"As far as I'm concerned, Americans don't have any
original art except Western movies and jazz."
-- Clint Eastwood, actor, director and musician
Film Genres in General
Before delving into the particulars of the Western genre, you need to know about film genres in general. A genre can be defined in cinematic terms as a recognizable type of film, at which audiences expect to see certain stock characteristics up on the screen. We could have looked at any of a wide variety of genre films: the movie musical, screwball comedy, the buddy movie, family melodrama, or the gangster film. I selected the Western since it is the oldest, most enduring film genre and also quintessentially American.
Genre pictures first came about through Hollywood's studio system. When a certain kind of picture worked, studios produced variations of it to cash in on its popularity. This is still true today, though it's been more than 40 years since the demise of the studio system. Consider the success of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures; it led to more "stupid high school" movies, including a Bill and Ted sequel, Wayne's World, Encino Man, Wayne's World 2, and just about anything featuring Pauly Shore.
Film genres are never static; they're in an unending state of flux for two reasons: They are constantly being refined; and public taste can be fickle. For instance, a genre that is popular in one era -- say, action adventure films -- may not succeed in another because of the prevailing zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
Public taste aside, as Giannetti points out in his textbook, genre films go through a four-stage cycle:
stage - the Primitive, the formative stage in which the
are first established
stage - the Classical, the genre at its peak, with generic qualities
stage - the Revisionist, which scrutinizes and reevaluates, often in a
critical way, the conventions that typify the genre
4th stage - the Parodic, in which the genre is satirized in a consciously self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek manner
Films in a particular genre usually go through all four stages and then can backtrack, going back and forth between the last three stages. (Obviously, once a genre is established, it can't revert to the Primitive Stage.) This four-stage paradigm can be applied to any film genre.
The Western Genre -
The origins of the Western film genre predate cinema. The genres roots are in colonial folk music, Indian folk tale, the dime novel à la Zane Grey, and James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. These are all "seeds" which led to the development of the Western as popular mythology. However, it is imperative you understand that the Western grounded the myths; that is, the vision of the Old West perpetrated by the Western is fabulistic and not at all representative of what life was really like on the frontier. In fact, the Western has been described as a formula picture in which "the legend of the West is virtually reduced to its essentials and then fixed in the dreamy clarity of a fairy tale."
One of the
earliest films, made before 1900, was a brief tableau by Thomas Edison called Cripple
Creek Barroom. It is really just a documentary, a brief vignette of Western dandies
hanging around a bar presided over by a Native-American woman.
In 1903, Edwin S. Porter's 10-minute long The Great Train Robbery emerged. Not only would this movie prove to be the first Western hit, but it is also touted as the first real narrative film. It contains many of the generic characteristics associated with the classic Western: a crime is committed, theres a pursuit, a showdown, and the meting out of justice. Stuntmen were still pretty much a thing of the future, so there are no spectacular falls from a horse, although at one point, a dummy supposedly a conductor or other train employee is thrown off the moving vehicle. Its important to note that the film was made in New Jersey, when there were still enough rugged locations available to approximate the Southwest. Also, at the time this film was made, train robberies were still being committed on a fairly regular basis, so the film was, at the time of its release, still topical!
The Great Train Robbery was a huge success and spawned score of imitators. By 1914, the first Western hero, William S. Hart, emerged. Hart was known for his stage work, as he was primarily a Shakespearean actor. However, he had spent much of his youth in the West and had seen gun fights first hand. He even knew Bat Masterson & Wyatt Earp! And in addition to Hart's popularity, there was his pinto pony, Fritz, who would become the first movie horse to attract a following.
The Classical Stage
It would take John Ford to bring the Western to its classical stage. Known for consistently high standards, Ford would develop much of the Westerns cinematic language, such as the panoramic vistas of the Southwest, in which man is pitted against the environment. Ford made plenty of silent Westerns, but most of them have been lost. Then, as talkies came into being, the popularity of Westerns dwindled, and musicals because of the sound element -- became dominant. Westerns didnt disappear, though, but morphed into mostly "B" movies. Then, in 1939, Ford resuscitated the genre with his movie Stagecoach. This classic also made a star out of John Wayne, who plays the films hero, the Ringo Kid. (However, Wayne was no overnight success; he had been languishing in low-budget movies for years.)
The success of Stagecoach was directly responsible for the largest single cycle of big-scale Western films, including Jesse James, Dodge City, Destry Rides Again, Union Pacific, Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail, to name a few. These deluxe-scale, classical Westerns entrenched the genre. By 1942, however, this explosion leveled off, as a spate of war films had begun. However, there were still hits like The Spoilers, which boasts an all-star cast, and the B-movie Westerns, with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, were at their peak.
The Revisionist Stage
By the 1950's, revisionism began creeping into the genre. For example, in 1950, there was the release of The Gunfighter, in which an older gunslinger, tired of fighting, is challenged by a young hothead. In 1952 High Noon, which questions violence, was released, and it was followed the next year by Shane, in which the generic conventions are filtered through the naive perceptions of a young boy. This reevaluation of Western ideals would continue with the blood-and-guts Westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman's MacCabe and Mrs. Miller. By the 1970's, the genre would also reevaluate the myth of Native Americans as savages, in features such as Little Big Man, which personalizes Indians, portraying them as the civilized force being savagely decimated by whites.
The Parodic Stage
During the mid-70's, the genre proffered its best known parody: Blazing Saddles. While there had always been parodic Westerns a film called The Little Train Robbery was made just after Porters silent classic was released, and Lee Marvin had a success in the 1960's playing the title character in the Western parody Cat Ballou few had been successful till Mel Brooks' take on the Western came along.
Revisiting Other Stages
During much of the 70's and 80's, the popularity of the Western waned, except for Sergio Leones spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, and Eastwoods own follow-ups to the genre, such as Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider. Of course, with two early 90's revisionist Westerns winning Oscars for Best Pictures Kevin Costners Dances with Wolves and Eastwoods Unforgiven -- there has been yet another resurgence in Westerns. We certainly need the heroes.
The Western Cross-Breed
Along with the four-step paradigm, the Western genre has undergone other kinds of changes. For example, sometimes the setting is transposed to another time and place, as in Zardoz, which is set in hundred of years in the future but features a typical Western hero in Sean Connery. Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai may be nominally about Japanese warriors, but it has been widely seen as a Western set in feudal Japan.
Some conventions associate with the Western are mentioned above, and after viewing the American Cinema Series documentary on Westerns, these elements should become evident. Think about the specifics associated with each of the following, which we will go over in class:
Seats of Action
A look at problems inherent in defining film genres in general may be found here
A fine overview of the Western genre is here
Myths inherent in silent Westerns, including the confining roles of women
Lee Broughton presents a two-part article on the Spaghetti Western: