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The western is unique among film genres in that it is set in a specific location and within a limited historical period: the western frontier of North America between roughly 1865 and 1890, from the end of the Civil War (1861–1865) to the closing of the frontier just before the twentieth century. Ostensibly grounded in the facts of history, genuine locations, and the biographies of actual individuals, the western seems a distinctly American form, but the genre's international appeal suggests its symbolic meanings and perhaps mythic functions. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the film western now appears to have been an artifact of the past century, since the genre evidently no longer maintains either the popularity or the social significance it enjoyed for decades. At its worst, the western's established conventions have become worn clichés, and its once implicit gender and racial politics now appear explicitly offensive. Yet, premature announcements of the "death of the western" have been made before, and if its once vast popularity has clearly declined, the western's central importance to the history of the cinema and to American popular culture remains undeniable.

Although viewed as one of Hollywood's most stable genres, the western has regularly allowed for hybrids, including western comedies (Paleface, 1948; Blazing Saddles, 1974), western musicals (Annie Get Your Gun, 1950; Oklahoma!, 1955), a few horror westerns (Billy the Kid versus Dracula, 1966), and even, eventually, pornographic westerns (Wild Gals of the Naked West, 1962; The Ramrodder, 1969). Moreover, if extended beyond its exclusively narrative modes, the western has clearly informed popular music (most obviously the type identified as "country and western"), clothing, tourist attractions (including dude ranches), toys, and furniture. Along with its more familiar presence in films, television, comic books, and literature, the western in disparate media occupied a central role in the popular imagination of American audiences and consumers for most of the twentieth century.


Recognizable early sources of the popular western can be located in persistent manifestations of the Pocahontas legend, in Indian captivity narratives such as A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), and in travel memoirs such as Francis Parkman's (1823–1893) The Oregon Trail (1849). Fiction, especially James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) five Leather stocking novels (1823–1841) and Bret Harte's (1836–1902) frontier tales from the late 1860s also established influential patterns for later representations of the western hero, modeled after Cooper's semisavage Natty Bumppo, and the emerging frontier community. By the last decades of the nineteenth century the conquest of the West was central to the formation of an American national identity articulated in Theodore Roosevelt's (1858–1919) six-volume The Winning of the West (1889–1896), the imperialist notion of Manifest Destiny (1885) popularized by John Fiske (1842–1901), and the influential essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893) by Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), which argued for the ongoing role of the vanishing physical frontier as a symbolic space crucial to democratic American individualism.

However, the first regular commercial packaging of the West and its adventures for mass audiences began as the actual "Wild West" was being tamed. Dime novels (beginning around 1860), frontier melodramas (at their height in the 1870s and 1880s), and Wild West shows (from 1883 onwards) all represented the West for a growing public eager to experience the exciting remnants of the living history that was fading away. No single figure embodies this transformation of the West into the western as vividly as William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846–1917), an authentic western figure who translated his life and legend into popular media through his appearances in dime novels, on stage, in his own Wild West show (beginning in 1883), and eventually in a number of early films. Cinema arrived just as the frontier closed, and quickly played a major role in the developing representation of that recent past as a romantic adventure. In Chicago in 1893, Turner delivered his lecture on the frontier only a few miles away from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and just a few months before Edison's moving-picture camera recorded members of Cody's company, including Native Americans and the female sharpshooter Annie Oakley (b. 1935). Turner's view that the frontier was now more symbolic than geographical has been forever after linked to the emergence of the western as one of cinema's most popular genres.

By the early twentieth century, western novels such as Owen Wister's (1860–1938) The Virginian (1902) and the pulp magazines replacing the dime novel satisfied a growing appetite for western stories and images that early cinema was also quick to exploit. Publishing as B. M. Bower, the writer Bertha Muzzy Sinclair (1871–1940) gained popularity beginning with Chip of the Flying U (1904), the first in a series of humorous ranch tales frequently adapted to film. By the time that the prolific Zane Grey (1872–1939) published his bestselling Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and his friend Frederic Remington (1861–1909) began to sketch and paint western scenes, the iconography, action-driven plots, and basic cast of characters for the film western were well in place, offering a formula that consumers were willing to enjoy with only minor variations.


