by Craig Phillips
Just as jazz is the one uniquely American music form, the Western may be the one truly American film genre and, as such, has appropriately reflected eleven decades of American moods. Westerns have always centered on the classic American story itself, that of taming the land (and, occasionally, the part where white people "conquered" natives), of overcoming hardships, of the frontier spirit. While many films from this canon are now best forgotten or serve only as dated curios, many more, from Red River to Unforgiven, rank up there among the best of American cinema. No genre has survived as long the Western, only to re-emerge again and again, intact.
Some of the basic elements of this genre are generally:
Set in the American West, pre-20th century (possible exception: another country with a similar frontier history, Australia, has had its share of films that could be considered Westerns).
Loner male gunfighter character, sometimes with no identity or traceable past, often a man of few words.
This male character rarely assimilates into the codes of a community.
Typical plots include: Revenge (the lead character seeking to avenge an earlier death or wrongdoing); Revenge; and also, Revenge.
Often have an ambiguous ending.
Typical elements and icons: cowboys, horses, cattle, sweeping vistas, a girl, a bad girl (whorehouses often figure prominently in these movies), gunfight(s).
One element that changed from the early Westerns to those made more recently is that the line between good and evil that used to be very clearly delineated gradually grows much, much less so.
Interestingly, the first Western is also considered to be the first film to use a narrative structure to tell a story, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). You may recall the scene in 1983's The Grey Fox in which the old gunfighter played by Richard Farnsworth finds the film so utterly real that, when a character in the movie fires at the audience, Farnsworth stands up and fires back at the screen.
The first real Western film star was former rodeo champ Tom Mix, who starred in roughly 200 films between 1911 and 1930. The advent of sound didn't specifically kill Mix's career - he still managed to carry over his charm and energy, despite a rather wooden delivery - but he saw the writing on the wall and retired in 1934.
Westerns have always centered on a hero who is a man of few words. Their dialogue kept lean, the early films were free to focus on their action, and this has always been a major reason for their appeal. Some of the first "talkies" were action films and haven't dated as badly as their romantic and dramatic counterparts. One of the best of these was The Virginian (1930), itself based on the first western novel, and which starred Gary Cooper - who would return to the genre again to great success.
But when audiences began growing tired of the form in the 1930s, the singing cowboy picture served as its temporary salvation. While Ken Maynard, better known previously (and probably more talented) as a stuntman, is generally credited with being the first of these, it was Gene Autry who became the first real singing cowboy star. He was already a popular regional singer, but it was in In Old Santa Fe that Autry became famous. Autry was followed by a host of similar crooning cowpokes in the 1930s, the most notable of which was a young musician-turned-actor named Leonard Slye, better known as Roy Rogers. Co-starring in many pictures with his wife Dale Evans and Gabby Hayes, the epitome of the sidekick (an archetype mocked many times in The Simpsons), Rogers's incredible popularity is reflected by the mere fact that people today still know his name.
But the most famous of all Western actors would first come into renown around the same time as Rogers. John Wayne starred in over 40 Westerns, ranging from classics (Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) to the dated and offensive (Chisum, The Alamo). Wayne got his start languishing in B-movie Westerns and serials in the 1930s, but really took off in the popular action drama Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford.
For better and worse, both Wayne and Ford would together define the cinematic Western in a way no one else would, working in and out of the genre for the next thirty years. (See list below). Many critics consider the best of their collaborations to be The Searchers, which features Wayne's most nuanced performance; it's inarguably a fascinating (and occasionally offensive) film about a man's obsessive quest to find his niece that leads him to kill the Indian who abducted her. The pathology of the film could easily be misinterpreted (especially given Wayne's conservative politics) but it's also one of the most important depictions of the vanished American frontier spirit, a poetical portrait of the West, and graced by an epiphany of sorts from Wayne's character at the end. Just don't expect complete historical accuracy.
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