What Makes the Western Genre?

According to Tim Dirk’s website “FilmSite”, the Western genre can be described as the genre which defined the American film industry. They are considered to be one of the oldest genres, “with very recognisable plots, elements and characters.” One would agree with this, and consider that mise en scené such as horses, stagecoaches, dusty desert towns, as well as the odd Native American tribe, would clearly help define a film of the Western genre. The popular time for Western films ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. However, the 1990s saw a resurrection of the genre, for example ‘Unforgiven’ (1992, Clint Eastwood), which has now been continued into the 2000s.

Some consider the Western genre to be an indigenous form of American art, which focuses on the “Frontier West that existed in North America”. Stereotypically, Western films are usually set between 1865-1900, a time following the Civil War in America. Landscapes are also comprised of deserts, farms, and dusty towns, a saloon, jail and a livery stable; but there are also elements of beauty shown in the American West which help to make the time look very appealing and almost romantic. Locations often contist of certain places in America, most commonly the state of Texas, as well as venturing over the border into South America and Mexico. Something which I can link to an earlier blog post of John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), in which many of these elements can be seen.

However, Westerns may extend back to the time of America‘s colonial period or forward to the mid-20th century, or as far geographically as Mexico. A number of westerns use the Civil War, the Battle of the Alamo (1836) or the Mexican Revolution (1910) as a backdrop.” – Tim Dirk; ‘FilmSite’.

The stereotypical first thought of a Western genre.

In terms of a main, protagonistic character; it is here that the similarities between Western films and narratives become similar. Many feature a strong, architypal character, often an outlaw who wants to clear his name and become the hero again. Some main characters, focus upon getting revenge on the villain who killed his family, whilst others act more like police detectives, trying to maintain law and order in their town. Some feature the ‘lone ranger’, who returns to a town many years after leaving or being exiled, whilst others show a more family orientated main character.   Some Westerns have more simple character’s, for example those from a farming community who try to re-capture their land (usually from the Native Americans); whilst some protagonists are often faced with their double in the form of their enemy, sometimes being a family member, often a cousin or brother.                      

The appearance of such main character’s usually contrasts greatly to that of the story’s villain. For example, the main character and his gang, usually wear white Stetson hats, whilst the antagonists largely wear black.

Primarily, the Western film focusses on the victory of the West over the East. The confiscation of land a rights from native inhabitants, predominatntly the Native Americans (or ‘Indians’ as they are formerly known) shown to be inhumane savages, where a popular theme throughout the older style Westerns. This genre, to a certain extent, helps to glorify America’s actions towards other people and countries, showing them to be the best and most powerful nation during this difficult time period.

This brings me on to the types of themes which run throughout Westerns. The most popular, being the West’s victory and superior strength over other nations and people. However, when simplified, it appears that the majority of Westerns can be described as having a “simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story.” (Tim Dirk, ‘FilmSite’, “Western Films or Westerns”.)

From looking at Dirk’s descriptions and own ideas of what a Western Genre consists of, I have to strongly agree with him. Clearly, Westerns are formed as much from the landscapes as they are the character’s and the background stories of those characters. This is something which can be seen in Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939)  and in many of his other Western’s, including “The Searchers” (1956) which also featured John Wayne as the leading actor.

The type of imagery which creates a romantic/picturesque feel for the Western genre.



Printed References

Neale, S. (2000) ‘Genre and Hollywood’. Sight Lines/Routledge: London and New York

Online References

Dirks, T. ‘AMC FilmSite; ‘Western Films or Westerns’. Accessed: May 2010. Avaliable from: http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html


Stagecoach (1939) Directed by John Ford. United States: United Artists.

The Searchers (1956) Directed by John Ford. United States: Warner Bros.

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