The western, often viewed as an unusually stable form, did not in fact achieve definition as a film genre until around 1910, when it became one of early cinema's most familiar and successful products. Although Edwin S. Porter's (1870–1941) The Great Train Robbery (1903), produced for the Edison Company and based on an 1896 stage melodrama, is often identified as the first western, film historians have demonstrated that the generic category itself was not yet firmly in place, so Porter's film can only be identified as a western in retrospect. Alongside other early "cowboy pictures" and "western romances," a vogue for often sympathetic "Indian films" throughout the early silent period revealed the lingering attachment to Cooper's Indians rather than to the cowboy who would soon dominate representations of the West. Films designated as "westerns" began to be produced regularly by the growing film industry in the actual West as film companies such as Selig-Polyscope and Bison began to relocate to California, and in 1910 the genre found its first star in the actor (and cofounder of the Essanay Company) Gilbert M. Anderson (1880–1971), who as "Broncho Billy" appeared in hundreds of short films, often as a good-hearted outlaw. Thomas Ince concentrated on the production of westerns in authentic locations for Bison 101 (which combined Bison and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show), including films featuring the stage actor William S. Hart (1870–1946), who later was crucial to the development of the feature-length western for the Triangle Company. Hart's films often featured him as a morally ambiguous "good bad man" whose severe demeanor and attention to realistic details was eventually challenged by the former rodeo performer Tom Mix, whose stunt-filled films featured the kinetic actor in flamboyant costumes. The contrast between the grim morality of Hart's films and Mix's action-packed romps persisted in the genre's development, with the western's bid for historical realism regularly challenged by less authentic but often more popular examples.

The promotion of other silent cowboy stars such as Hoot Gibson (1892–1962), Tim McCoy (1891–1978), and Buck Jones (1889–1942) in series westerns produced throughout the 1920s suggests that the western marketed male stars to a largely male audience, but the number of early cowgirl films and stars demonstrates that the early genre had significant appeal for female audiences as well. Louise Lester (1867–1952) starred in a series of "Calamity Anne" films directed by Alan Dwan for the American Film Company between 1912 and 1914, and Marie Walcamp (1894–1936) played cowgirl Tempest Cody in a series of nine films for Universal in 1919. As early as 1917, the screenwriter and director Ruth Ann Baldwin was parodying the genre in her film 49–17. Perhaps the most important silent cowgirl was Texas Guinan (1884–1933), "the female Bill Hart," who starred in westerns directed by Frank Borzage and Francis Ford, as well as in movies from her own production company. The fact that few of these films survive has perhaps perpetuated the common misunderstanding of the genre as an almost exclusively "male" form.

A number of westerns produced late in the silent period for major studios demonstrated the mature genre's epic ambitions: The Covered Wagon (1923), William S. Hart's final film, Tumbleweeds (1925), and The Iron Horse (1924), directed by John Ford (1894–1973), all treated the western as a sprawling national history lesson. These, and even cheaply made series westerns, relied on extensive location shooting and thrilling stunt work, elements that would be difficult to sustain when immobile microphones and heavy sound equipment arrived to limit filmmakers' options in the great outdoors.

Critical accounts of the western film often begin with the appearance of Stagecoach (1939), neglecting the steady production and popularity of the western in the decade preceding Ford's first sound western. Like other genres, but especially given its reliance on exteriors, the western struggled with early sound technology, although In Old Arizona (1929), The Virginian (1929), Billy the Kid (1930), and the early Oscar® winner Cimarron (1931) all found inventive ways to incorporate the distinctive sounds—of galloping hooves, gunshots, and jangling spurs—that soon became as fundamental to the experience of the genre as its iconic images. Universal's striking Law and Order (1932) and Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936) invoked actual events (the shootout at the OK Corral) and figures (Wild Bill Hickok [1837–1876] and Calamity Jane [1852?–1903]) with little concern for accurate detail, a practice that has motivated some critics to bemoan the genre's persistent distortions. But the early years of the sound western have been neglected mostly because of the critical aversion to the hundreds of formulaic series westerns ("B" westerns) produced throughout the decade. Series westerns exploited the sound film's ability to feature the singing cowboy, most famously embodied by the affable Gene Autry (1907–1998), whose films for Republic Studios (frequently written by women) usually had the radio star playing himself in the present, allowing for the use of automobiles, airplanes, and radio stations in narratives that often addressed the immediate social problems of the Depression despite their western trappings. In fact, Autry's films often function as populist parables, directly engaging with contemporary issues in cleverly self-reflexive ways. Perhaps inspired by Zane Gray's popular novels featuring mythic horses, the series western also emphasized the talented steeds of cowboy heroes such as Autry (Champion) and Ken Maynard (1895–1973) (Tarzan). Throughout the period, B westerns were enormously popular among boys, rural audiences, and women, the latter apparently charmed by Autry's smooth voice and gentlemanly demeanor.


