Western bar scene

What Is A Western?

  • The Western is the national myth of the United States (just as the King Arthur story is the national myth of England).
  • The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last liveable frontier on earth.
  • This story form has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web.
  • Westerns and Science Fiction are the most metaphorical/symbolic genres.
  • The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village.
  • Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promised Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.
  • While classic Westerns documented the struggle for resources — water, livestock, gold — they were highly colored by nostalgia and enjoyed the bliss of ignorance re: Earth not actually coming with a bottomless refill of natural resources.

For more than fifty years, one third of all films released in the United States were westerns. They could be made cheaply, and a certain proportion of the male population could be predictably counted on to see them.

— Howard Suber (who notes the exact same thing about horror films which came later)

Raison d’être

  • The Western is about world-building.
  • The Western is a story of modernisation.
  • The Western genre sometimes 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, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier.
  • This story form has always been about a time and place that was already past, even when it first became popular. But it is important to remember that as a creation myth, the Western was always a vision of the future, a national stage of development that Americans had collectively decided they wanted, even though it was set in the past and could not be created in fact.

Why The Western Needs To Come Back

  • From its inception, the Western has been key to the communication of America’s national ideals and the mythologizing of its past and present.
  • A resurgence of the genre that does best at forcing America to reckon with itself is sorely needed.
  • Focusing its attentions on what motivates rural-dwellers and keeps them up at night is what the Western was born doing, and so more films in the vein of Hell or High Water could bring us closer to understanding the parts of America we don’t hear much about outside of election season — even if we don’t like what they show us.
  • The particular vulnerability of Native American communities in the face of the environmental threats posed at Standing Rock has been highlighted elsewhere, but I think it deserves cinematic attention from the Western, too.

courtesy of Film School Rejects

Brief History Of The Western

  • The heyday of the Western genre was from about 1880 to 1960. The Western film goes through phases of popularity and has been particularly popular in the 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. There has been a recent resurgence of the popularity of (neo-)Western novels with the TV series Longmire.
  • The conflicts in westerns, horror, gangster, and science fiction films must end in a man-to-man, man-to-moment, or man-to-machine climax.
  • Examples Of Classic Westerns
  • The Great Train Robbery (1903)
  • Edwin S. Porter‘s film starring Broncho Billy Anderson, is often cited as the first Western
  • Shane is an example of a film which uses every single Western symbol without irony.
  • The 7 Plots Of Classic Westerns
  • Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber listed seven plots for Westerns:
  1. Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories fall into this category. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  2. Ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners. (WESTERN DRAMA)
  3. Empire story. The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  4. Revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. (WESTERN CAT-AND-MOUSE)
  1. Cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around “taming” the wilderness for white settlers. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
  2. Outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. (WESTERN CRIME)
  3. Marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. (WESTERN DETECTIVE)
  • Story World Of A Western
  • The story world of a classic Western will be in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, often entering on the life of a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns and saloons of the Wild West. Some are set in the American colonial era.
  • Characters also include Native Americans, bandits, lawmen, outlaws and soldiers.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

— Howard Suber

In a Classic Western You’ll Also Find

  • A rational grid of clapboard buildings on the flat, dry plain of the Southwest
  • A bustling community under the benevolent gaze of the marshal
  • A showdown, which happens in the middle of the main street where everyone can see the hero’s bravery. The cowboy hero waits for the bad man to draw first, still beats him, and reaffirms right action and law and order for the growing community.
  • The modern Western story is really a mixture of other genres with a setting in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, or a similarly desolate but modern American setting.

The Following Genres Can All Be Found Mixed With Myth:

  • Crime/Detective (The Streets of Laredo)
  • Love (Lonesome Dove) — also an anti-Western (dependent on audience interpretation)
  • Thriller (No Country For Old Men, a neo-Western)

Filming Locations Of Westerns

A spaghetti Western was filmed in Italy, where the landscape looked enough like America but was a lot cheaper to use as a location. Red Westerns (a.k.a Osterns) are filmed in Russia. More recently we have the ‘Pavlova Western’ — filmed in Australia or New Zealand e.g. Mike Wallis’ Good for Nothing or John McLean’s Slow West. While these films can still have great storylines, having grown up in New Zealand and emigrated later to Australia, the trees and landscapes look far too familiar to work for me as American stories. Australian locations are also known as Meat-Pie Westerns.

