The Film Genre: Western
0. The region of Western United States, affectionately nicknamed the “Old West” comes with an interesting topographical history. While originally bound by the Appalachian Mountains, as the states expanded westward, the Mississippi River came to be the new boundary. It was from that point all the way to the Pacific Ocean with plenty of dry, arid landscapes in between, that inspiration for the film genre of the Western was born.
1. It is worth noting that it was not just the terrain that gave birth to this new genre. While it is true that mass migration of Americans westbound was encouraged by the government in the 17th century, it would be a gross generalization to say that it was based on borders. Instead, the ideology of the ‘American Frontier’ encompassed the historical and geographical intricacies as well as the culture that helped popularize the Western. Think about it – the brave American undergoes an endeavour of exploring the unknown and annexing new lands. It was new, exciting and very much a representation of the time. For Hollywood appeal, this notion was further glamorized with exaggerations of romance, disorder and violence which appear throughout the genre.
2. When you hear the ‘Wild West’, the first thing that pops into your mind is flat, dry land with cowboys and horses. This idyllic scene is most certainly accompanied by a rolling tumbleweed, just before an action scene where a bandit comes into town. Just as he begins to start trouble, the swinging doors smack open exposing rugged men swigging back whiskey and tossing their chewing tobacco into a spittoon. The county sheriff and deputy emerge and a shoot-out begins.
3. Yet, a true Western buff would know that the films are more complex than that overgeneralized story line. Of course, the most identifiable subgenres include some sort of power struggle between the righteous protagonists versus a criminal antagonist who is causing harm or terrorizing the town. Alongside this, the ‘bad guy’s’ motivation could be revenge-based, in which the outlaws are out to get someone who wronged them in the past. Alternatively, plots could be centred around a land dispute where rustlers attempt to annex a ranch that does not belong to them. Other varieties are centered around the building of technological advancement or transportation system.
4. It is those iconic tropes and plotlines that make Westerns such a recognizable genre. In their prime, tales set in the Old West were the most popular Hollywood genre in the United States, with their reign lasting from the early 1900s all the way to the middle of the century. However, they experienced some trials and tribulations before arriving at that status. While wildly popular in the era of silent movies, they were quickly discarded by cinema-goers when sound was introduced into film. Despite this period of inactivity, a resurgence of admiration for the genre was restored in the 1930s with some of Western films’ most popular features being released such as Stagecoach, Dodge City and Destry Rides Again.
5. Though the genre eventually lost its steam among American viewers, its legacy spread to international frontiers so to speak. As they were on the way out of the United States in the sixties, they gained traction and success in Italy. Dubbed ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ by American critics, the term was actually coined by Alfonso Sanchez, a Spanish journalist. A unique feature of these films is a lack of a central language. Although they were led by an Italian director, staff and actors were often from other countries such as Spain, Germany and even the US. Because of this, movies were often voiced over in Italian for their audience. As most of these films were produced with a Spanish partnership, ‘Paella Western’ is the name given to those shot and made in Spain.
6. Although it might be hard to catch the latest Western flick, its legacy lives on in pop culture and has for decades. Most recently, as of 2019, fashion runways were filled with fringe jackets and cowboy boots with farm-themed spreads. What’s more is that the look of the Wild West has been modernized to include funkier patterns and textures on the same traditional attire as seen on celebrities on the red carpet or on street-style posts on the social media platform, Instagram.
7. So, where does it go from here? As a new decade dawns, nearly a century after Westerns began their peak, we are left wondering what comes next. While some more modern Western-inspired films have seen some success, like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, they are being produced at 1/10th the rate of what they used to be. The bottom line is that the dominant motif of the expansion of a young nation into unexplored lands is no longer as prevalent in modern society. Perhaps as the United States increases its presence in space, we may see a resurgence in the production of this genre. Only time will truly tell. Nevertheless, at the present moment, the attraction of Westerns remains stagnant.