While the critically celebrated Stagecoach has often eclipsed the hundreds of westerns that preceded it, there's no questioning the artistry or impact of the film, which associated director Ford and star John Wayne (1907–1979) with the genre for the rest of their long careers. Stagecoach was in fact one example among an increased production of prominent westerns by major Hollywood studios (even as B westerns continued to be cranked out by Poverty Row studios, with Roy Rogers (1911–1998) emerging as Gene Autry's heir when the latter went to war). In the same year as Stagecoach, 1939, Universal was parodying the genre with George Marshall's Destry Rides Again, while Warner Bros. produced the successful Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz in Technicolor. De Mille's Union Pacific at Paramount revived the epic, train-centered western of the late silent period, while historical lawmen and outlaws were revived in Allan Dwan's Frontier Marshall for Fox, with Randolph Scott (1898–1987) as Wyatt Earp, and in Henry King's boxoffice hit Jesse James, also for Fox, starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda (1905–1982) as brother Frank. All of these prominent westerns appeared simultaneously with, rather than as a result of, Stagecoach, even though Ford's film more than any other demonstrated that the genre could produce skillfully crafted narratives and rich characterizations, even while maintaining the commercially requisite thrills of the chase and the final reel shootout.

Across the following decade, and despite the disruption of World War II, the western's popularity continued. The Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) earned Walter Brennan an Oscar® for his comic yet moving depiction of Judge Roy Bean. Other notable examples from the period include Western Union (Fritz Lang, 1941), the notoriously erotic The Outlaw (Howard Hughes, 1943), the stark The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), the eccentric Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946), and producer David O. Selznick's florid Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946). Ford's return to the genre with the elegant My Darling Clementine (1946) inaugurated his regular engagement with the western throughout the postwar period. Films from the end of the decade also demonstrated the genre's surprising affiliation with film noir and the psychological melodrama: Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947) remains the most successful fusion of the western and film noir, while Ramrod (Andre De Toth, 1947) effectively incorporated Freudian undercurrents. In the midst of Ford's loose "cavalry trilogy," consisting of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), all starring John Wayne, director Howard Hawks (1896–1977) also made one of the genre's masterpieces, Red River (1948), contrasting an often unsympathetic Wayne with Montgomery Clift in an Oedipal narrative set against an epic cattle drive.

The 1950s eventually witnessed the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of television (dominated in its early decades by westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza), but the period also saw a notable upsurge in the popularity of the film western, which critics have attempted to explain in political, economic, and psychoanalytic terms. The era is especially known for its "adult" or "psychological" westerns, which turned the physical violence of the frontier inwards towards phobias and traumas. The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950) dramatized the psychological cost of maintaining a reputation as a fast gun, whereas The Left-Handed Gun (Arthur Penn, 1958) depicted Billy the Kid as a troubled juvenile delinquent. Notably, James Stewart's (1908–1997) first collaboration with director Anthony Mann (1906–1967), Winchester '73 (1950), began a series of bold western psychodramas, including Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and The Man from Laramie (1955), which were driven by the hero's almost uncontrolled mania for revenge. In the middle of the decade Ford released his masterpiece The Searchers (1956), but its significance, especially in its direct confrontation with the sexual and racial fears that drove the conquest of Native Americans, would only be fully appreciated by a later generation of critics and filmmakers. Films such as Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950) and The Devil's Doorway (Mann, 1950) also treated their central Native American characters sympathetically, recalling some westerns of the silent period. The era's best-known westerns are the elemental High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and the self-consciously mythic Shane (George Stevens, 1953), which might be set against the quirky Rancho Notorious (Lang, 1952) and the campy Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), respectively featuring aging stars Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, to indicate the available range of the genre in the period. On a more modest scale, the decade concluded with the first of a series of lean and powerful films directed by Budd Boetticher (1916–2001) and starring Randolph Scott, beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) and including The Tall T (1957), Ride Lonesome

b. John Martin Feeney, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 1 February 1894, d. 31 August 1973

Although most of his more than two hundred films (four of which garnered him Academy Awards® as best director) were not westerns, John Ford is widely recognized as the greatest director of the quintessential American film genre. While Ford himself dismissed the critical evaluation of his work that began late in his life, he is acclaimed as not only one of the genre's key storytellers but also its intuitive poet, a creator of evocative cultural images as meaningful as his films' stories. After 1939 these images were repeatedly grounded in the dramatic landscape of Monument Valley, the location Ford made one of his visual signatures and eventually an iconic space that summarizes the genre itself. Ford's recurrent troupe of actors, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and Ben Johnson, came to define the western hero through their performances in the director's films.

