The Western is a fiction genre seen in film, television, radio, literature, painting and other visual arts. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in what became the Western United States (known as the American Old West or Wild West), but also in Western Canada, Mexico (The Wild Bunch, Vera Cruz), Alaska (The Far Country, North to Alaska) and even Australia (Quigley Down Under, The Proposition). Some Westerns are set as early as the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 but most are set between the end of the American Civil War and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, though there are several "late Westerns" (e.g., The Wild Bunch and 100 Rifles) set as late as the Mexican Revolution in 1913. There are also a number of films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings where they don't fit in, such as Junior Bonner set in the 1970s, and Down in the Valley and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in the 21st Century.
Westerns often portray how primitive and obsolete ways of life confronted modern technological or social changes. This may be depicted by showing conflict between natives and settlers or U.S. Cavalry, or by showing ranchers being threatened by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. American Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s emphasise the values of honor and sacrifice. Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West.
The Western genre, particularly in films, often 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 inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organised around codes of honor, rather than the law, in which persons have no social order larger than their immediate peers, family, or perhaps themselves alone. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centres on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter.
In some ways, such protagonists could be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of an earlier extensive genre. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight errant of the earlier European tales and poetry was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds and bound to no fixed social structures but only to his own innate code of honour. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress.
The technology of the era – such as the telegraph, printing press, and railroad – may be evident, usually symbolising the imminent end of the frontier. In some "late Westerns", such as The Wild Bunch, the motor car and even the aeroplane are referenced. Weapons technology is very evident and a recurring theme is the merit of the latest piece of "hardware", be it a repeating rifle produced by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company or a Colt Single Action Army handgun. Dynamite also features somewhat, both as a blasting agent and as a weapon, and to a lesser extent the Gatling gun.
The Western takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, usually set against the spectacular scenery of the American West. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in a desert-like landscape. Specific settings include isolated forts, ranches and homesteads; the Native American village; or the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse. Apart from the wilderness, it is usually the saloon that emphasises that this is the "Wild West": it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), girls (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where "civilisation" has arrived, the town has a church and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is, as Sergio Leone said, "where life has no value".
The films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early ethnocentric Westerns frequently portray the "Injuns" as dishonorable villains, the later more culturally neutral Westerns give the natives more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include Western treks and groups of bandits terrorising small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.
Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, just like other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Colorado or Wyoming. While many Westerns were filmed in California and Arizona, most of them depicted Texas. Productions were also filmed on location at movie ranches.
Often, the vast landscape becomes more than a vivid backdrop; it becomes a character in the film. After the early 1950s, various wide screen formats such as cinemascope (1953) and VistaVision used the expanded width of the screen to display spectacular Western landscapes. John Ford's use of Monument Valley as an expressive landscape in his films from Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1965) "present us with a mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West, embodied most memorably in Monument Valley, with its buttes and mesas that tower above the men on horseback, whether they be settlers, soldiers, or Native Americans".
Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in a desert-like landscape with isolated forts, ranches, homesteads, Native American villages, and small frontier towns. Wild west towns often have a saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse. Many films focus on the conflicts between the settled townspeople and farmers (the epitome of "civilisation") as against the free-ranging cattle herders opposed to fencing the land (epitomising "nature").
Western films, until recent times, had many anachronisms, particularly the firearms. Winchester 1892-model rifles were frequently used in films set in the 1870s. Since the late 1960s, however, films have shown more of the wide variety of period-appropriate arms used during the 1870s. For example, Arthur Hunnicutt carries a revolving rifle during part of El Dorado (1967) and Lee Van Cleef is equipped with a veritable arsenal of frontier firearms in For A Few Dollars More (1965).
In the 1960s academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. With the increased attention, film theory was developed to attempt to understand the significance of film. From this environment emerged (in conjunction with the literary movement) an enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structuralist approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning.
Long derided for its simplistic morality, the Western film genre came to be seen instead as a series of conventions and codes that acted as a short-hand communication methods with the audience. For example, a hero wears a white hat, while the villain wears a black hat; when two men face each other down a deserted street, there will be a showdown; cattlemen and ranchers are loners, while townsfolk are family and community-minded, etc. All Western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes.
