"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is a Western?

Define oater

It's all very well writing a blog about Westerns (and this one has been going since 2010) but what is a Western anyway?

A few reflections from this blogger's perspective:

A Western is usually thought to be a film or book that tells a tale of the American Western frontier in the nineteenth century.
A Western
Western movies, specifically, sometimes called cowboy films (though many did not concern cattle drovers at all) tend to tell the story of frontier pioneers in a land where there was little formal law. They dealt with conflict: ‘standard’ themes are settlers or US Cavalry against Indians, or one type of pioneer against another such as sodbuster against cattle baron (farmer vs. rancher).

Sometimes such films glorified professional gunfighters or lawmen and dealt with brave heroes ‘cleaning up the town’ and sometimes they dealt with personal tales of pursuit and revenge.
Guns essential
They nearly always contain themes of battling against nature (often with the idea of ‘taming’ it) and the great outdoors is very important to such films. Often the advance of the railroad provided the context (the railroad companies are usually portrayed as grasping and unscrupulous corporate villains who contribute to the death of the true West) and, throughout the history of the genre but especially from the 1960s onward, such movies talked, nostalgically, of the ‘end of the West’.

Now, purists and hard-core amateurs of the genre will sometimes say that a true Western is geographically and chronologically confined to a certain area and time and should properly only treat themes such as the above. The period and region concerned are the (only) thirty-five-odd years between the end of the American Civil War and the end of the century in the states and territories west of the Mississippi.

Specifically Mexican and Canadian contexts are ruled out: it is acceptable to have pictures about Americans going down to Mexico (such movies as The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals or The Wild Bunch depend on this idea) or even up to Canada (in North West Mounted Police Texas Ranger Gary Cooper chases a desperado into Her Majesty’s domains, and James Stewart rides Pie into Canada in The Far Country) but purely Mexican horse operas such as Viva Villa! or Viva Zapata! or films about Mounties getting their man, like Saskatchewan, are not, properly speaking, say the purists, Westerns.
 Wrong color coat
Now this blogger is not so strict. For example, two great pictures set in Australia are most definitely, in my view, Westerns and very good Westerns too: Quigley Down Under and The Proposition. But purists wouldn't count those. But I mean to say, you want the setting to be west of the Mississippi? Well, how much farther west of the Mississippi can get than Western Australia?

Similarly, ‘Westerns’ with cars or planes in them are ruled out. Where the early automobile is taken as a symbol (often negative) of the new world, such as in Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah especially did this), The Shootist or the later Monte Walsh, then that is acceptable, but modern-day settings, say purists, disqualify many movies. Even such fine films sometimes referred to as classic Westerns such as Bad Day at Black Rock, Junior Bonner, Hud or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are counted out by some (Sierra Madre on two counts: it's set in Mexico in the 1920s).
Boone symbolizes the end of the West
The present writer, to use a rather posh phrase, does not share these prejudices. As a boy he was deeply shocked to read a Roy Rogers comic in which Roy drove across the desert in a jeep and he has never got over the trauma. Still, in a spirit of open-mindedness he has allowed into his blog many of such modern aberrations. Furthermore, as he ages (and boy how he ages) he is more liberal in his interpretation and his early puritan purism wanes. I mean, what about Lonely Are the Brave? A Western if ever I saw one, and a little masterpiece too. That has cars and trucks and even a helicopter. But it’s as Western as hell.
A helicopter but still a Western
And let’s not forget that lots of the Westerns of the post-William S Hart era, Tom Mix oaters in particular (think of Sky High), or those John Wayne B-movies of the 1930s, had no such complexes and were perfectly happy to have automobiles and planes in them. In fact they seemed to inhabit a weird time-warp world where modern-day (to the 30s) technology and girls in 30s dresses lived side by side with pistol-packin’ cowpokes ridin’ the range. To the movie-makers and movie-goers of the 1920s and 30s, of course, the Wild West was like the 1970s or 80s to us. Yesterday.
Tom hitches a ride
True Westerns can’t be too early either. The Last of the Mohicans is not a proper Western. It’s too eastern and too eighteenth century, even if it is a frontier story. People wear tricorn hats, for goodness’ sake. American Revolution films such as Revolution or The Patriot (the latter is noxious drivel anyway; Mel Gibson has a disgraceful way with history and was never in anything even remotely good except Payback and Maverick) are excluded. Early nineteenth century tales such as Lewis and Clark stories like The Far Horizons, or tales of trappers like The Big Sky, or stories of early mountain men like Jeremiah Johnson or The Revenant are not really proper Westerns either. If you are a purist. Too early, you see.
Redcoats and tricorns? No thanks.
Even Civil War stories are not, as a rule, Westerns. They are war films. Take Shenandoah, for example. It’s a family ‘saga’ (later made into a stage musical, of all things) which treats quite important issues of war and peace (particularly relevant to the Vietnam generation when it was made) but it does not treat pioneer themes of facing the great outdoors or lawlessness on the frontier, even if James Stewart does do what a man’s gotta do. Some Civil War stories, or ones set just after the war (the Josey Wales scenario) are certainly Westerns but that is because they only deal incidentally with armies and battles and who was right or wrong; they deal rather with conflict of another kind. Dances With Wolves is set in the war period and begins with a battle scene but the real theme is Costner’s relationship with the wild and with the Indians, so it’s a Western. But Civil War blockbusters are not Westerns. Gone with the Wind is just an expensive filming of a cheap romance.

