Westerns 101 — A Bit of History

Welcome to the second installment of the Westerns 101 series on Lewton Bus. As explained in the introduction, we will be spending several weeks taking a deep look at what is considered by many to be a fading, if not obsolete, film genre, studying how Westerns work and offering a sort of curriculum of movies to watch for people who want to know more about them.

Why is this necessary, you ask? Isn’t it pretty clear what a Western is? And don’t we all basically know what the good ones are?

Try this test:

If someone says they don’t know much about Westerns, and they ask you to recommend a classic to get started, what do you say?

Odds are, for the average modern movie fan, the first title that comes to mind is Unforgiven. And it’s true, it’s a great Western, probably the best in the genre from the last thirty years (give or take a True Grit or an Assassination of Jesse James). Or maybe your mind goes to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Or, if you know a little bit more movie history, you might also come up with The Searchers, which regularly tops lists of the best Westerns of all time. And you wouldn’t be wrong to choose any of these as representative of greatness in the genre; they’re thoughtful, they’re exciting but they paint their action with moral nuance, and they’re all beautifully made.

But here’s the thing: as an introduction to the Western, these are terrible choices.

Possibly more than any other genre, the Western is positively drenched in history and tradition. And not just about the period in which its stories are generally set, but about its own mythology and approach to storytelling. During the Golden Age of the Western, filmmakers (and novelists like Louis L’Amour, AB Guthrie, and Elmore Leonard, following in the tradition of Zane Grey) thoroughly explored the genre, telling and retelling stories of hard, lonely men seeking justice in vast, uncaring landscapes.

And when I say “thoroughly explored,” I mean it. During this Golden Age, Hollywood and independent American producers made a lot of Westerns.

Source: Wikipedia and IMDb, filtering by American-made features in English

That huge spike in the 1940s is pretty dramatic, but it should be noted that it reflects and obscures some background information about general cinema history at the time. Most importantly, the total number of movies, of all genres, was also at a high point, with many small production companies and independent producers competing with Hollywood, and with a vast and decentralized distribution and exhibition network offering lots of opportunity for producers to sell and show their movies. Similarly, the dive in the 1960s is a decrease not just in Western output but in all movies, as the expense of production and the centralization of distribution and exhibition drove smaller competitors out of the business.

So to really understand the influence and omnipresence of the Western during its Golden Age, let’s look at Westerns as a percentage of total overall American production, specifically in the last year of each decade:

Source: same.

While this makes the spike less dramatic, it does clearly show that, in the 1940s, at the height of the genre, not only were there a record number of movies being produced, but approximately twenty percent, or one out of five, were Westerns. By any standard, that is a lot. (And it puts the modern griping about “too many superhero movies” into context.)

Now, to be sure, the numbers above should be regarded only as a rough guideline. For one thing, information about cinema pre-1920 or so is limited and incomplete; many films of that period have been lost and are unknown. Also, the distinction between a short and a feature was very loose until shortly before the sound era; movies varied freely in length between the ten-minute one-reeler and the twelve-reel epic Birth of a Nation in 1915. Even after 1920, a “feature” could be as short as an hour. And, finally, you have to ask yourself, what is a Western, anyway, to know whether a given movie should be counted. For example, Wild Wild West and the third Back to the Future have cowboys, horses, and trains, but they also heavily rely on steampunk and science fiction, so how “Western” are they, really?

Nitpicking aside, the graphs do show us a couple of surprising facts. First, the Western movie has been with us literally since the beginning, with the first entries pre-dating even the advent of nickelodeon quickies shown in turn-of-the-century boardwalk arcades. And, second, the perception of Westerns as a “dead” tradition isn’t really accurate. Yes, there was a steep decline from the peak, but it was a gradual slope, not a cliff. Further, the category leveled off about forty years ago, and has held steady ever since.

And the really important point to understand, coming back to our original comments about Unforgiven and The Searchers, is that the Western, as a genre, was ubiquitous for literal decades, giving storytellers ample opportunity to plumb its depths and find its boundaries. It’s true that many Westerns were strict programmers, adhering to established formulas of heroes and villains and crime and vengeance, but many also burrowed into the genre, pushing at the edges of the blueprint and stretching or breaking the mythology in interesting ways. What we think of as “the Western” was put under the artistic microscope surprisingly early; when a modern writer says today’s Westerns “are less idealistic and more realistic” than they were in the past, they’re betraying their flat-out ignorance of the genre, its traditions, and its history.1

So when we say that Unforgiven and The Searchers are great Westerns, we have to understand that their greatness cannot be fully recognized out of context. If you don’t know anything about the genre, these are fine films, with interesting characters and engaging stories, but you may be underwhelmed, and perplexed about why so many people consider them to be masterpieces. You have to come to these movies with the Western already in your bones; only then can you appreciate all the ways they are interrogating the genre itself, and the deep discomfort of the answers the films discover in response to their own questions.

Hmm, I wonder why that flag is there.

That’s the difficult thing about Westerns: More than any other genre (with the possible exception of horror), you can’t really grasp the significance and grandeur of the great ones unless you have a thorough grounding in how the Western actually works. You don’t really know the classic tropes, so you won’t know when they’re being followed, and when they’re being questioned or subverted. You can’t distinguish between the perspective of an American storyteller like John Ford working out the mythology from the inside, compared to an outsider like Sergio Leone who’s absorbing and reflecting the stories and tropes back to the audience from thousands of miles away. And you won’t notice when a modern non-Western film is taking ideas and influences from the genre, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And as the historical background above clearly shows, Westerns constitute a huge and complicated category, potentially intimidating for the new viewer to dive into without a guide or a map. Hence, this 101 series, which is offered as an organized and condensed introduction to Western films.

In our next article, Defining the Western, we will lay out the basic narrative and thematic foundation of what actually makes a movie a Western.


  1. Fucking Screen Rant.