You can probably guess what Curry Westerns and Indo Westerns are.

Westerns set and filmed within America itself are even broken into subcategories. Take Florida Westerns, also known as Cracker Westerns, set in Florida during the Second Seminole War.

Symbolism Of Westerns

Symbols vary from culture to culture, but in the Old West story, symbolism is American as well as Native American.

Rocks and mountains in a story can represent obstacles and difficulties.

The Outcasts of Poker Flats by Bret Harte  about so-called “undesirables” who have been expelled from an Old West town and must make a journey over the mountains that represent the arduous tasks ahead replete with danger.

Double Crossing by Meg Mims  the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras symbolize the sizeable trials and difficulties ahead that will include the heroine being pushed off a railroad trestle, nearly pushed from a train as well as fighting for her life on mining hillside as she tracks down her father’s murderer.

Shane — as the young boy cries out to the severely wounded main character, Shane heads off into the mountains that represent the final obstacle of Shane’s own eventual death. This film is the most metaphorical and schematic of all the Westerns, according to Truby. So much so that the symbols call attention to themselves. That being said, Shane takes the mythical Western form to its logical extreme. The story tracks a mysterious stranger who, when first seen, is already on a journey. He rides down from the mountain, makes one stop, and then returns to the mountain.

In Native American culture, however, the mountain can represent a journey or a spiritual connection with nature.

The Outlaw Josey Wales — as Josey talks with Chief Ten Bears, notice the mountain range behind Wales as he speaks spiritual truths to the chief. The domestic scene of the Indian village behind the chief symbolizes the land as the Indians home. Blood exchanged by knife cuts on each man’s hand represents not only brotherhood but blood as a powerful symbol of purification and redemption, perhaps a foreshadowing of the movie’s ending when the wounded Josey bleeds onto his own boot before saying to the forgiving and reluctant villain Fletcher, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.” Again, the mountain, this time larger and closer, is behind Josey in the ending as he converses with Fletcher and then rides off into those mountains and into the sunset.

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert.

Seraphim Falls

The sunset is a symbol for death and often used for story endings. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset.

The Searchers — the sunset symbol is both an ending as well as a death, as Ethan turns from the closing door and walks off into the sunset, estranged to a spiritual death away from the family he worked so hard to unify.

Animals can also be symbols.

Dances with Wolves — the wolf is analogous to a dog, and a dog in American culture (Fido=Fidelity/Faith) represents faith. When the wolf is killed, it demonstrates how Dunbar’s faith is now tested and will be shaken by the events to come. But the same symbol can mean something different in another culture. To the Indian culture, the wolf represents a medicine of courage, strength and loyalty, and so they name Dunbar “Dances with Wolves” who will courageously leave his American culture for the Native American way of life.

The Gun

  • The gun is crucial to any Western. But in Shane, it’s placed at the center of the theme. The film asks the question by which every man in the story is judged: Do you have the courage to use the gun? The cattlemen hate the farmers because they put up fences. The farmers fight the cattlemen so they can build a real town with laws and a church. Shane wears light buckskin; the evil gunslinger wears black. The farmers buy supplies with which they can build their homes at the general store. But the store has a door that opens into the saloon where the cattlemen drink and fight and kill. Shane tries to build a new life of home and family when he’s in the general store, but he can’t help being sucked into the saloon and back to his old life as a lone warrior who is great with a gun.

The Six-gun

  • The Western hero does not wear armour, but he wears the second great symbol of this symbol web, the six-gun. The six-gun represents mechanised force, a “sword” of justice that is highly magnified in power. Because of his code and the values of the warrior culture, the cowboy will never draw his gun first. And he must always enforce justice in a showdown in the street, where all can see.

