Tuesday, April 5, 2011

GENRE: Western

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The western is the only genre that is 100% indigenous to the United States because it is spawned from our own history. For over a century tales of the American west, “the old west,” have been entertaining audiences around the globe. They have been romanticized into our popular culture through magazines, books, radio, television and films, the latter being the most fallible and enduring.

As of the twentieth century the old west is the last source for American mythology. Stories of outlaws and lawmen based on the legendary figures of that time have created characters with conflicting historical identities. These are based in part on the interpretations of morally confusing times, which are reflective of the reporting and documenting methods of the time. Before the Internet, and motion pictures, and photographs the only way to know the details of an event was to personally witness it. Reliable historians would do their best to document the events, but typically anything after that was personalized, speculative, and subjective hearsay. The invention of Edison's motion picture camera and the production of The Great Train Robbery (1903), led to an increased interest, and marketability, of tales from the old west. Considered to be the first narrative film, it marks the birth of the western genre. Of course public enchantment allowed everyone to overlook the fact that it wasn’t even filmed in the west. It was produced and filmed by Edison’s company in Essex County, N.J. How the hell filmmakers settled in Hollywrong is another story entirely.


The age-old tropes of good vs. evil now had a contemporary setting to play out. As the country continued to grow and develop, this setting took on a more classical presentation. The west came to symbolize a foundation of moral justice in America. This idealism became a defining characteristic of the genre, which peaked during the 1920s, up through the 1950s. Many interpretations of western legends, such as Billy The Kid and Wyatt Earp made it onto the big screen, as well as radio, comics, literature, and television. Widespread appeal to both children and adults led to the romanticizing of some truthfully villainous characters for marketing purposes. It was television that gave new rise to this failing idealism in a post world war society. Shows like Have Gun – Will Travel (1957), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958) and Rawhide (1959) continued to instill moral idealism and provide entertainment in an ever growing time gap.

During the 1960s, through the 1970s, the western genre experienced its first major revival. To coincide with the changing political atmosphere, heroes of these tales took on a more practical approach to human nature. In many cases they were perceived as men of self-interest, who through their environment took on a more destructive adversary. They were essentially anti-heroes. This revival was partly influenced by international adaptations and original efforts. Kicking off the decade was The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges, the film was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s epic classic, The Seven Samurai (1954). Ironically the most successful westerns of this time weren’t even produced, written, or filmed in America – they were financed by Italians and filmed in the deserts of Spain.

Sergio Leone brought the term “Spaghetti Western” to the forefront of the American filmmaking lexicon. His first foray into the genre with Per Un Pugno Di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) (1964), which coincidently was another Kurosawa remake (Yojimbo (1961)), revolutionized the one time clean cut genre for a whole new generation of filmmakers. His gritty, realistic approach to the idealism and themes of the old west, coupled with his highly stylized filmmaking technique present in the Dollars Trilogy (aka The Man With No Name Trilogy – named so after the lead character, played by Clint Eastwood) catapulted Leone to international fame and led to his becoming one of the most respected and imitated filmmakers in history.


Once again the genre took another dip in popularity as appeal dwindled in the 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a second revival picked the genre up and dusted it off. This time it had award-winning credibility to support it. Dances with Wolves (1990) not only swept the Oscars the year it was released, but showcased a different kind of western, one void of bandits and banditos. The film told a dramatic tale about the disappearance of the American frontier. Its unconventional approach to the genre helped it pass as a historical drama and avoid much of the campy stigma that had attached itself to the genre over the years.

Following the success of Dances with Wolves, Clint Eastwood returned to the genre with equal success, winning multiple Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) for Unforgiven (1992). Although he continued to appear in American westerns throughout the 1970s, he was often playing an exaggerated version of his character from Leone’s films. By the early 1990s he was able to add a hard dramatic edge to his rugged persona, portraying wisdom and remorse. His maturity and experience spoke for itself and the film stands as a contemporary pinnacle in the genre, which has yet to be surpassed or even equaled. 

The 90s revival also saw a return to the historical romanticism with rival films such as Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), as well as original, albeit less entertaining, films like The Quick and the Dead (1995), and the unholy abomination Wild Wild West (1999). Despite the latter’s attempts to bring a quick death back to the genre it survived and prospered in the new millennium.

Today the fictional landscape of the American west continues to develop with both original films and remakes of classics. Almost ten years after he played Wyatt Earp, Kevin Costner returned to his saddle as director/actor in Open Range (2003), along side Robert Duvall. Ed Harris followed suit and directed himself and Viggo Mortensen in Appaloosa (2008). As time continues to grow so does the generation gap between audiences. The evolution of filmmaking compensates for this by re-writing, re-casting, and remaking stories that may appeal in essence, but not presentation. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) is a remake of a film from 1957 of the same name. Last year’s rendition of True Grit (2010) by the Coen brothers was a remake of a 1969 film of the same name. The only thing that changes, aside from technical execution and presentation, is the interpretation of the source material.

As westerns move into the future they will surely expand in new directions, while continuing to revisit old ones. Crossing genres is one way to keep things fresh and engaging for audiences and has been a popular deterrent for decades. Both comedy and science fiction have loaned themselves to the genre in the past with films like Blazing Saddles (1974), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Rango (2011), Westworld (1973), Firefly (2002) and the forthcoming Cowboys and Aliens (2011). No matter what the catch is the essence of any western will always come back to tradition, based on legend, resulting in mythology. 

3 comments:

  1. Couldn't have said it better myself. Nice take...as always top-notch historical background. Your writing makes reading fun! Keep it comin'!

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