A  Western is a Western is a Western

By Stuart J. Kobak 

      Surrounded by hostile Indians, the settlers battle valiantly  to preserve their precarious foothold in this frontier land. It's guns versus arrows in a harrowing assault laced with villainy and heroics. Is it a Western?  Dressed in black, he casually strolls into the small town cafe. The stranger's entry  is greeted by malevolent stares from a seedy group of bar flies and when his presence is challenged in a prolonged attempt at humiliating provocation, a classic confrontation is dynamically realized in a rousing brawl. Is it a Western? 
      How can we define the Western genre of films. Any conventional  definition must include the obvious: since it is called a Western it must be  set in the West.  Of course, the recent film Quigley Down Under, though set in Australia, is pure  Western,  so perhaps the hard and fast and obvious need not be carved into the stone of Monument Valley. 
       Let's look back at the first scene described at the beginning of this article. The description is taken from Drums Along the Mohawk, a film set in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. It is a Western in my mind, as classic to the genre as any of the other Westerns that make up the majority of John Ford's filmography. No less an authority than "Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion" lists Drums Along the Mohawk as one of many Western entertainments of truly epic stature. On the other hand, "Halliwell's Film Guide" calls it a "patchy, likable period adventure story" as opposed to a Western.  The "Video Movie Guide"  lists

  Drums Along the Mohawk under its Action/Adventure category, presumably for  reason of its period and setting. Yet, it lists Last of the Mohicans, a film likewise set in the East during the French and Indian War, under Westerns. Obviously there is some confusion as to what exactly constitutes a Western.  
     The" Random House Dictionary"  defines a Western as a story,  movie or radio or television play  about the US West of the 19th century. I think we better dump the specificity of that definition right quick.   If we hold fast to that definition, Drums Along the Mohawk clearly a Western from a  genre master  John Ford.  would fail  to qualify for the category. Although all the ingredients are right save the location and  period, the fact that it is set in the East during 18th century Colonial times,  would serve as an excuse for chroniclers faithful to the dictionary to label this Western either an Adventure or Period epic.  Of course, that's a load of bunk.  A film as clearly genre specific as The Wild Bunch would fail to meet the  same strict  criterion since it is set in 1913. 
     Refer back to the second scene described at the outset of this article. Although the elements are apparently natural to the Western genre, the film really can't be considered pure Western. There are heroes and villains, there's gun play and a chase, a shoot-out amidst the desert rocks, a bar room brawl, a dusty Western landscape and even classic desert backdrop, but its set just after the Second World War, preventing  Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock from lying comfortably enough within the conventions of the Western genre. Sturges himself notes on the accompanying audio commentary on the Criterion Collection disc "It's almost called a Western--it's not a Western. It took place in 1946 or 1947." Sturges obviously feels his film is close to the Western genre and his comment would seem to indicate that it is not a Western simply due to the year of its setting. The truth is, too many societal elements have changed by 1946. There is a different way of looking at the world. Technology has made a major impact on the way stories play themselves out.  In effect, time does become a factor in determining whether a film can be logically viewed as a Western.  Bad Day at Black Rock could be called a modern day Western or a contemporary Western.   There are a good many films that could fit that category: contemporary rodeo stories such as The Lusty Men or Junior Bonner or even Huston's moody take on the modern Western, The Misfits. Outland, an updating of High Noon in outer space can't even be remotely considered a Western, but it is not a date that is the determining factor but everything that goes with that date as in the technological aspects that surround the dramatic links of  Outland

Some of Kurosawa's "jidai-geki" or Samurai films have been labeled as nothing more than Westerns dressed in Samurai armor.  But those Kurosawa films are not merely transplanted Westerns. The inherent cultural differences between the occidental and oriental societies make too profound an impact on the way those films are shaped. Kurosawa may acknowledge a debt of learning to John Ford's oeuvre, but Ford's influence is formed by a visual base and not a genre one. A number of Kurosawa films have, conversely, been made into Westerns. John Sturges  took the basic 

Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and created from some of its elements a fine Western, The Magnificent Seven. Sergio Leone borrowed heavily from the plot and characters of Kurosawa's Yojimbo to launch a string of "spaghetti Westerns" made in Italy.  Martin Ritt put together an outstanding cast in The Outrage, a transposing of  Kurosawa's Rashomon into a Western.   Western treatments suggested by  Samurai films must be adapted to the peculiarities of time and place. 
     Is a Western really a sub-genre of the action picture. A strong case could be made for this argument. By simply transposing elements of the typical action picture to a Western setting do we have a Western? This supposition is shot from an empty gun since the Western has long been viewed as its own genre and no doubt it would be tantamount to a traitorous act to suggest that the sagebrush saga was not worthy of having its very own major categorization. 
      Westerns often have elements of comedy added to them to temper the action. Later John Wayne sagebrush exercises frequently featured down to earth humor, often in the form of brabble. Some, like North to Alaska (Note, another radical departure of locale, although once again the setting is a frontier.), were liberally laced with levity, but careful balance prevented the films from being toppled as Westerns by excessive corruption of the purity of the genre. When the balance of focus tips to laughter, a film slips genres to become a comedy. Although there have been many comedies set in the West which one might ostensibly call Westerns, films like Blazing Saddles, Support Your Local Sheriff, Paleface or Ruggles of Red Gap are not Westerns. This is an example of when the setting is pure but the overwhelming balance of content outweighs the other elements. Some Westerns have managed to contain a generous helping of comic portion, but nevertheless maintain the integrity of the genre. Little Big Man manufactures more than its reasonable share of laughs within the genre, yet director Arthur Penn creates a unique blend of cinema that remains Western, yet rises far beyond the level of the ordinary. Silverado is an example of a Western that makes too much fun of the genre to be altogether successful. The primary pleasures of Lawrence Kasdan's lighthearted dip into the genre are the fact that Westerns were simply not being made in 1985 when Silverado appeared. However,  Kasdan's actors are a delight to watch and they  fare better than the script. 
       There are elements that must be found in a film to label it a Western. It is fair to insist that a Western have a reasonable amount of action and  at minimum a modicum of shoot-em-up.  Conflict resides in the guts of all Westerns.  We need good guys and bad guys, although the differences can sometimes be blurred. Capturing a sense of the great outdoors is  fundamental  precept of the greater number of Westerns.  Often a chase is the driving force behind a Western's plot. A changing way of life is frequently  the focus of genre treatment and pioneers are found as unsung heroes.  There is really no firm description that can lasso the genre.  No Western will have each and every element in evidence. Not all Westerns are created equal and all are not equally Westerns. When enough of the essential nature of the genre is present in a film, it isn't too great a stretch to call it a Western.  Western or Eastern, Adventure, or Drama: the mere labels do not make the reality of a film. The sum of its elements alone determine in what genre it most comfortably fits. After all, a Western is a Western is a Western. 
       Give me the frontier spirit, boots and  spurs, broad brimmed hats, horses and Indians, six shooters,  repeating Winchesters or bows and arrows and the spirit of the Western spreads out its sweeping vistas before my eyes. When the hero and bad man face off in typical genre confrontation, I could care less if the shoot-out takes place in Tombstone, Alaska, or Australia. As long as the essential  Western spirit rears up against a purple sky, its a Western for me. I don't care if the frontier is the East Coast of America or the West Coast or whether it's 1765 or 1875. The Western genre is defined  by  Pike Bishop uttering the fateful "We want Angel," that precipitates  the Boschlike carnage at the climax of The Wild Bunch; or it's Ethan Edwards' refrain "That'll be the day," in Ford's master work The Searchers. 



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