Westerns are a specifically American genre. Many movies dealing with Western themes or set in the American West were made elsewhere and there is a strong tradition of the European Western, especially the Italian one. But they were European takes on an American genre and often don’t ring true. The spaghetti westerns, for example, were not really Westerns at all, in some ways. They were post-modernist deconstructions (I think) of the Western. True Westerns might be criticized (or praised) for being not about truth but about myth. If that’s so, spaghetti westerns were about the myth of the myth. Sergio Leone loved Hollywood Westerns and quoted them endlessly in his films but that’s the point. His films are about Westerns rather than being Westerns.
Not Westerns either
So then, are you a purist, a hard-core definer? Or are you a revisionist, a liberal? Anyone living in France, as I do, will find such questions are existential concepts of some import, you see.

Not sure? Well, take a test. Watch The Last of the Mohicans (any version) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Now, have you been looking at Westerns or not? It's the acid test. Or, to use another chemist's metaphor, those movies are a litmus test. If you say no then you are a Western fan puro e duro, as the Italians say.

And there is no hope for you.

But isn't it fun?
Our heroes


  1. Hmmmm…..? What is a Western? I seem to have conflicting thoughts on this, and I’m both weirdly inclusive and exclusive. For me, it all boils down to intent.

    One of the main inclusion criteria is that the work has to have Western characters. I know this sounds reductive and ridiculous … but without them, they are not Westerns. Oddly enough, this is more important than location, because Westerns are a philosophy and aesthetic as much as they are a genre and a location. So, fish-out-of-water movies, like The Cowboy Way, Hidalgo and Coogan’s Bluff, are Westerns. So is Bronco Billy, which is really an engagement with the myth of the West in the modern world.

    On the other hand, I (unaccountably?) dismiss Westerns that are mere domestic dramas from inclusion, as they do not seem to address the core issues explored in the genre. So, some wonderful things, like Little House on the Prairie or Giant or Brokeback Mountain, are excluded as most of these dramas could be lifted from their milieu and would play just as well in a different setting.

    I would also dismiss adventure movies that take place in the West, but do not address Western themes. Things like MacKenna’s Gold and The Professionals are not Westerns, to me.

    I have no conceptual problem with cars and planes in Westerns (particularly in B movies from the 20-50s) as the intent is still to create a quasi-Western world in contemporary times.

    I guess it comes down to the old saw about the Judge and pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

    1. Yes, you make some very good points here, Bob. To me it's the 'spirit' or the 'culture' of the West that makes a Western, wherever and whenever it's set. I think that MacKenna's Gold is a Western (though a bad one) and so is The Professionals (quite a good one). Whereas spaghetti so-called Westerns aren't, somehow.
      But I guess everyone will have a different view of the question 'What is a Western?'

  2. Tarantino's westerns are paying a tribute to the spaghettis which are themselves - for the best of them - a tribute to the genuine western.
    Jeff I don't know if you have ever spoken of the French Joe Hamman (1883-1974) !?
    He discovered his passion for cinéma attending in 1895 one of the first screenings organized by the Lumière brothers and met Buffalo Bill when travelling with his father in the US. He became as early as 1906 the creator of what has been then called the "camembert" western - acting an directing - shooting many around Paris, then in Camargue - the Rhône river delta - using the local horses, bulls and sunshine. He was extremely famous between the 2 world wars - he was even a comics hero - and a true ambassador of the genre for several generations in France.