Westerns 101 — Defining the Western

Welcome to the third installment of Westerns 101 on Lewton Bus. Our first article introduces the series, explaining what we’re doing and why, and our second article provides some important background on the historical scope of the Western genre in film.

Now, as we get into the meat of the series, we must ask what seems like a weirdly obvious question: What, fundamentally, is a Western, exactly?

It can’t just be the time period, stories between, say, 1840 and 1900, plus or minus. Clearly The Piano (1850s), The Man Who Would Be King (1880s), and The Ghost and the Darkness (1890s) are not Westerns. It’s not simply that they’re located, respectively, in New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Kenya, either; the period American setting of Little Women and The Age of Innocence doesn’t make those into Westerns, any more than the Australian setting of The Man from Snowy River or Quigley Down Under makes those movies not Westerns.

Is it just the cowboys and horses? Well, movies as dissimilar as Brokeback Mountain, Westworld, and The Valley of Gwangi have them in spades, but it would be difficult to argue that any of those is solely and simply a Western. What about Cowboys and Aliens? Bone Tomahawk? Are those Westerns, or are they just Western-flavored stories that are best understood as being primarily of other genres? And on the flip side, there are no horses at all in Outland or The Road Warrior, but cock your head and squint and you can feel their essential Western-ness shining through.

Most critics and film historians agree that while the period setting and various cosmetic elements (cowboy hats, six-guns, horses, steam trains, etc.) are important, they are not essential. Rather, the four qualities that truly define a Western are thematic, fully baked into the fabric of the genre, and not simply decorations applied on the outside.

I: Isolation, and separation from broader civilization elsewhere.

The characters in a Western, and their story, must be removed and disconnected from the organized enforcement of civic norms in urban life: we find them at a railroad outpost, on a ranch, in a ramshackle town. They can be born to the frontier, or they can be city folk who have relocated, but the key is that social structures are limited, and largely of their own making.

An important aspect of this is that the characters’ isolation is voluntary, that they have separated themselves (or remain separated) from civilization by choice. They know the frontier life is difficult, but there’s an implicit preference for the challenge of freedom to living in proximity to settled society.

In addition, the protagonist/hero is often further distanced from the already isolated community, a loner among outsiders. It may be a small backwoods town with only a few dozen people within a day’s ride, but our hero still keeps himself apart from them in some way.

II: The relentless presence of untamed nature.

Closely related is an emphasis on terrain and the vastness of the landscape. This doesn’t just provide the physical separation, with mountains, rivers, valleys, deserts, and other features surrounding the community and insulating it from outside influence. It also adds dramatic tension, as the environment is difficult and treacherous, if not actively hostile to the humans trying to navigate it. In some Westerns, the heroes are actively engaging the wilderness, trying to conquer it, and may even have managed to tame it to some extent. In other stories, it’s simply background, providing equal-opportunity danger for hero and villain alike. But it’s always there.

(Frequently, and uncomfortably for modern viewers, this danger is personified by Native Americans, as a feral extension of the natural savagery surrounding whatever settlement the white people have managed to carve out of the countryside. Later “revisionist” Westerns reconsider this ugly cliché, as we will see in coming weeks, but conscious reversal of a trope relies on the establishment and persistence of the original belief for its effect.)

III: Primacy of “Justice” over “Law.”

In civilized society, as we understand it, we enforce justice with the institution of Law — a neutral, impersonal concept, implemented and imposed by impartial authorities. In a Western, by contrast, Law is an abstraction, quoted and employed when useful but otherwise largely ignored in favor of a very direct, very immediate, and very personal sense of Justice. If you are wronged, you don’t allow a judge or other supposedly unbiased stranger refer to a book to determine how the offender should be punished; you decide how you will be satisfied, and to a large extent you are responsible for seeing that satisfaction achieved, either by marshaling forces in your favor or carrying it out with your own hands.

And if you yourself carry a badge as a frontier lawman, you cannot allow yourself to be restrained by the technicalities and niceties of the judicial and criminal code. You do what you can to enforce the law, but you are more concerned with simply keeping the peace, and with exacting the personal justice demanded by the people in your care (or looking the other way as they pursue it themselves). And when it becomes clear that someone “needs killin’,” as the phrase goes, you strap on your shooters and go take care of business, warrants and trials and other formalities be damned.

(It’s interesting to note how the word itself, “lawman,” by conflating two ideas, strongly implies a person who is the law, rather than simply being its representative.)

IV: Preoccupation with codes of conduct and “honor.”

Along similar lines, while Western characters may have little or no interest in or patience with the Law as written by soft-handed men in a faraway city, they are deeply invested in the idea that there is a Right Way to behave. They may not care for “civilization,” but they absolutely consider themselves civilized, in their own frontier manner. There is a Right Way to treat a lady. There is a Right Way to do business. To play games of chance. To settle disputes. To claim territory. To drink. To dress. To treat your partner, or your children, or your horse.

There is an unwritten code of behavior in the Western, which all participants acknowledge, either in the observance or the conscious violation. Frontier people may seem coarse to city folk, but it’s simply a different set of rules, recognized and enforced by collective effort. If you can’t be trusted to keep your word in a business arrangement, or if you use rough language with a lady, or if you can’t handle your liquor and acquire a reputation as a drunk, you may find yourself ostracized by the town, cut off from friends and resources, and pushed to the margins.

You can be a filthy rotten bastard by the standard of city life, but as long as you adhere to the accepted code of frontier behavior, you remain a neighbor in good standing. And by contrast, you may come to the West with a law-abiding reputation back in your civilized life, but if you ignore the frontier code, you quickly find yourself persona non grata in the wilderness.

(It’s this element in particular that makes the frequent cross pollination between Westerns and Japanese samurai dramas so interesting. But that’s a topic for another time.)

All of these qualities transcend the easy superficialities of ten-gallon hats and Colt revolvers and quick-draw duels at noon, and provide both the structure and the fuel for the Western story. Not every great Western acknowledges or questions these themes in a textual way, either; many of them take their genre for granted, treating all of this as assumed and unexamined background, against which the main story is played out. But all these qualities are present, at least to some degree, in nearly every Western.

You should note that none of the elements above are restrictive about the actual plot. They set the outline for a sort of storytelling territory, but they don’t make any demand about what that story is. The more formulaic Westerns do tend to cluster around narratives of lawlessness and payback for injustice, but that formula is in no way a requirement; the more you watch, the more you will discover that all kinds of stories fit comfortably in a Western setting.

Next up: We’ll look at The Essentials, half a dozen classic movies that embody and illustrate this framework.