Since the 1970s, the Western genre has been unraveled through a series of films that used the codes but primarily as a way of undermining them (Little Big Man and Maverick did this through comedy). Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves actually resurrects all the original codes and conventions. Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples and directed by Clint Eastwood, uses every one of the original conventions, only reverses the outcomes. Instead of dying bravely or stoically, characters whine, cry, and beg; instead of a hero saving the innocent, it is a villain who steps in to seek revenge.
One of the results of genre studies is that some have argued that "Westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th century, as the codes can be found in other types of films. For example, a very typical Western plot is that an eastern lawman heads west, where he matches wits and trades bullets with a gang of outlaws and thugs, and is aided by a local lawman who is well-meaning but largely ineffective until a critical moment when he redeems himself by saving the hero's life. This description can be used to describe any number of Westerns, as well as the action film Die Hard. Hud, starring Paul Newman, and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, are other frequently cited examples of films that do not take place in the American West but have many themes and characteristics common to Westerns. Likewise, films set in the old American West may not necessarily be considered "Westerns."
Many Western films after the mid-1950s were influenced by the Japanese samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. For instance The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and both A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing were remakes of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, most especially John Ford.
Despite the Cold War, the Western was a strong influence on Eastern Bloc cinema, which had its own take on the genre, the so called "Red Western" or "Ostern". Generally these took two forms: either straight Westerns shot in the Eastern Bloc, or action films involving the Russian Revolution and civil war and the Basmachi rebellion in which Turkic peoples play a similar role to Mexicans in traditional Westerns.
An offshoot of the Western genre is the "post-apocalyptic" Western, in which a future society, struggling to rebuild after a major catastrophe, is portrayed in a manner very similar to the 19th century frontier. Examples include The Postman and the Mad Max series, and the computer game series Fallout. Many elements of space travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the Western genre. This is particularly the case in the space Western subgenre of science fiction. Peter Hyams' Outland transferred the plot of High Noon to interstellar space. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, once described his vision for the show as "Wagon Train to the stars".
More recently, the space opera series Firefly used an explicitly Western theme for its portrayal of frontier worlds. Anime shows like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star have been similar mixes of science fiction and Western elements. The science fiction Western can be seen as a subgenre of either Westerns or science fiction. Elements of Western films can be found also in some films belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war film, but action and characters are Western-like. The British film Zulu set during the Anglo-Zulu War has sometimes been compared to a Western, even though it is set in South Africa.
The character played by Humphrey Bogart in film noir films such as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - an individual bound only by his own private code of honour -has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western, has also explored noir elements, as with the film Sugar Creek.
In many of Robert A. Heinlein's books, the settlement of other planets is depicted in ways explicitly modeled on American settlement of the West. For example, in his Tunnel in the Sky settlers set out to the planet "New Cannan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in conestoga wagons, their captain sporting moustaches and a little goatee and riding a Palomino horse - with Heinlein explaining that the colonists would need to survive on their own for some years, so horses are more practical than machines.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that meshes themes of Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction and horror. The protagonist Roland Deschain is a gunslinger whose image and personality are largely inspired by the "Man with No Name" from Sergio Leone's films. In addition, the superhero fantasy genre has been described as having been derived from the cowboy hero, only powered up to omnipotence in a primarily urban setting. The Western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff!, Cat Ballou, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody.
George Lucas's Star Wars films use many elements of a Western, and Lucas has said he intended for Star Wars to revitalise cinematic mythology, a part the Western once held. The Jedi, who take their name from Jidaigeki, are modeled after samurai, showing the influence of Kurosawa. The character Han Solo dressed like an archetypal gunslinger, and the Mos Eisley Cantina is much like an Old West saloon.
Television Westerns are a sub-genre of the Western, a genre of film, fiction, and drama in which stories are set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in the American Old West), Western Canada and Mexico during the period from about 1860 to the end of the so-called "Indian Wars." When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV Westerns quickly became an audience favorite. A number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and Bonanza.
The peak year for television Westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. Increasing costs of American television production led to most action half hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long television shows, increasingly in colour. In the 1970s, new elements were incorporated into TV Westerns, such as crime drama and mystery whodunnit elements. Western shows from the 1970s included McCloud, Hec Ramsey, Little House on the Prairie, and Kung Fu. In the 1990s and 2000s, hour-long Westerns and slickly packaged made-for-TV movie Westerns were introduced. As well, new elements were once again added to the Western formula, such as the Western-science fiction show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon in 2002. Deadwood, which aired on HBO, was a critically-acclaimed Western series which aired from 2004 through 2006.