Westerns are primarily defined by their setting: the American Western frontier, specifically in the mid to late 1800s. But despite traditional associations with uncomplicated shoot-em-up fare in a time long past, the genre has evolved and shape-shifted through the ages. The films that define the genre have become ever-more sophisticated and the stylistic elements, visual tropes and archetypal figures associated with the Western have elevated the genre beyond a mere time and place setting. The canon of classics is now one of rich and varied offerings.
Exploring the films that have come to be synonymous with the genre through the ages, the evolution of the Western becomes clear. Though the films that define the genre have progressed, they have maintained a genealogy with their predecessors.
‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903)
The Great Train Robbery is a Western from the silent era of film that defined the narrative direction of the genre. It was not the first Western, but stands as a significant early example of the elements of storytelling that continued to arise in the genre.
The film depicts the archetypal trope of a band of “baddies” robbing the train, versus righteous law enforcers. It portrays a shoot-out, pursuit on horseback and a finale that sees retribution enacted. These elements would continue to show up in Westerns for years to come. Containing one of the first ever close-up shots, the broken fourth-wall image of a bandit shooting directly at the viewer is an iconic moment in the history of Westerns and cinema.
As public demand for Westerns waned, Stagecoach revived the genre with the story of a stagecoach trip, and the people traveling together despite disparate backgrounds. Incredible stunts and creative solves were offered by Yakima Canutt, setting the tone for the high-intensity action that would follow in later Westerns.
Stagecoach depicts a moral outcast – in essence, Ringo Kid is a “good guy”, but the methods he employs place him in the position of a social pariah; an early version of the antihero. It would be remiss to talk about Stagecoach without acknowledging the damaging portrayal of Native Americans. This condemnable feature of the film was unfortunately present in many early Westerns, and created a harmful effect felt for generations.
‘High Noon’ (1952)
High Noon is a revisionist Western rife with political themes. Marshall Will Kane is about to hand in his badge and head to a life of wedded bliss when word gets around that outlaw Frank Miller, whom Kane sent to hang, is out of prison and heading back on the noon train. Ready to defend himself and his town, Kane beseeches the townspeople to help.
The most striking thing about High Noon is the way the story progresses in real time. A clock is present in most scenes, and as noon approaches, the audience get as edgy as Kane. With four Academy Award wins and a place in the United States National Film Registry for its significance, there’s no doubt as to High Noon‘s defining impact on the genre.
Caught between a community of homesteaders and ruthless cattlemen, drifter Shane becomes invested in standing up for what’s right, even if it means needing to do what’s wrong. With a self-sacrificial hero and a romanticized view of “the simple life” in the old West, Shane is a poetic tale that goes beyond the action-packed excitement of the genre to uncover an emotional core.
Many scenes are ones which young Joey would have been privy too. Viewing scenes through the child’s eyes adds to the fantastical elements of the film. Stunning landscapes are contrasted with snarling faces and brutal beat-downs. Shane‘s influence has been felt widely, and its recognitions in many of the AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies” lists, plus a place in the United States National Film Registry, are well deserved.
‘The Searchers’ (1956)
John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a repugnant racist searching for the Comanches who kidnapped his nieces in The Searchers. The racist protagonist ends up being literally left outside, belonging to a time that has no place in the community. In many ways, The Searchers heralds a new age: a change in the genre, and the values that built it.
The Searchers portrays complex, flawed characters and a narrative that stretches the traditional binaries of older Westerns. With a strong influence on later films such as the works ofSteven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, The Searchers was critically lauded at the time of release and remains a staple of the genre.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960)
A remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is a unique Western for its ensemble cast, who are implored by the locals of a Mexican village to defend their town against bandits. Contrasting the trope of a lone cowboy, the cast of seven allows the opportunity for varied backstories and motivations for different versions of the archetypal gunslinger.
With a rip-roaring theme song and an Oscar nominated score, this Hollywood Western was hugely successful with European audiences. Despite a mixed critical response at the time of release, it has since gained a strong following, with mentions in the AFI’s list of American Cinema’s 100 Most Thrilling Films and Top 25 American Film Scores.
‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ (1966)
As Westerns lost momentum and appeal for American audiences, the “Spaghetti Western” emerged, reinvigorating the genre. The most enduring was the third installment in Sergio Leone‘s “Dollars Trilogy”, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The film reintroduces the anti-hero “man with no name”, forming a tenuous allegiance with Tuco to find a buried fortune. When Angel Eyes finds out where they’re headed, a third contender for the riches enters the ring.
With one of the most iconic gun fights in cinema history, the scene is viscerally intense, amplified by a thrilling soundtrack, sparsity of movement and a dynamic interplay of long shots and close-ups. Brilliantly scored by Ennio Morricone, and operatically directed by Leone, the film’s favor with fans has only risen since its release, and cemented it as a defining Western.
‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ (1968)
Once Upon A Time in the West tells of two gunslingers, Harmonica and Frank, facing off in the wild West. Interwoven are narratives of land acquisition, a railroad tycoon, and a damsel in distress, fleshing out the almost three-hour epic.
The film is choreographed to remove the necessity for much dialogue, placing the onus of storytelling on stunning cinematography. Encompassing recognizable Western tropes, it feels both familiar and unique, with a stripped-back soundscape building agitation and driving the intensity of climactic moments. Identified as one of the greatest films of all time in polls by Sight & Sound, Time, Total Film and Empire, the film has had a significant influence on prolific filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas.
‘No Country For Old Men’ (2007)
The Coen Brothers‘ neo-Western No Country for Old Men portrays a cat-and-mouse game with a rich narrative, despite an economy of text. Stumbling on the aftermath of a drug-related shootout, Llewelyn takes the money he finds at the grisly scene for himself, putting hit-man Anton in murderous pursuit of Llewelyn and the cash. Sheriff Bell follows closely behind, and each man must stay one step ahead of the next to survive.
With its elongated suspenseful intensity, and observing the same reverence for the landscape as a traditional Western, there is a clear genealogy between the Westerns of yore and this Coen brothers masterpiece. The film earned three BAFTAs, four Academy Awards, and two Golden Globes among myriad other accolades, solidifying its place in the canon.
‘Django Unchained’ (2012)
Django Unchained is a buddy film, a Western, a drama and a romance all rolled into a keg packed with dynamite and set alight. Playing on the traditional Western theme of a law-enforcing figure who enacts justice through the very violence he intends to vanquish, the figures of Django and Dr. Schultz pursue righteous ends through ruthless means.
Quentin Tarantino draws perfectly on the influences of earlier Westerns – but, far from building a soulless pastiche, every element coalesces into a perfectly formed film with reference to its roots but relevance for the contemporary viewer. The film’s 26 wins and 100 nominations in a number of categories from varied institutions speak to a true cinematic masterpiece.