It has given American cinema some its most notable filmmakers, including John Ford and Howard Hawks, not to mention some of its most iconic stars – most notably, John Wayne, whose career would span from the silent era through the 1970s.
As a genre, the Western has evolved and developed, often reflecting attitudes about the times in which the films are produced. It has enjoyed periods of high artistic and critical acclaim, as well as stretches of comparative obscurity.
But it is an ever-present genre within the American cinema, tied to so many of the ideals and mythos surrounding both American society and the American movie business itself, with the genre itself emerging at a time when cattle drives and the move westward were not quite a thing of the past. The history of the American Western film, then, is closely tied with the history of the American West.
One of the very earliest examples, The Great Train Robbery, appeared in 1903 and was produced by the Thomas Edison company. Widely (if erroneously) cited as the first narrative film, it instead can more accurately lay claim to helping popularize the basic elements of the Western that audiences would come to recognize as generic conventions in the coming years.
The film was directed by Edwin S. Porter, a real innovator of the early period, who brought the story of a daring train robbery by a group of bandits to life using stirring editing and dynamic cinematography. Future cowboy star “Broncho Billy” Anderson even appeared in the film, albeit not as a cowboy at all, but rather in a number of supporting parts, including the train passenger who is shot in the back while trying to flee the scene of the robbery, and the tenderfoot in the dance hall scene.
Although there had been films that could be defined as “Westerns” made before The Great Train Robbery (Edison’s own Cripple Creek Barroom Scene, from 1898, being one of the earliest examples), it was Porter’s film that would launch the genre on its auspicious development. However, it would still be a few more years before the Western would prove itself to be a genre that was taken seriously for its artistic as well as commercial possibilities.
During the 1910s, the reigning cowboy stars were Tom Mix and William S. Hart, the latter of whom appeared in a number of large-scale films for producer Thomas Ince, including the celebrated Hell’s Hinges in 1916. However, it wasn’t until 1923 that the silent screen saw what was perhaps its first real “epic” Western – The Covered Wagon, produced by Paramount Pictures and directed by James Cruze. Cruze, himself the son of pioneers, recorded the journey westward in stunning detail, using authentic Conestoga wagons and grand locations. The plot itself was fairly stock romance (between J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson, with Alan Hale as the heavy), but when the film opens itself up to such majestic scenes as the wagons fording a river, it achieves an epic grandeur and almost poetic visual beauty that has been matched by very few films since.
If Cruze’s film focused on the people who made the epic journey west, then John Ford’s The Iron Horse, released by Fox the following year, focused on the epic historical event of the building of the transatlantic railroad. The Iron Horse stands alongside The Covered Wagon as the finest example of the Western genre during the silent era. Other towering achievements from the period include William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds (1925), and Henry King’s breathtakingly beautiful The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). The end of the 1920s saw the transition to sound, and also saw two of the last “epic” Westerns from this period: Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), shot in an early widescreen process and featuring the breakout starring performance of John Wayne, and Wesley Ruggles’ Cimarron (1931). The latter, with its masterfully-staged land rush sequence, scored an Academy Award for Best Picture for fledgling RKO Radio Pictures.
Unfortunately, the prohibitive costs of filming sound films on location soon relegated the Western to “B” status, where it remained throughout most of the 1930s, with the occasional exception of films like Cecil B. DeMill’s The Plainsman (1936), a highly fictionalized and romantic account of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. One actor who was a staple of the 1930s Westerns was John Wayne, who’d starred in The Big Trail back in 1930, and who would rise to real stardom in perhaps the single most influential film in the history of the Western genre at the end of the decade.
John Ford’s Stagecoach, released by United Artists in 1939, would re-invent the Western. John Wayne and Claire Trevor headed an all-star cast that was described at the time as “Grand Hotel on wheels”. The film introduced many of the stock characters, themes and plot devices that would become standards of the genre in the following years. Because it has been endlessly copied, Stagecoach may seem derivative today, but seen in 1939, it was a revelation. Watched in light of what came before, it retains its power today. One of the most effective aspects of the film were the celebrated stunts, performed by Yakima Canutt. Like so many other elements of Stagecoach, they were frequently copied but rarely if ever equaled.
The post-war period saw major developments in the Western, particularly in the films of directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and (later) Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. The genre itself dealt with darker themes, dealing with the psychological and sociological effects of murder and revenge. Two of the best post-war Westerns include Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), with Gary Cooper as a town sheriff who, on his wedding day, insists on staying around town for a showdown with an opponent; and George Stevens’ beautiful, haunting Shane (1953), about a gunfighter who helps a town of settlers defend itself against being terrorized.
In 1956, John Ford would make The Searchers, starring John Wayne as a veteran of the Confederate army who allows his life and soul to be consumed by his seething hatred of the Comanche Indians whom he is pursuing in order to reclaim his niece, who was kidnapped as a child. Wayne delivered the performance of his career, revealing a psychological depth that ranks among the most powerful ever depicted on screen. Ford’s masterful eye was present in every frame, capturing the ugliness and senselessness of unrelenting prejudice against the epic backdrop of numerous Western locations, including his beloved Monument Valley.
After the 1950s, the Western would undergo changes as a genre, first in the films of directors like Sam Peckinpah (whose 1969 The Wild Bunch would stand as a landmark of the genre), as well as Sergio Leone, with his hyper-stylized “Spaghetti Westerns” shot in Italy.
Over the past 50 years, the Western has gone through a variety of developments, changes and returns to past forms, but remains an ever-evolving and dynamic genre that reveals so much about American mythology, ideals and history.