The Evolution of the Western Film: Six-Gun Shooters to Cowboys and Herders
Tales of the Wild West started as soon as Western Expansion began. They started as a talk between locals that spread wide. The legends of the heroes and outlaws became more famous than the truth. The stories of Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid have become more known for the films about them than their real lives of them. As time goes on, Carleton Young’s line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) becomes more and more true: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes true, print the legend.”
Printing the legend is the way the genre started. Predating the feature film that would spark the Western genre, a few of William K.L. Dickson’s shorts featured the likes of Annie Oakly performing. With Edwin S. Porter’s film The Great Train Robbery (1903), America was introduced to the outlaws on the big screen through a narrative format. The genre continued through the silent era with The Masked Rider (Aubrey M. Kennedy, 1919), The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), and various shorts starring Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. These westerns were a mix of mystery, romance, and drama. Keaton and Lloyd brought the comedy and slapstick genre that would influence the movement of herds to television much later on.
*The final shot from The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S Porter, 1903) showed the outlaw pointing his gun directly at the camera and firing.
Sound is where the horses were let loose. One of the first tellings of Jesse James was released in 1939, along with Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939). John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Henry Fonda dominated the 40s as each brought a twist to the theme of cowboys and outlaws. Hollywood spits out movies faster than ever after World War II and the American hero was a patriotic character an empowered nation could get behind. And Wayne was just about as American as you can get.
A variety of archetypes came out of the 40s and 50s that were both easy to replicate and sell merchandise for. Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and even Dean Martin were able to release albums along with films and were dubbed the Singing Cowboys. Fonda and Wayne continued to play Sheriffs and morally upright characters, usually wearing light colors and having a woman wrapped around their finger. Lee Van Cleef would star in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) clad in all black with a furrowed brow. The distinction between hero and villain became stark and defined.
The Epic Western began to take shape too with The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) and One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961). It allowed for more character development and even female characters got to move beyond the strict confines of being love interests. Cowpokes also moved to the small screen in series like Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and Rawhide. The latter would lead to the next explosion and step in the Western Evolution.
*Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, and Sheb Wooley set the standard for silent villains clad in black in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952).
Released in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone) would spark a new phenomenon. Undoubtedly, Sergio Leone made a whole new type of western widely available, but some debated it with the release of West and Soda (Bruno Bozzetto, 1964). The animated Italian western went into production before A Fistful of Dollars but was released later that year. Both films worked to create the subgenre that would be dubbed Spaghetti Westerns. These films in this subgenre were low-budget and directed by Italians. They often featured a cast from neighboring countries, which led to nearly every film in the genre being dubbed no matter the language. Clint Eastwood would star in The Dollars Trilogy, which would include the previously mentioned film along with For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965), and the revolutionary
movie The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966).
At the same time, three other Sergios were paving new paths. Sergio Corbucci directed Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) which, like the first Dollars film, was inspired by Yojimbo (Akria Kurosawa, 1961) The Samurai films of Kurosawa were critical in the evolution of both the Italian and American western. Sergio Sollima introduced Tom Millian to the Wild West, while Sergio Garrone continued the Django series with Anthony Steffen. One of the main appeals of the Spaghetti Western was the actors featured. It was easy to connect with another film after seeing a few due to the recurring faces; just like modern typecast actors, it’s fun to see them appear once more on the screen. When the anti-hero appeared on screen it was most likely played by Gianni Garko, Terence Hill, or Giuliano Gemma. Nasty villains were played by the likes of Klaus Kinski, Gian Maria Volonté, or Fernando Sancho. Lastly, the comedic relief between all the bloodshed was often either William Berger, Eli Wallach, or Bud Spencer.
Italian western stood apart from the American ones due to their use of anti-heroes instead of the classic John Wayne archetype. We could be rooting for a man drenched in black or one that killed for money. These films were also incredibly bloody. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly featured over a hundred kills. Django, The Bastard (Sergio Garrone, 1969) went upward of two hundred. Duck, You Sucker (Sergio Leone, 1971) ranks over 500 with a bloody train wreck. Take that Tarantino.
*The opening shot from Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) features Django (Franco Nero) dragging a coffin containing a machine gun through the mud.
The American Western started to die out around the late 60s and early 70s. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (Geroge Roy Hill, 1969), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) ended the reign of the western genre. The 80s were a ghost town, only featuring a few comedic ones and the beginning of the Neo-Western. Neo-Westerns took the classic tropes, characters, and themes from the genre and inserted them into modern settings. The Electric Horseman (Sydney Pollack, 1979), Straight To Hell (Alex Cox, 1987), and Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) lead the genre into the 90s and early 2000s for the new wave of classic remakes.
The western remake has its roots in the early 60s when everyone seemed to be adapting the Samurai films into the Wild West. Not only was Yojimbo adapted, but also Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) turned into The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) which, yet again, got a remake by Antoine Fuqua in 2016. Tarantino made loose remakes of two Corbucci films; Django turned into Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) and The Great Silence was tailored for modern audiences into The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015), even hiring Ennio Morricone to do a score eerily similar to his original one.
The cowboy continues to ride free into movie theaters today, and some are rediscovering the genre thanks to distribution companies like The Criterion Collection which has restored classics like Stagecoach, and Arrow Video with their extensive collection of remastered Spaghetti Westerns. The Coan brothers are continuing to bring cowboys back, while television shows like HBO’s Westworld, a continuation of Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973), bring a science fiction twist. With the release of westerns growing exponentially, the promise of them becoming a staple genre once again is possible. I don’t think this genre is riding into the sunset anytime soon.
*John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) had a big role in the changing landscape of film beyond the western genre. Directors like Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich were greatly influenced by the classic John Wayne film.