For over 100 years, Westerns have been a popular, uniquely American staple — although the genre has suffered both peaks and valleys in popularity. In fact, Westerns made up the dominant film genre from the beginning of cinema until about 1960, and they appear to be making an invigorating comeback, at least on TV. Modern movie remakes such as 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) have paid homage to their mid-twentieth-century predecessors. All Westerns embody a return to the bygone frontier: wide-open spaces, sturdy individualists, gunfighters, shoot-outs, larger-than-life good guys and bad guys, institutions such as the saloon (with bad girls), horse chases, cattle, and lawmen.
This quick guide provides a historical overview of the popular genre. (Perfect for fans of AMC’s Hell on Wheels!)
1. Silent-Era Westerns
Edwin S. Porter’s innovative 1903 short, The Great Train Robbery, marked the real birth of the genre. The earliest Western stars emerged: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the first cowboy hero), Tom Mix (an actual cowboy who often did his own stunts), and William S. Hart (a veteran of Thomas H. Ince’s Westerns). The first sagebrush sagas were either filmed on soundstages or made on the East Coast, until the wide expanse of the West opened up for on-location filming. Many of the genre’s greatest directors, such as John Ford, developed their craft and scored their first hits within the Western category. Even the cowboys’ horses were superstars, such as Mix’s “wonder horse,” Tony. Some of the earliest traditional Westerns were based on Wild West pulp novels and stories, including the genre’s first epic — the pioneer spectacular The Covered Wagon (1923).
Prime Examples: The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), and Tumbleweeds (1925).
2. B-movie Westerns
From the thirties to the late forties, inexpensive, formulaic B Westerns were churned out each year by the hundreds by lesser studios (Columbia, Universal, and Republic) — mostly for kiddie audiences at matinees. Some were multiple-chapter serials with cliff-hanger plots or series (a succession of films with familiar characters). They featured another round of clean-cut heroes: Hoot Gibson, Harry Carey, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, Buck Jones (the Red Rider), Bob Steele (the Two-fisted Hero of the West), William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), the Three Mesquiteers, and the Lone Ranger. “Horse operas” had crooning added; they were popularized by Gene Autry (the Singing Cowboy) and Roy Rogers (the King of the Cowboys), with his wife, Dale Evans. The frontier heroes usually represented the ideal masculine role model, never smoking, lying, drinking, swearing, having sex, or gambling. John Wayne was the only truly iconic figure to emerge from the simplistic plots.
Prime Examples: In Old Santa Fe (1934), The Desert Trail (1935), Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935), Hit the Saddle (1937), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Border Patrol (1943), and King of the Cowboys (1943).
3. Classic Westerns
As B Westerns began to disappear from theaters and appear on television, the genre’s development was saved by some respectable A Westerns. They included John Ford’s influential Stagecoach (1939); Ford’s take on the Wyatt Earp legend, My Darling Clementine (1946); and Ford’s acclaimed Cavalry trilogy. Also Howard Hawks’s definitive generational-conflict and cattle-drive tale, Red River (1948). During the era, the much-censored Outlaw (1943) and scandalous Duel in the Sun (1946) infused the genre with sex. The traditional Western experienced a resurgence in the fifties, brought about by Fred Zinnemann’s allegorical High Noon (1952), George Stevens’s Shane (1953), and the wide-screen epics Vera Cruz (1954) and The Big Country (1958).
Prime Examples: The Plainsman (1936), Dodge City (1939), Jesse James (1939), Union Pacific (1939), Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and Rio Bravo (1959).
4. Noir Westerns
During the postwar period of the forties and fifties, Westerns took on brooding, dark, and intense themes. Hollywood infused them with cynicism, character complexities, flawed outlaw heroes, and dark pessimism. Anthony Mann teamed with James Stewart for a cycle of five Westerns with themes including revenge, paranoia, and obsession, while neglected director Budd Boetticher collaborated with Randolph Scott on six B Westerns with lean and simple plots. A few others also showed strength: Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), and Joseph H. Lewis’s campy Terror in a Texas Town (1958).
Prime Examples: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Pursued (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Searchers (1956), Forty Guns (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
5. Spaghetti Westerns
Sergio Leone’s trilogy of spaghetti Westerns was representative of a subgenre of foreign films featuring American stars (e.g., Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda). They included revenge seek
ing, rough violence, bandits, bounty hunters, jarring soundtracks, and minimalist styles. Spaghetti Westerns paved the way for the further globalization of Westerns, resulting in films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) — which, incidentally, was remade as John Sturges’s Magnificent Seven (1960), bringing the genre full circle, back home to its American roots.
Prime Examples: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
6. Revisionist Westerns
So-called revisionist Westerns reinvented, redefined, ridiculed, and questioned the themes and elements of traditional classics. Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (1950) was considered the first Hollywood picture to take the side of the Native Americans. It was followed 40 years later by Kevin Costner’s politically correct Dances With Wolves (1990). Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); the anti-Western Hud (1963), with Paul Newman; Little Big Man (1970), with Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb; Robert Aldrich’s Vietnam allegory, Ulzana’s Raid (1972); and many other similar films turned the genre upside down. Spoofs such as Cat Ballou (1965) and Blazing Saddles (1974) made fun of the form’s conventions.
Prime Examples: Broken Arrow (1950), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Cat Ballou (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Unforgiven (1992).