Ford (often with his brother Francis) made more than thirty silent westerns, few of which survive. Beginning with Straight Shooting (1917), by the end of the silent era Ford had moved from modest productions to the epic The Iron Horse (1924). Ford stayed away from westerns again until Stagecoach (1939), a watershed in the genre's history. Filmed in Monument Valley and featuring the B-western actor John Wayne among an ensemble cast, it established an ongoing link between the genre, location, star, and director for another two decades, a confluence that resulted in some of the western's greatest achievements. Following World War II (in which he made documentary and propaganda films), Ford returned to the western with My Darling Clementine (1946), a self-consciously mythic dramatization of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. The "cavalry trilogy" of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), all starring Wayne, also balanced the commercial requirement of dramatic action with quiet nostalgia and Ford's unique attention to small details, now performed by a set of familiar faces.

The Searchers (1956) is now recognized to be Ford's masterpiece, a formally rigorous yet highly ambivalent and surprisingly direct treatment of the racism and sexual repression that fueled the conquest of the West, concentrated in John Wayne's impressive performance as an obsessively driven loner. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is a late, bittersweet exploration of the genre's mythic values, and Ford's final western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), has been seen as an apology for the director's earlier contribution to the negative representation of Native Americans in popular cinema. By the time that Ford received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, he was more widely celebrated for his westerns than for his more literary, award-winning films such as The Informer (1935) and How Green was My Valley (1941). While the more conservative elements of Ford's films are regularly challenged, their power as national myths and as defining examples of Hollywood genre filmmaking remains unquestioned.


The Iron Horse (1924), The Informer (1935), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964)


Buscombe, Edward. The Searchers. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Cowie, Peter. John Ford and the American West. New York: Abrams, 2004.

Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Studlar, Gaylyn, and Matthew Bernstein, eds. John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Corey K. Creekmur

(1959), and Comanche Station (1960): pared down to basic elements, Boetticher's films show the genre reduced to its core mythology. Challenging the sexual neuroses and Oedipal tragedies of the postwar western, Hawks also released Rio Bravo (1959), a surprisingly effective reassertion of some of the genre's traditional values.


As the Hollywood studio system began to break apart, the regular production of film westerns also declined, though early television relied on the genre to attract its first audiences. Western films had already employed color and widescreen processes to draw audiences away from the small screen, and films set in the modern West, such as Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, 1962) and Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963), or addressing the growing youth market, such as Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971), attempted to update the old form. Nevertheless, the lighthearted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) emerged as one of the most successful westerns of all time, even as the genre seemed to be losing its relevance for younger audiences.

The late renewal of the genre would came from somewhat surprising sources: the director Sam Peckinpah (1925–1984), a veteran of television westerns, released Ride the High Country (1962), starring veteran cowboy stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (1905–1990) in a film that realistically announced the end of an era. Peckinpah's greater impact came with The Wild Bunch (1969), an extremely violent film about a team of outlaws on the run in Mexico that was widely understood as a commentary on the ongoing war in Vietnam. Famous for its intricately edited, slow-motion bloodbaths, the film was both condemned and hailed as a masterpiece; there is no question that it altered the future depiction of violence in cinema. Another, even more unanticipated source for the western's revival was the body of Italian westerns known with some derision as "spaghetti westerns." Drawing upon a long European fascination with the western, the most internationally successful and influential examples, including Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964) and Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 1966) were directed by Sergio Leone (1929–1989), at first starring the American actor Clint Eastwood (b. 1930). Although they were even more thoroughly stylized than Peckinpah's films, the Italian westerns shared his vision of a largely amoral, relentlessly violent world (though sometimes allowing moments of slapstick comedy). Often poorly dubbed, the Italian films nonetheless changed the sound of the western as well, largely through the unprecedented and distinctive soundtracks of Leone's prolific composer Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), who mixed trumpets, electric guitars, and bizarre sound effects to drastically challenge the folksy conventions of the traditional western soundtrack. At the very least, the Italian western successfully challenged the implicit notion that the genre could only be successful in the hands of American filmmakers.