White Hat, Black Hat

  • Like the horror story, the Western always expresses binary values of good and evil, and these are signalled by the third major symbol of the web, the hat. The Western hero wears a white hat; the bad man wears black.

The Badge

  • The fourth symbol of the form is the badge, which is in the shape of another symbol, the star. The Western hero is always the enforcer of right, often to his own detriment, since his violence usually ostracises him. He may temporarily join the community in an official way if he becomes a lawman. He imposes the law not just upon the wilderness but also upon the wildness and passion within each person.

The Fence

  • It is always a wooden fence, slight and fragile, and it represents the skin-deep control the new civilisation has over the wilderness of nature and the wildness of human nature.

What Is An Anti-Western?

  • Also known as the Revisionist Western/Modern Western
  • Compared to a classic Western, anti-Westerns feature a darker, more cynical tone, with focus on the lawlessness of the time period, favouring realism over romanticism. Anti-heroes are still common, but with stronger roles for women and more-sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and Mexicans. Regarding power and authority, these depictions favour critical views of big business, the American government, masculine figures (including the military and their policies), and a turn to greater historical authenticity.
  • These ‘revisionist’ Westerns questioned many of the traditional Western’s central tenets, which were, not so coincidentally, the ideals most commonly held amongst the pre-war generations.
  • While some lamented the “death” of the Western at this time, baby boomers sought and saw a revolutionizing of the genre that gave cinematic voice to their convictions. Baby boomers are largely anti-war.

Raison d’être

The great flaw of using a prefabricated metaphorical symbol web is that it is so self-conscious and predictable that the story becomes a blueprint for the audience, not a lived experience. But in this flaw lies a tremendous opportunity. You can use the audience’s knowledge of the form and the symbol web to reverse it. In this technique, you use all the symbols in the web but twist them so that their meaning is very different from what the audience expects. This forces them to rethink all their expectations. You can do this with any story that has well-known symbols. When you are working in a specific genre like myth, horror, or Western, this technique is known as undercutting the genre.

– John Truby

A Brief History Of The Anti-Western

  • Some post-WWII Western films began to question the ideals and style of the traditional Western.
  • Indeed, most Westerns from the 1960s to the present have anti-Western themes.
  • But the earliest was actually made in the pre-WW2 1940s: The Ox-Bow Incident.

