The Western: once it was king of American cinema. Now it has receded to the back of the popular conscience, only to be brought to the forefront by the occasional remake or parody. But as much as we might ridicule the Western, most of us have very little knowledge of what it actually is. Images of stets an hats, railroads, and the American southwest in the second half of the 19th century might come to mind when you hear the name, but, the truth is, none of those are pre-requisites for a Western. Many films that are widely accepted as Westerns, such as No Country For Old Men, Hell Or high Water, and Logan, take place in modern times. Many famous Western films, such as A Fistful Of Dollars and The Proposition, were shot in other countries, by non-American directors. Hell, some of the most famous Westerns of all time, like The Magnificent Seven, are either influenced by, or directly adapted from, samurai movies. So as much as we might think of the Western as an outdated, easy-to-define, all-American genre, it really isn’t.
Which begs the question; what makes a Western a Western? If the setting and time period have nothing to do with it, what about a story makes it recognizable as a Western? To understand this, I looked at several Western films, from different time periods and countries, including Tombstone, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Valley, and The Proposition. And what I realized after watching them is that true Westerns are violent tales of people trying to make order out of harsh, lawless landscapes. The harshness and lawlessness of the settings are key. They help provide a visual reference for what the characters are fighting against, and demonstrate the story’s central themes. You couldn’t have a western take place in a suburb, or a big city. Those areas are too docile, too tame. Yes, cities might have crime and violence, but there it is organized. It is part of a larger entity. You could, however, have a Western take place in the 19th century Australian Outback (The Proposition), the modern-day border with Mexico (Sicario, No Country For Old Men), or even the Austrian Alps (The Dark Valley), since those environments are harsh and wild.
See, with Westerns, the land itself is a character. It is a thing that can’t be tamed, and that drives the conflict. The characters are almost always outsiders; be they homesteaders, or lone gunman entering new areas. As such, nearly all Westerns involve characters trying to tame their surroundings, or the people in them. Butch Casidy and The Wild Bunch are about changing societies trying to tame groups of free-spirited outlaws. The Magnificent Seven, Tombstone and Shane are about heroes fighting against powerful men who, in their quest to tame the landscape, have become tyrants. No Country For Old Men and The Proposition follow grizzled, disillusioned lawmen who are determined to bring order to their surroundings, but slowly realizing that they can’t. Even films which don’t directly address changing times, like The Dark Valley, True Grit, and The Searchers, involve characters whose lives have been thrown out of order, trying to return things to the way they were. A man’s niece, kidnapped by Natives. A girl’s father, shot in the back. These are people who have seen their lives thrown into chaos, and they mean to re-establish the order that was lost.
Notice how I keep saying order and chaos, and not good and evil. That’s because Westerns don’t often focus on fights between good and evil. Very often, the conflict is between people who are bad, and people who are worse. The protagonists in Westerns are always deeply flawed. They’re murderers, rapists, bigots; sometimes all of those at once. And even when they’re not those things, like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, William Munny in Unforgiven, or Wolverine in Logan, they’re still deeply unpleasant people. They drink. They swear. They lash out at others. They’re broken people, just trying to get by in their harsh, unfair environments.
The conflict between order and chaos is also a key part of the mythology of the Western. See, the Western was born out of the United State’s expansion across the North American continent, particularly the concept of Manifest Destiny,, or the idea that the US was not only destined to encompass the entire continent, but that doing so was righteous and justified. Whites had to settle the West, the philosophy asserted, because the land was wild, and lawless, and only good, God-fearing people could make it stable. Westerns grew out of this false notion, and that is very evident in early films, particularly those of Johns Ford and Wayne, where the “wild” and “savage” Natives are shown as the villains, and the day is only saved when hunky White men come in and kill them all. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s when we started getting “revisionist” Westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, which questioned the righteousness of big money and the military. And it wasn’t until even later, with films like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, that we started to make films that showed how horribly treated Native Americans and Women were in that context.
And yet, even after all that alteration, even after a thousand artists tried to put a more revisionist, progressive spin on the genre, Westerns continued to tell violent stories of people trying to make order out of chaos. Dances With Wolves is all about a young man going to see the Frontier, “before it’s gone,” because he knows American society is relentless in its desire to “civilize” the West. Unforgiven is, essentially, about two men’s vastly different approaches to justice; one, Little Bill, thinks that justice can only be maintained through order and the prohibiting of fire arms, the other, William Munny, thinks that justice can only be brought about through bloody revenge. One is order, and one is chaos. Both are trying to make sense of a lawless land, just in drastically different ways. What does this prove? That Westerns can be defined, and that they are defined by their devotion to bloody tales of making order out of disorderly places.