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The Western is a genre of various arts, such as film, television, radio, literature, painting and others. Westerns are devoted to telling stories set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in the American Old West, hence the name. Some Westerns are set as early as the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. There are also a number of films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings, such as Junior Bonner set in the 1970s and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in the 21st century.
The Western genre sometimes 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, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice such as the feud, rather than one organized around rationalistic, abstract law, in which social order is maintained predominately through relatively impersonal institutions. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter. A showdown or duel at high noon featuring two or more gunfighters is a stereotypical scene in the popular conception of Westerns.
In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knight errant which stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian Romances. 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 honor. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many of the characteristics equated with the image of the ronin in modern Japanese culture.
The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples (e.g. the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) are more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate 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 emphasizes that this is the Wild West: it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where civilization 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 American Film Institute defines western films as those "set in the American West that embod[y] the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier." The term Western, used to describe a narrative film genre, appears to have originated with a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World Magazine. Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of 19th century popular Western fiction and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Western films commonly feature their protagonists stalking characters such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, and are often depicted as semi-nomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival, and ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on trusty steeds.
Western films were enormously popular in the silent era. However, with the advent of sound in 1927-28 the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers, who churned out countless low-budget features and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s the Western film was widely regarded as a 'pulp' genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in 1939 by such major studio productions as Dodge City (starring Errol Flynn), Jesse James (with Tyrone Power in the title role), Union Pacific (with Joel McCrea), Destry Rides Again (featuring James Stewart in his first western, supported by Marlene Dietrich) and perhaps most notably, the release of John Ford's landmark Western adventure Stagecoach, which became one of the biggest hits of the year released through United Artists, and made John Wayne a mainstream screen star in the wake of a decade of headlining B westerns. Wayne had been introduced to the screen ten years earlier as the leading man in director Raoul Walsh's widescreen classic The Big Trail, which failed at the box office due to exhibitors' inability to switch over to widescreen during the Depression.
Western films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early Eurocentric Westerns frequently portray the "Injuns" as dishonorable villains, the later and more culturally neutral Westerns (notably those directed by John Ford) gave native Americans a more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include Western treks or perilous journeys (e.g. Stagecoach) or 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 Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, or Wyoming. 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".
Gruber said that good writers used these basic plots to create believable stories. Other subgenres include the spaghetti western, the epic western, singing cowboy westerns, and a few comedy westerns. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was re-invented with the revisionist Western.
Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film starring Broncho Billy Anderson The Great Train Robbery is often cited as the first Western, though George N. Fenin and William K. Everson point out that the "Edison company had played with Western material for several years prior to The Great Train Robbery." Nonetheless, they concur that Porter's film "set the pattern—of crime, pursuit, and retribution—for the Western film as a genre." The film's popularity opened the door for Anderson to become the screen's first cowboy star, making several hundred Western film shorts. So popular was the genre that he soon had competition in the form of Tom Mix and William S. Hart. The Golden Age of the Western is epitomized by the work of two directors: John Ford and Howard Hawks (both of whom often used John Wayne in lead roles).
In the 1960s academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. American Westerns of the mid 20th Century romanticize the ideas of loyalty and virtue. Westerns of the late 20th Century possess a more negative view of the early American frontier. 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.
One of the results of genre studies is that some[who?] 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, but also other films such as Die Hard, Top Gun, and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai which are 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 American Old 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 A Fistful of Dollars was a remake 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.
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 Io, moon of Jupiter. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, pitched his show as "Wagon Train to the stars" early on, but admitted later that this was more about getting it produced in a time that loved Western-themed TV series than about its actual content. The Book of Eli depicts the post apocalypse as a Western with large knives.
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 honor—has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western, has also explored noir elements, as with the films Pursued and 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 Canaan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in Conestoga wagons, their captain sporting mustaches 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 revitalize 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.
Meanwhile, films such as The Big Lebowski, which plucked actor Sam Elliott out of the Old West and into a Los Angeles bowling alley, and Midnight Cowboy, about a Southern-boy-turned-gigolo in New York, transplanted Western themes into modern settings for both purposes of parody and homage.
A most recent example of a Western-genre film is Django Unchained - a 2012 American film (characterized as a "Southern" as it takes place in the antebellum era of the Southern United States rather than the Old West) written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film starred Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Television Westerns are a sub-genre of the Western. When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV Westerns quickly became an audience favorite. Beginning with re-broadcasts of existing films soon a number of movie cowboys had their own TV shows. As the Western became more in demand new stories and stars were introduced. A number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Rawhide, The Virginian, The Big Valley, and Wagon Train.
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 color. Traditional westerns died out in the late 1960s as a result of network changes in demographic targeting along with pressure from parental television groups. Future entries in the genre would incorporate elements from other genera such as crime drama and mystery whodunit 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. Examples include Lonesome Dove and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. 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 was a critically acclaimed Western series which aired on HBO from 2004 through 2006.
Western fiction is a genre of literature set in the American Old West and most commonly between the years of 1860 and 1900. The first critically recognized Western was The Virginian by Owen Wister. Well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey from the early 1900s and Louis L'Amour from the mid 20th century. Many writers better known in other genres like Elmore Leonard, Leigh Brackett, and Larry McMurtry have also written Western novels The genre's popularity peaked in the 1960s, due in part to the end of many pulp magazines, the popularity of televised Westerns, and the rise of the spy novel. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most book stores, outside of a few Western states, only carry a small number of Western novels and short story collections.
A number of visual artists focused their work on representations of the American Old West. American West-oriented art is sometimes referred to as "Western Art" by Americans. This relatively new category of art includes paintings, sculptures and sometimes Native American crafts. Initially, subjects included exploration of the Western states and cowboy themes. Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell are two artists who captured the "Wild West" on canvas. Some art museums and art collectors feature American Western Art.
Western comics have included serious entries (such as the classic comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s), and cartoon and parody (such as Lucky Luke and Cocco Bill). In the 1990s and 2000s, the Western comic leaned toward the Weird West sub-genre, usually involving supernatural monsters, or Christian iconography as in Preacher. However, more traditional western comics are found throughout this period, from Jonah Hex to Loveless.
With anime, genre entries tend towards the science fiction Western (Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star, etc.) although contemporary Westerns also appear (El Cazador de la Bruja, set in modern day Mexico).
Western computer games are often either straight Western or a Western-horror hybrid. Some Western themed-computer games include the 1970s game The Oregon Trail, the 1990s games Sunset Riders, Outlaws, Mad Dog McCree, and the 2000s-era Gun, Red Dead Revolver, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Juarez. Other video games adapt the science fiction Western or Weird West subgenres (Gunman Chronicles, Fallout, Mass Effect and Darkwatch).
In the present times there have been movies and television series (miniseries including) created that are not strictly westerns, since kept in the contemporary times, but their general plot, set and atmosphere clearly refer to the ones of traditional westerns. That includes Sylvester (1985), Wildfire (2005-2008), The Horse Whisperer (1998) and many others.
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