Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Origins of the 'Western'

Western Films or Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostaligic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier (the borderline between civilization and the wilderness). They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins.

The popularity of westerns has waxed and waned over the years. Their most prolific era was between the 1930s and 1960s. More recently in the 90s, there was a resurgence of the genre.

Westerns are often set on the American frontier during the last part of the 19th century (1865-1900) following the Civil War, in a geographically western setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. However, Westerns may extend back to the time of America's colonial period or forward to the mid-20th century, or as far geographically as Mexico. A number of westerns use the Civil War, the Battle of the Alamo (1836) or the Mexican Revolution (1910) as a backdrop.

The western film genre often portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature, in the name of civilization, or the confiscation of territorial rights of the native inhabitants of the frontier. Specific settings include lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, the isolated homestead, the saloon, the jail, the livery stable, the small-town main street, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization. They may even include Native American sites or villages. Other iconic elements in westerns include the hanging tree, stetsons and spurs, saddles, lassos and Colt .45's, bandannas and buckskins, canteens, stagecoaches, gamblers, long-horned cattle and cattle drives and prostitutes (or madams). Very often, the cowboy has a favoured horse (or 'faithful steed'), for example, Roy Rogers' Trigger, Gene Autry's Champion, William Boyd's (Hopalong Cassidy) Topper, the Lone Ranger's Silver and Tonto's Scout.

Western films have also been called the horse opera, the oater (quickly-made, short western films which became as commonplace as oats for horses), or the cowboy picture. The western film genre has portrayed much about America's past, glorifying the past-fading values and aspirations of the mythical by-gone age of the West. Over time, westerns have been re-defined, re-invented and expanded, dismissed, re-discovered, and spoofed. In the late 60s and early 70s (and in subsequent years), 'revisionistic' Westerns that questioned the themes and elements of traditional/classic westerns appeared (such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and later Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992).

Westerns Film Plots

Usually, the central plot of the western film is the classic, simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story. It is normally rooted in archetypal conflict - good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, white hat vs. black hat, man vs. man, new arrivals vs. Native Americans (inhumanely portrayed as savage Indians), settlers vs. Indians, humanity vs. nature, civilization vs. wilderness or lawlessness, schoolteachers vs. saloon dance-hall girls, villains vs. heroes, lawman or sheriff vs. gunslinger, social law and order vs. anarchy, the rugged individualist vs. the community, the cultivated East vs. West, settler vs. nomad, and farmer vs. industrialist to name a few. Often the hero of a western meets his opposite "double," a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy.

Typical elements in westerns include:

* hostile elements (often Native Americans)
* guns and gun fights (sometimes on horseback)
* violence and human massacres
* trains (and train robberies) and bank holdups
* runaway stagecoachs
* shoot-outs and showdowns between outlaws and sheriffs
* cattle drives, cattle rustling and stampedes
* posses in pursuit
* bar room brawls
* 'search and destroy' plots
* breathtaking settings and open landscapes (eg: Monument Valley)
* distinctive western clothing (eg: denim, jeans, bandannas, boots, etc)

Western heroes are often local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, or a skilled, fast-draw gunfighter. They are normally masculine persons of integrity and principle - courageous, moral, tough, solid and self-sufficient, maverick characters (often with trusty sidekicks), possessing an independent and honorable attitude (but often characterized as slow-talking). The Western hero could usually stand alone and face danger on his own, against the forces of lawlessness (outlaws or other antagonists), with an expert display of his physical skills (roping, gun-play, horse-handling, pioneering abilities, etc.).

Influences on the Western

In many ways, the cowboy of the Old West was the American version of the Japanese samurai warrior, or the Arthurian knight of medieval times. [No wonder that westerns were inspired by samurai and Arthurian legends, i.e., Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) served as the prototype for Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960). Le Mort D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory also inspired much of Shane (1953) - a film with a mythical western hero acting like a noble knight in shining leather in its tale of good vs. evil.] They were all bound by legal codes of behavior, ethics, justice, courage, honor and chivalry.

Western Film Roots

The roots of the film western are found in many varied sources, often of literary origins:

* folk music of the colonial period

* the novels of James Fenimore Cooper such as his 1826 story The Last of the Mohicans (re-made as a movie at least 3 times - most recently as The Last of the Mohicans (1992) starring Daniel Day Lewis as the heroic white frontiersman scout named Hawkeye)

* the stories of Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Francis Parkman and Bret Harte and the dime novels about Western heroes

* the mythologies of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, General George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday

* the tales of outlaws such as Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Jesse James and Billy the Kid

* screen cowboy Gene Autry's "Cowboy Code" (or Cowboy Commandments) written in the late 1940s - a collection of moralistic principles and values that cowboys reportedly live by, including such tenets as: the cowboy never shoots first or takes unfair advantage, always tells the truth, must help people in distress, and is a patriot

Quiz Time
In your workbook, respond to the following questions in full sentences.

1. The height of the Western’s popularity was in the __________ era.

2. Western film typically focus on the ‘American frontier’. In your own words, explain what this frontier was and where it was located?

3. As a genre, Western movies portrayed mankind’s battle to ______________________ .

4. Location settings rarely strayed from convention. List five (5) conventional settings where Western films were situated.

5. Western films are distinctive for their very recognizable mis en scen. List six (6) elements of mis en scen that were common to almost all Westerns.

6. Briefly, in your own words, outline a standard Western plot.

7. List four (4) archetypal conflicts readily encountered in films of the Western genre.

8. Profile the typical hero of the Western.

9. The source of the Western genre can be traced back to American literature and mythology. Explain how this is true.

10. Outline the 'cowboy code'.

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