What’s a Western?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Big Trail - 1930

Newsweek recently posted “The Best Western Movies of All Time, According to Critics and Audiences.” None of my all-time favorite westerns made the list. Some of my most favorites did, but they were few and far between. The editors created the list from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores, which shifted the results toward recent films. It also includes many films I don’t consider westerns. But most of all, it lists films that use the western setting to create a pornography of violence rather than explore the original theme of violence in westerns.

Ever since The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch movie makers have been escalating the body counts in westerns until some modern films are sick distortions of the genre. The core theme of a western has always been killing is a solution to a moral problem. So, violence per se isn’t the issue. What I object to is using the western setting to create a Circus Maximus of deaths for those viewers who crave feasts of bloodshed.

What’s a western? No two people will agree, but I’m going to give you my definition. Westerns are my favorite movie genre. I greatly admire films that epitomizes the genre. Maybe I’m too hung up on form, but if you set out to write a sonnet, following the rules inspires the creativity.

For me, a western must be set in the America West during the 19th century, usually after the Mountain Man/Trapper era, which I consider its own genre, and before civilization, Christianity, industry, urbanization, and commercialization altered the natural west. The films The Big Trail and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid work as bookends to the era I’m talking about.

Westerns are about the settling of the land west of the Mississippi in the 1800’s. Generally, westerns are morality plays before Christianity and courts tamed the country. Conflicts in westerns are settled with guns rather than laws. Westerns usually deal with life before women, churches, and governments destroyed the freedom of the wilderness.

I prefer westerns that have some historical accuracy, but generally westerns are mythic, legendary, and fabled. Each decade retells the myths with the insights of their times, often rewriting the facts. One of my favorite books about westerns is West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1993) by Jane Tompkins. Tompkins is a feminist who looks at book and movie westerns with great insights. Not everyone will agree with her but she analyzes westerns at a deeper level than most fans.

Winchester 73

Here is Newsweek’s list, but in reverse of their order. Bold means I’ve seen it. [Why it’s not a western in my opinion.] *=westerns I might put in my Top 50.

  1. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) [set in the 1920s]
  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *
  4. No Country for Old Men (2007) [modern setting]
  5. High Noon (1952) *
  6. The Rider (2017) [modern setting]
  7. Unforgiven (1992) *
  8. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) *
  9. Hell or High Water (2016) [modern setting]
  10. Johnny Guitar (1954)
  11. Django Unchained (2012)
  12. True Grit (2010) *
  13. Sweet Country (2017)
  14. Brokeback Mountain (2005) [modern setting]
  15. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
  16. Hombre (1967)
  17. Lone Star (1996) [modern setting]
  18. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) *
  19. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  21. Blazing Saddles (1974) [comedy – a parody of westerns]
  22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) [modern setting]
  23. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  24. The Revenant (2015)  [mountain main era]
  25. Rango (2011) [cartoon, parody, modern setting]
  26. Dance with Wolves (1990) *
  27. Westworld (1973) [science fiction, modern setting]
  28. The Proposition (2005) [set in Australia]
  29. Slow West (2015)
  30. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
  31. The Beguiled (1971)
  32. Major Dundee (1965)
  33. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2010) [parody]
  34. Hud (1963) [modern setting]
  35. Shanghai Noon (2000) [comedy, parody]
  36. Open Range (2003) *
  37. The Hateful Eight (2015)
  38. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
  39. The Beguiled (2017)
  40. The Homesman (2014)
  41. Dead Man (1996)
  42. The Mask of Zorro (1998) [swashbuckler]
  43. Hostiles (2017)
  44. Appaloosa (2008) *
  45. The Horse Whisperer (1998) [modern setting]
  46. The Salvation (2014)
  47. Blackthorn (2011) [1908 Bolivia]
  48. Back to the Future Part III (1990) [science fiction, comedy, parody]
  49. In the Valley of Violence (2016)
  50. Tombstone (1993) *

There are some true comedy westerns, like Along Came Jones and Destry Rides Again but I feel comedies that parody westerns shouldn’t be considered part of the genre. One thing that bothers me about this list is the feeling that current moviegoers don’t actually love true westerns, especially the traditional classics. And it worries me that younger audiences have redefined the genre.

Great westerns are still made, such as Open Range and Appaloosa, so the genre isn’t dead. Unfortunately, even good stories like Godless overdo the violence. The west was violent, but it wasn’t over-the-top ridiculous like so many newer films.

For my list of favorite westerns, see “Collecting Great Westerns.”

Shane

JWH

5 thoughts on “What’s a Western?”

  1. Love a good Western! I’m a liberal, but I’m also a romantic – and the best Westerns have their own brand of romance (and I’m not talking about a love story). Have seen many on your list and will check out those you give high ratings.

    One of my favorites is The Appaloosa (1966) starring Marlon Brando. Did not see that one on your list – maybe because it is set mostly in Mexico?

    1. I need to check out The Appaloosa. I have vague memories of westerns with Marlon Brando. My list isn’t complete. I’m planning to rewatch a bunch of films before adding them to the list.

  2. TRUE GRIT isn’t set in the West — it’s set in Arkansas. Doesn’t that disqualify it? (Both versions are films I like a great deal.)

    I don’t mind twisting the definitions a bit — I like THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, which is set in Australia, and THE GREY FOX (set in the Canadian West in the very early 20th Century), for example — but mostly I agree with your cavils. All these modern day set films are not usefully called Westerns.

  3. Arkansas is west of the Mississippi. A lot of famous westerns are set in Kansas. Jesse James was from Missouri. We think of the far west as the west, but in the 1800’s anything beyond the Mississippi was the west.

    There are lots of great movies like The Man from Snowy River that have a western feel to them or explore the same themes. I usually enjoy them. I assume every country has its pioneering days which were like our old west. Recently I watched Britannia which featured the Druids and Celts. I wondered if that era was England’s version of the old west.

  4. Basically Westerns are historical books or movies. There’s a lot of mythology built into the American Western–gunfights, cattle men vs. sheep herders, etc. Plenty of dancehall girls, too. I grew up watching Westerns on TV: GUNSMOKE, HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL, MAVERICK, etc. They were entertaining and stylized productions. Later I started watch Western movies which sometimes pursue a different ethos as in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

    I’m not sure there’s a large audience for Westerns–books or movies–today. That Western culture from HIGH NOON seems 180-degrees from what we witness each day in Washington, D.C.

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