A Closer Look at the Western.

Team Presentation and Teaching – Elle Wisot & Nicole Lockwood.

Westerns Abstract – Global Cinema Studies MULT2000

For our presentation, we have decided to take a closer look at the Western genre.  We have come to realize that film and cinema are social phenomena however, what we have discovered that Western films have been around right from the inception of cinema. Contemporary filmmakers continue to make their films with the classic and original conventions of Western genre.  Our lesson will have a PowerPoint presentation as a visual aide and we will each take turns at relaying our key findings.  We will be addressing the following questions described in the syllabus: why is the Western genre important? What was it reacting to? Who were the key participants/players? We will also provide contextual examples throughout the presentation.

Brief History of Western films

A lot of the very early western films were coming off the back of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, which was a travelling show (like a circus) where performers would reenact romanticised versions of the American frontier. This means that when the some of the very first moviegoers went to see films in theatres throughout America, in the early 1900’s; many themes, concepts and conventions had already been established.  It is hard to talk about Western films without mentioning John Ford. He was one of the premiere American directors and auteur.  John Ford is also known for creating many of the Western genre conventions. Some of his typical Western cinematic techniques were frequently used and mimicked by other Western filmmakers (even contemporary films).  One of his trademark techniques is related to his establishing shots of the location, (Monument Valley) or a vast, red dirt desert, rugged terrain, aridity, wilderness etc. This has become an immediately recognisable convention of Western genre films.


What are the other elements needed to determine why and how a film is a Western?  How can you tell if the film you are watching is a Western?  In the Genius of the system reading- By Thomas Schatz, denotes that the difference between non-genre films and genre films heavily relates to the way the plot line develops; the non-genre develops a linear plot where the cause and effect events develop chronologically from the main characters point of view.

What are the elements to look for?  We have created a list of typically used characteristics when creating and or identifying a Western genre film:

Protagonist Antagonist Location Mise en Scene
·  Cowboys ·   Native Americans* ·   Red sand desert ·   Horses
·  Sheriff ·   Outlaw ·   Saloon/Bar ·   Cattle/Buffalo
·  Female Love Interest ·    Mexican ·   One-horse town ·   Guns/ Gun fight
·  Native Americans* ·   Saloon Girls ·   Cattle Ranch ·   Costume/Hats

*Native Americans: in classic Western films, Native Americans were typically portrayed as the antagonist in many films.  This kind of typecasting is a reflection on the social issues associated with racial discrimination at the time the film was depicting, but also relates to the social issues of the time the film was created.  However, in revisionist Western films and contemporary Westerns, Native Americans characters have been created in a more sympathetic and slightly more compassionate when role casting, eg. Dances with Wolves (1990) Kevin Costner, The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Michael Mann, Little Big Man (1970) Arthur Penn, Wind River (2000) Tom Shell.  It can be quite difficult but if you can get past the offensive elements in the old Western films they really do offer you a unique opportunity to engage with and reflect on film history.

What was it reacting to?

Some of the very first films that were created have now been classified under the genre of a Western.  The earliest cinematic examples such as The arrival of the Train (1896) and The sprinkler gets sprinkled (1895) and Workers leaving the factory (1895) – all films shown in class- were all narrative films in their most simplistic forms.  The story and plot of a western film is also a major component that needs to be considered when determining whether a film is a Western or not.  We acknowledge that there are many Western films that have complex story-lines and many contain serious social and culture themes, but for most Western genre films, and for the sake of our presentation, we will suggest the following typical and generalised 4 step process of a western film:

1). A crime is committed.  2). Hero pursues villain.  3) A showdown occurs*.  4). Justice prevails.

*The action scenes will often involve either a fistfight, shooting with guns or a pursuit on horseback.  The western is an interesting genre to study since some of the very first narrative films that were created, have now been categorised as westerns.  The western film were one of the first genre film studies scholars sought to explore and understand.

The Major Participant and Players – The Film Industry. 

Though there are many variations and sub-genres of Westerns that have developed over many years, and therefore many variations of the “Cowboy”.  We have selected just three actors that had mastered their roles of playing the “Cowboy” or, the protagonist in Western films.

Roy Rogers: 5 May 1911 – 6 July 1998. He was more of a Singing Cowboy, He played in such musical groups as The Hollywood Hillbillies, Rocky Mountaineers, Texas Outlaws, and his own group, the International Cowboys. Westerns he starred in: Cowboy and the Senorita (1944), The Golden Stallion (1949), Dark Command (1940).

Clint Eastwood: 31 May 1930- Present. He had a bit of success in Italy, by starring in some Spaghetti Westerns such as A fist full of dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). However, as far his Westerns go he is best known for his signature roles in The Good the bad and the Ugly (1966).

John Wayne: 16 May 1907- 11 June 1979. He starred in over 250 films (most being Westerns) throughout his career. Westerns he starred in: The Big Trail (1930), Stage Coach (1939), Red River (1948), She wore a yellow Ribbon (1949) to name only a few.

As for Industry and the Western, we mainly focused our research on the Thomas Schatz reading and refer to the Studio System chapter. The Classic Hollywood era which was roughly from 1930 to 1960, because this is when a lot of Western films with sound were made.   There were 8 main companies that had the monopoly over the industry.  The five major companies (Loews/MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox, RKO) employed vertical integration, which meant they had ownership of the production, distribution and the exhibition and it was because of this kind of .  The other three minor contending businesses were (Columbia, Universal and United Artists), they did not have theatres. It was during this time that the studios began mass producing films and functioned as somewhat of a factory and within Hollywood’s classic era roughly 400 to 700 movies were realeased per year and a third of those films were Westerns (Schatz 1988). This studio system eventually ended in 1948 when the US Supreme Court dismantled the monopolistic structure.


Bordwell, et al 1985, Classical Hollywood Cinema, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Buscombe, Edward 1986, ‘The idea of genre in the American cinema’, in Grant, B, Film genre reader, University of Texas Press, Austin, pp. 11-25.

Buscombe, Edward 1986, “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema” in Barry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), Ch2, pp 11-25.

Cawelti, John 1974, ‘Savagery, civilization, and the western hero’, in Nachbar, J, Focus on the western, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., pp. 57-63.

Cohan, Steven 1997, ‘Why boys are not men’, in Masked men: masculinity and the movies in the fifties, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 201-220, 317-318.

Schatz, Thomas 1988, “The genius of the system.” New York: Pantheon 160.

Wyatt, Justin 1998, ‘The formation of the ‘major independent’: Miramax, New Line and the New Hollywood’ in Neale, Steve & Smith, Murray (eds), Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Routledge, London.


One thought on “A Closer Look at the Western.

  1. interesting analysis and research. some of the early films that we think of as “western”, such as “the great train robbery” (1903) by edwin porter, were probably more like gangster films of the time.


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