughout the years Americans have been proud of their experiences on the Frontier which has been used for commentary on vital national issues and shaped policy decisions as well. The characteristics of Western pieces are sultry barmaids, necktie parties, ghostly towns, teenagers riding cars with shotguns, fast draws and duels, yet there is a lot of scope for redefining and reinventing the genre. It is the passion of creators that will pave the way and who knows we might see a blend of fantasy with the genre in the future, how about Harry Potter in the West?

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