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Categories: Features

Edward Wragg breaks down the many faces of the Western genre and how they’ve revealed themselves to audiences over the decades.

Clint Eastwood’s eyes, Steve McQueen’s draw and Charles Bronson’s entrancing harmonica. It’s fair to say that Westerns certainly cast a nostalgic shadow over our cinematic landscape. A land where dialogue can consist of a chew of a toothpick and anti-heroes are the rule as opposed to the exception. But what defines the Western genre and can it even be described as a genre anyway.

On the face of it, it seems relativity simple. Baron landscapes, macho dialogue, shoot-outs in saloons and the occasional Mexican stand-off. All the ingredients you need to make an effective Western lasagne. The Magnificent Seven, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Tombstone, but for every rule there’s a film that breaks it. Take The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, (or TAOJJBTCRF as nobody calls it). Yes there are shoot outs but the film seems more interested in what the characters are feeling than what they’re doing. Rather than driving your adrenaline the film channels melancholy. Ultimately, rather than being a film about one of the most notorious Outlaws in American history, it’s a film about loneliness. It doesn’t build to an adrenaline fuelled finale but instead creeps towards one moment of dramatic cowardice. It has all the ingredients of a Western but does it really feel like one?

The same can be said for the Coen Brother’s True Grit and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Westerns by name but aren’t they really dramas? Maybe even War films if we really break them down. When does ‘Western’ stop becoming a genre and start becoming a setting. For example, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The archetypal Western film. Two relatable anti-heroes, taking what they want when they want it, riding across the landscape leaving the authorities in their dust until eventually their past catches up with them and they meet a bloody end. Sounds perfect except it’s also the description for Bonnie and Clyde. Is it purely location and time that makes one a crime film and one a western? We don’t describe Wall Street as a ‘Dramatic City film’ or Back to the Future as a ‘Rural Sci-fi’. What is it about the Western location that sets it apart?

Maybe it’s something about the time and location that make it especially iconic. Desolate landscapes newly discovered and as of yet uncontrolled. Vast expanses of nothingness, a modern world still discovering its rules. No other genre quite captures isolation as well as the Western, not all films but in the ones it does it becomes a character in its own right. Unforgiven, The Treasure of Sierra Madre and even No Country for Old Men. These films seem to meditate over their emptiness. Characters interact more with their surroundings than they do with each other. The setting is essentially to the story. It’s similar to Sci-fi, Fantasy or Period. Unlike genres, such as Comedy or Horror, they don’t tell us the affect the film wishes to give but they do set us up for the world they intend to build. Alien and Star Wars are fundamentally contrasting films but entering knowing the need to suspend belief makes entering the film easier. Likewise the ‘shoot first, talk second,’ rules of Westerns needs equal suspension.

So can we accurately describe a film by just saying Western? No. To describe a film as purely a Western is to reduce a film to its location. The Searchers and There Will Be Blood are not comparable films. As a conjunctive however Western is useful. Spaghetti Western (The Good the Bad and the Ugly), Revisionist Western (3:10 to Yuma), Western Epic (Once upon a time in the West) and with the release of Logan, even Superhero Western. Can we get a Western Musical? How about Oklahoma? Western Comedy? Three Amigos. Western Sci-fi? Serenity or its preceding TV show, Firefly.

Conclusion? Describing a film in a single word is impossible but surely that should be obvious. A film takes 120 minutes to explain to us it exactly what it is so to try to sum it up with one adjective is always going to be futile. It does however give us a certain cinematic landscape and expectations that go with that. Those can be met (Magnificent Seven), challenged (The Assassination of Jesse James) or parodied (Blazing Saddles). Ultimately whatever the expectations you have when turning a film on are an essential part of the movie going experience and, whilst there are plenty of new frontiers to be discovered, Western is a genre that will always feel familiar to us.


Edward Wragg

E. M. Wragg is a 25 year old Actor majoring in sarcasm and writing in third person.

Posted on Jun 17, 2017

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