Examples Of Anti-Westerns

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Wild Bunch  set in the last days of the American Frontier. In both Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch (about the same real-life group of outlaws) the characters aren’t keen on new technologies. Butch Cassidy and the townspeople want nothing to do with the bicycle, for instance.
  • Is Lonesome Dove an anti-Western? Before its publication in 1985, McMurtry was known as a contemporary novelist who made a point of denouncing unrealistic, romantic period novels about the frontier. The old myths were destructive, he argued, and they ignored the complex, urbanized realities of the modern West. Then he wrote “Lonesome Dove,” an 843-page frontier epic that seemed to be exactly the sort of book he had been attacking. […] McMurtry thought he had written an anti-Western, one that critics and readers then perversely took to be the greatest Western ever. “‘Lonesome Dove’ was a critical book,” he still insists, “but that’s not how it was perceived. The romance of the West is so powerful, you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.
  • His response to the misreading of “Lonesome Dove” was “Streets of Laredo,” which takes place 20 years later, and “Comanche Moon,” which deals with the same characters as young men. In both books (as well as in “Dead Man’s Walk,” the prologue to the series) he tried everything possible to destroy the romantic aura of the original novel. Where “Lonesome Dove” was heroic and sweeping, the subsequent books are bleak and austere. And “Streets of Laredo,” written during the long siege on that couch in Tucson, is the darkest of them all.
  • Woodrow Call, who survived “Lonesome Dove” intact, is shot several times in “Streets,” finally losing his arm and leg. “He would have to live, but without himself,” McMurtry wrote of his shattered hero. “He felt he had left himself faraway, back down the weeks, in the spot west of Fort Stockton where he had been wounded. … He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again.
  • Hud — McMurtry’s first book, published as Horseman, Pass By.
  • The Homesman — published a few years after Lonesome Dove in 1988, and made into a film by Tommy Lee Jones in 2014. This is such a harsh story it would be hard for audiences to mistake it for a love-letter to the Old West.
  • The work of Annie Proulx is unambiguously anti-Western. In her Wyoming Stories she offers a searing critique of cowboy culture and satirises the mindset that Wild West culture is some kind of aspirational ideal.
  • True Grit — the TV series
  • The Proposition — Australia’s version of an anti-Western
  • The Englishman’s Boy — a Canadian example
  • The Misfits
  • Sin Nombre
  • Lonely Are The Brave
  • The Rounders
  • The Reward
  • Moon Zero Two
  • The Traveling Executioner
  • Deadlock
  • The Resurrection of Broncho Billy
  • Angels: Hard as They Come
  • The Day of the Wolves
  • Squares
  • Pocket Money
  • Longmire — is often marketed as a neo-Western but it is more of an anti-Western. Walt Longmire is the dedicated and unflappable sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Widowed only a year, he is a man in psychic repair but buries his pain behind his brave face, unassuming grin and dry wit. He is an anti-hero.
  • Justified — another TV series set in the West
  • Brokeback Mountain — which Annie Proulx would not call a Western — she calls it a story about hate in a community. It just happens to star cowboys, kind of.
  • Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
  • Meek’s Cutoff — cinema verite
  • They Die By Dawn
  • Hell Or High Water — Before 2016 inflicted itself upon us, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pre-empted the election results with Hell or High Water, a neo-Western with anti-capitalist undertones. With banks ripping off policemen and robbers alike, and its politically charged juxtapositional images of oil wells towering over foreclosed homes, the film tapped into an Occupy-inspired sense of moral outrage at corporate tyranny shared by both rural and urban Americans alike.
  • Wind River — Sheridan’s film touches on the intrusion and violation of the reservation land on which it’s set by encroaching oil giants and their employees.
  • etc.

What Is Neo-Western?

  • While Neo-Westerns tend to be anti-Westerns, the two are nonetheless distinct categories.
  • Anti Westerns are classic Westerns in setting but incorporate contemporary values (Unforgiven).
  • Contemporary Westerns use traditional genre conventions and values but transplant them to a contemporary setting (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Leaving Cheyenne, The Border Trilogy, No Country For Old Men)

Neo-Westerns are a post 1970s kind of story. There are two main trends.

  1. The elevation of image spectacles and special effects
  2. The fragmentation and reflexivity of narrative constructions

Story World Of A Neo-Western

Films in this category reflect the traditions of the Western film genre but are set in the contemporary, even urban, American West or frontiers beyond.

Raison d’être

Neo-Westerns adopt the conventions of Western storytelling but incorporate new values, transplanted to other settings (Star Wars).

Examples of Neo-Westerns

  • Kill Bill Vol. 2 directed by Quentin Tarantino — another good versus evil story but with an almost futuristic Japanese setting
  • Star Wars — uses the conventions of Western storytelling (good versus evil) but it’s set in space
  • Avatar — the director James Cameron has messages about Indigenous sovereignty and settler nations’ relationships with Indigenous people. He calls attention to the ramification of Western expansion in this Neo-Western. He started work on it in 1995, the same year Bolivia elected an Indigenous president, and when other significant Indigenous movements were going on worldwide. We’re meant to think of Pocahontas, Iraq and Viet Nam when watching Avatar.
  • The Book Of Eli — a vision of an archival future
  • Mad Max — sometimes called a ‘road Western’. Australian Westerns like this dystopian franchise can be viewed as cautionary tales on resource greed: when oil (or “guzzolene”) runs out, the films tell us, nuclear war and a kill-to-survive mentality will plague the earth, decimating populations and sharply cleaving society into the exploited many and the soul-sucking, resource-hoarding few.
  • The Proposition — Australian
  • The Rover — Another Australian film
  • Serenity — 2005, based on the Firefly TV series
  • Star Trek — Famously Gene Roddenberry pitched the concept of the TV show Star Trek as a Wagon Train to the stars