Written by Marion Tusseau, University of Angers
The Western films came from the Western genre which can be applied to various arts, the first one being literature with some famous novels such as The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore. It became a cinema theme as soon as 1900 and the film The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter, which was released in 1903, is considered as the first Western film for setting the pattern of the Western genre. Thus, the films deal with the nineteenth and twentieth-century American Old West. They are often set at key moments in the construction of the USA as a country because they depict, in a way, the expansion of the frontier in the West, the famous conquest of the West and how Americans set there.
Westerns have specific characteristics such as typical settings in desolate and arid areas (desert, small dusty towns etc), but also typical characters like for example the cowboys, the Native Americans or the outlaws. In addition to those characteristics, there are other iconic elements like the accessories the protagonists wear (Stetson hats, spurs, Colts…) or stereotypical scenes such as the duel between gunfighters, a bank robbery or western treks. The main plot is generally a conflict between bad and good, a conflict involving order and justice against evil and anarchy. The hero is often a lonely man who has principles, who is a good gunfighter and who would stand alone against outlaws and bad guys to bring back peace and order.
Among the most famous directors of traditional Westerns there were John Ford, who made some great Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1959), and Howard Hawks who was the director of Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959). Moreover, Westerns becoming more and more popular, a lot of “cowboy stars” were revealed thanks to their performance as for example Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix or John Wayne.
Westerns were very popular and one of the major Hollywood genres until the 1960s when the genre began to decline. Nevertheless a lot of subgenres of the traditional American Western films appeared, the most famous one being the Spaghetti Westerns. Even if those subgenres were a bit different, they tried to keep the spirit of the traditional ones by presenting almost the same characteristics and they still referred to the American Old West.
Consequently, Westerns are iconic because they emerged in the United States and they are related to it. The films deal with important moments and facts of the history of the construction of the USA such as the conquest of the West or the Civil War. Westerns are also illustrations of the greatness and of the immensity of the western territories and they show some of the most beautiful American landscapes. I think, they also represent the American desire for expansion and power. Thus, they belong to the history and to the culture of the U.S.A. since some of the Westerns’ characteristics can also be consider as symbols of the country.”