At the same time, American westerns continued to anticipate the end of the genre's central role in American culture, albeit in a more nostalgic vein. Late John Wayne vehicles including True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972), and The Shootist (1976) conflated the star's own physical decline (the last two films depict his character's death) with the genre's slow demise. In retrospect, in the 1970s the genre was struggling to maintain its relevance through alternately nostalgic and harshly revisionist examples: the same period produced Hawks's traditional Rio Lobo (1970) and the audacious assault on heroism Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), as well as the downbeat McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and the surrealist El Topo (The Mole, Alejandro Jodorowosky, 1971) Soon thereafter, the outrageous Blazing Saddles(Mel Brooks, 1974) took the long tradition of the western parody to gleefully vulgar extremes, perhaps inadvertently rendering the traditional western impossible for mass audiences ever to accept straightforwardly again. A few years later, the ambitious epic and commercial failure Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) made Hollywood itself wary of funding productions in the genre.


Following the deaths of Peckinpah and Leone, the tradition of the film western has been maintained most consistently by Clint Eastwood, who as star and director has returned to the genre with some regularity. If Eastwood's first American westerns seemed like pale imitations of Leone, later works such as the gothic High Plains Drifter (1972) and the wistful The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) were admired by fans and some critics before widespread acknowledgement of Eastwood's contribution to the genre came with Unforgiven (1992), created in some sense as the "last western" insofar as it functions as both apology and elegy for the genre. Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990) successfully revived the sympathetic Indian film: surprisingly, it and Unforgiven earned Oscars® for best picture, the first for the genre since Cimmaron. Recent attempts at politically correct revision such as the African American Posse (1993) and pseudo-feminist Bad Girls (1994) have seemed poor excuses as westerns. The successful Tombstone (1993) and flop Wyatt Earp (1994) both offered elaborately staged but insignificant returns to one of the key events and historical figures in the genre, and All the Pretty Horses (2000) was an ineffective attempt to adapt for the screen the award-winning 1996 novel by Cormac McCarthy, one of the genre's most prominent novelists. More successful recent revisions of the genre have come from independent cinema, including The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993), based on a true story of a cross-dressing woman who passed as a male sheep rancher in the West, and the surrealist Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996). Certainly the most daring and surprisingly successful contemporary western is Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005),

b. Rome, Italy, 3 January 1929, d. 30 April 1989

The son of Italian film pioneer Vincinzo Leone and actress Bice Waleran, Sergio Leone rose to international prominence with a series of "spaghetti westerns" (or, more respectfully, "westerns all'italiana") produced in Italy during the 1960s and featuring the then relatively unknown American actor Clint Eastwood. Leone's westerns were preceded by other European (especially German) examples, but his were the first non-Hollywood westerns to gain international attention and to deeply influence the genre.

Leone's first major film, Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (1961), brought the western fully into the 1960s by featuring a coolly amoral, unshaven, poncho-draped antihero at its center: Eastwood's "man with no name" inherited some of the genre's conventions while subverting others, especially the conventional ethical stability of the cowboy hero. Similarly, Leone's celebrated "operatic" style served at once as a romantic homage to the classic western as well as a brutal parody of it. The director stretched the suspenseful moments before a shoot-out to nerve-wracking lengths with extreme close-ups of his characters perversely filling a widescreen frame, which typically would have contained sweeping landscapes rather than squinting eyes and twitching fingers waiting to draw a pistol. The worldwide success of the first film justified an even more audacious sequel, Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965), which featured drugs, sex, and sadism, all previously taboo in the genre. The last film in an unofficial trilogy, Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966), centers on three greedy treasure seekers hunting for gold against the epic backdrop of the Civil War.

After Eastwood returned to Hollywood as an international star (whose subsequent westerns owed a clear debt to Leone), Leone's films became even more ambitious, but were often released in mutilated versions. C'era una volta il west (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), which boldly cast Hollywood legend Henry Fonda as a villain, was poorly received and badly cut upon its original release, but after restoration was commonly viewed as Leone's masterpiece, an epic tribute to and cinematic essay on the genre itself, as well as an elegy for its impending demise.

Leone's greatest impact on the western was stylistic: whereas nihilistic narratives and antiheroes would soon appear in US westerns, Leone's films audaciously asserted that the western, among the most formulaic and stable of genres, could drastically change its look, feel, and sound. Certainly the impact of Leone's films was immeasurably supported by their startlingly original scores written by Ennio Morricone, whose lush soundscapes countered Leone's sparse landscapes (with Spain standing in for Mexico and the US Southwest). Although they would quickly lend themselves to parody, Leone's westerns remain among the genre's most thorough revisions.


Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965), Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966), C'era una volta il west (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Giù la testa (Duck You Sucker, or A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971)


Cumbow, Robert C. Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

——. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. Revised ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.

Hughes, Howard. Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers' Guide to Spaghetti Westerns. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Corey K. Creekmur

which sensitively depicts the tragic love affair of two cowboys. After decades of invisibility on television, the western has also enjoyed an unexpected revival through the relentlessly profane cable series Deadwood (beginning 2004).


Serious criticism of the western film began in the 1950s with appreciative essays by Robert Warshow and André Bazin, both of whom identified the genre as, in Bazin's phrase, "the American film par excellence. " Although inattentive to cinema, Henry Nash Smith's groundbreaking study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) suggested that the emerging field of American studies and critical attention to the popular western were intertwined projects. By the next decade, studies in France by Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout and Henri Agel established what would become an ongoing exploration of the genre by the developing discipline of film studies. As more theoretical approaches to film developed, the western was often the principal example for critics attempting to refine the analysis of Hollywood genres and the auteur, with the early attention devoted to John Ford by critics such as Lindsay Anderson and Andrew Sarris evidence of what could be accomplished by an artist in an otherwise popular, commercial form. Drawing upon both Henry Nash Smith and French structuralism, Jim Kitses's influential Horizons West (1969) revealed the western to be organized by a series of "antinomies" that broadly contrasted the wilderness and civilization. Constructing an even more rigorous structural model, Will Wright's Sixguns and Society (1975) analyzed the most successful westerns in light of their social and political contexts. Although later critics would abandon structuralist methodology, the western's ideological significance in specific historical contexts would remain a focus for studies such as Richard Slotkin's ambitious series of books on the West and American culture (1973–1992).

Other studies of the western have sought to refine the analysis of Hollywood genres, as in the work of John Cawelti and Edward Buscombe, among others. Genre critics such as Steve Neale and Rick Altman have thus found the western a useful model for exploring the larger role of genres in film history. Ironically, the decline of the western has been offset by a steady rise in critical attention to the genre, which has included ongoing attention to the representation of Native Americans throughout the western's history, as well as innovative approaches to the roles of women in the genre. Influenced by feminist film theory as well as queer theory, recent critics have also turned their attention to one of the genre's more obvious but unexplored concerns, the representation of masculinity: thus scholars such as Jane Tompkins, Paul Willemen, and Lee Clark Mitchell have interrogated what for decades seemed to be a secure and unproblematic presentation of conventional gender norms. Such studies suggest, among other things, that the western's often exclusively male world allows for a veiled homoeroticism, and that the genre's essential violence betrays strains of masochism in both its characters and its fans.

More recently, criticism of the western has only begun to consider the impact of what has been called the "New Western History," represented by innovative historical reconsiderations such as Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest (1987), which argues that real-estate deals rather than thrilling shoot-outs may be at the heart of the winning of the West. Related work has greatly enriched historical understanding of the role women played in western expansion, as well as the complex psychological justification for the near extermination of Native Americans. The western has generally been successful at keeping the facts of history at bay, but "revisionist" westerns have often attempted to more closely align fantasies of the West with available facts. It remains to be seen whether or not the history of the West that is currently being revised by historians will provide a new source for stories for the near-dormant genre. In any case, the body of critical work on the western alone indicates the genre's significance in American culture and cinema; however, it is telling that for audiences in the twenty-first century the western is less likely to be encountered at the local movie theater, where it was once a staple, than in a college classroom, as a relic and a representation of American cultural history.

SEE ALSO Genre;Native Americans and Cinema;Race and Ethnicity;Violence


Bazin, André. "The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence" and "The Evolution of the Western." In What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray, vol. 2, 140–157. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Buscombe, Edward, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Buscombe, Edward, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. London: British Film Insititute, 1998.

Coyne, Michael. The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western. New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.

Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. New Edition. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

Kitses, Jim, and Gregg Rickman, eds. The Western Reader. New York: Lunebright, 1998.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Saunders, John. The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey. London: Wallflower Press, 2001.

Simmon, Scott. The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half-Century. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Stanfield, Peter. Hollywood, Westerns, and the 1930s: The Lost Trail. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2001.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Walker, Janet, ed. Westerns: Films through History. New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 2001.

Warshow, Robert. "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner." In The Immediate Experience, revised ed., 105–124. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Corey K. Creekmur

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