For a century of U.S. history, Western movies reveal American values — good, bad and ugly
Are you starting to get claustrophobic, having now spent weeks confined to your home? Social isolation will likely continue for the time being, but there is still an activity you can do in your own home that will surely alleviate your cabin fever: watch a Western.
If someone unfamiliar with American culture wanted to know about the nation’s folklore, cowboys on the frontier would be a good place to start. For more than a century, the Western movie genre has told these stories in a variety of ways, and all of them have reflected contemporary American values, which have not always been admirable.
Westerns can vary widely, but all of them, just as in every genre, share a set of elements. In the case of Westerns, the elements were devised specifically to reflect American values on the new frontier.
Most of them take place between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, but Westerns often scrapped historical accuracy to prioritize a well-established atmosphere and mood. The protagonists are usually outsiders navigating a lawless society, pursuing either their society’s salvation or their own self interest.
Initially, the protagonists were only chauvinistic white men, but this has changed as directors have expanded the goals of the Western. More recently, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as a freed-slave-turned-gunslinger on a mission to save his long-lost wife from a plantation.
What began as a genre only consisting of heroic adventures to save pretty girls from bandits now ranges from sci-fi to self-critiques.
The Western can generally be divided into three different eras by time period: classic Westerns, revisionist Westerns and neo-Westerns.
The Classic Western
While the Western could conceivably trace its roots back to the birth of American cinema itself with silent short films like The Great Train Robbery (1903), the movies weren’t recognized as their own breed until Americans began watching them more frequently throughout the 1930s.
The westerns of the 1930s were typically low budget B-movies. Movie theaters at this time were feeling the heat of the Great Depression, so they began to play two movies instead of the usual one, all for the same price. This became known as the double feature, which was a defining part of Hollywood’s Golden Era. The cheap B-movie would play first, and the more-anticipated A-movie would follow.
However, it wasn’t until 1939’s Stagecoach when the classic Western was born. This film boasted beautiful cinematography and dialogue, and became the archetype for most of the following cowboy-epics of the 1940s and 1950s. The film’s success kick-started successful careers in Westerns for both director John Ford and lead-actor John Wayne.
John Wayne later starred in The Searchers (1956), also directed by John Ford, which some believe to be their magnum opus. Since then, however, this film has sparked controversy over portrayals of indigenous peoples, among other things.
The classic Western was characterized by the cowboy-hero taking matters into his own hands to save society. Although, these movies often inaccurately portrayed Native Americans as the recurring instigator of danger, and it was the cowboy’s job to save the vulnerable white settlers. The criminal justice system wasn’t upheld by the government; it was enforced by an outsider and his Colt Single Action Peacemaker.
Once the classic Western had run its course and begun to lose popularity, new types of Westerns emerged, especially appealing to Americans’ thirst for personal autonomy during the Cold War.
Spaghetti Westerns were Italian-made Westerns that began appearing in the 1960s. The founding father of the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone, saw an opportunity to profit off of the hype around this new genre, and began filming in the similar environment of southern Italy and Spain. His most famous work, the Dollars Trilogy, stars Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Leone was known for his slow, suspenseful scenes and close-up shots highlighting facial expressions. The music in the trilogy, by Ennio Morricone, is also possibly the best film score ever, and sets the mood perfectly.
It is a common misconception that the Western genre is conservative in nature. The tacky B-Westerns are so scarce in sophistication that it’s hard to argue they have any political agenda, left or right. However, the most highly regarded Westerns are often a critique of American culture.
The most notable similarity among new-age Westerns is the characteristics that they don’t have, not the elements that do exist in these films. They are very purposefully much unlike the classic Western, often to expose a certain moral flaw.
Eastwood returned to Westerns by directing and starring in Unforgiven (1992), a ground-breaking commentary on the glorification of violence. The violence in the film is unpleasant and to an extent disturbing to watch, much contrasted to the remorseless killing that occurred in classic Westerns.
Not every Neo Western needs to be a critique, though. Tarantino’s work is clearly influenced by Leone, and he even has gone as far to describe the Dollars Trilogy as “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema.”
Many people view this entire genre as a celebration of when white men ruled America. This generalization neglects to account for how the genre has evolved since the Cowboys vs. Indians era. As it has evolved, the genre has lost most – if not all – of the insolent and chauvinistic ideas it once carried.
If the Western has come this far, why restrain it from going further? It possesses a duty to keep America’s past alive, but unlike the early Westerns, in a truthful and unbigoted manner.
One Western that does just that is Hostiles (2017), focusing on a reconciliation between an Army Captain (Christian Bale) and a Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi). This is a perfect example of what the Western has the potential to do: tell the untold stories of America’s past on the frontier.