Sunday, March 02, 2008

What is a Western and How do I Judge My Favorites?

This post will be a long one. Usually I do not like to do long ones like this because I think the average internet reader does not like to read long articles. I used to write long ones, but in the past few years I really like to keep things simple. Joe over at wanted me to do a write up of my favorite westerns, but before I do that I want to lay down some groundwork about what a western is. Then I want to mention the criteria that I use in determining what my favorites are.

What is a Western?

Let me start with some loose criteria as to what I consider a western. I say this because there are a lot of movies out there that one might consider a western, but I do not. Although one should not watch a western thinking it is the same as reading a scholarly historical book on the old west, there are some things to take into account in regarding the historical time period and geography of the old west.

What a lot of people think of as the western time period usually deals with the cowtown era. The heart and soul of the old west in the public mind is the cowboy, and this was his time. After the Civil War, during the late 1860’s to the mid-1880’s, Texas cow hands drove their cattle to Kansas. The cattle were shipped on trains to the east. There were five major towns: Abilene, Ellsworth, Caldwell, Wichita, and Dodge City. This was a very temporary period since most of these towns lasted only a few years doing this, and that is all they wanted of the cattle trade. It was a way to build up their towns using the cattle trade, but then move on to sustain themselves by other means. At best we are only talking about 15 years of the golden age of the cattle trade. This period covers a good portion of western movies.

The tradition date of the closing of the American Western Frontier is 1890. Historian Fredrick Jackson Turner came up with this thesis. The 1890 census came in and it was decided there was no more frontier that needed to be settled. There was still Alaska, but from coast to coast the country was explored and settled. The final Indian conflicts were ending as well.

If one really wants to expand the frontier era out I think one can argue that it really started with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Anything prior to this really should be in the context of the American Revolution period. If this is the case, then anything regarding explorers like Louis and Clark a few years after the purchase, the mountain men era after that until the 1840’s, the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and at least some territory of the Civil War years in the west (more on this later) can be considered a western. However, keep in mind, most of the above are not westerns in the mind of the average movie watcher. This is due to the popularity of the cowboy era. Historically speaking, what really made the majority of people come west was the California Gold Rush. But, stories and movies about people mining for gold are not as interesting as the taming of cattle towns or cowboys in the trail.

On the other end of the timeline I think one can go past 1890 in regard to westerns. One can probably push the final years of the western era to right before World War I. So, we are talking somewhere in the 1910’s. Again, this is way outside the classic era of the cowboys, but there is a good reason one can push it this far. It has to do with the common transportation. Although the trains had made going long distances in a few days commonplace, the use of the horse was still prevalent in many areas up until this time. Once the car became of use I think it is safe to say that the western period was over.

The western period, using the most broad criteria, can be cast between 1803-1910’s. There is a lot of “but’s,” and “if’s” about this. Anything prior to the earliest date or after the latest date really should be considered something else.

Another thing to consider is the geography. My rule of thumb is anything west of the Mississippi River to the west coast is the frontier of the western. Crossing into Canada is okay, as well as, crossing into Mexico. Anywhere else the movie really can’t be considered a western. Why? It is not taking place in the American West. Earlier I mentioned the Civil War. I don’t really think of these movies as westerns. The true struggle between the Union and the Confederacy took place in the east. The exception, which I made above, is if the Civil War movie took place somewhere on the western frontier. A movie like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had a Civil War scene regarding the taking of a bridge. I am not going to say that movie is not a western because of that scene. The thing to keep in mind is that a western really has to have the less settled western frontier as a setting.

Those are my main criteria of what I consider a western. When it comes to things like history and authenticity I am not that strict. This is because I try to keep movie entertainment separate from historical accuracy. I do not expect a writer or director of a movie to be a historian. On the same note, I do not expect the historians I read to try to entertain me by changing the facts around where things may not be very exciting. I feel the same way about samurai movies and almost any historical movie. I have seen too many people really get hung up over this online. For some reason many people seem to think that some of these movies are really documentaries, and if they are not factually accurate then this lessons their value.

Western stories grew out of the old dime novel era of the time they represent. Most of those novels were overly exaggerated stories published in the east of things supposedly taken place on the frontier. These stories were very sensational. This carried over into western movies. If one were to watch nothing other than westerns and never read history, then one would think that all anyone wanted to do on the frontier is get a gun and kill others. The reality was that people died mostly from the harsh environment, disease, bad working conditions, or just old age. One had a better chance dying working on the railroad than a violent death at a cow town. If one met an Indian on the frontier the chances were very good that he or she would try to be friendly, would pursue trade, and be helpful. The gunfighters one always hears about were really rare. Most of the famous ones usually only had a few kills and lived off that reputation. The dime novels would play off this, and stories would be created where a gunfighter had killed dozens of people. With these stories, and what might be reported in newspapers over and over again, the public mind had the idea that the west was a very violent place. This really was not the case. The exception to this was if the area was hotbed of hostility or conflict. Passing through Texas right after the Civil War one might encounter violent areas. Certain Indian territories might not have been the safest to travel through during different periods based on if a conflict had arisen. For the most part, the historical reality of violence in the west as portrayed in westerns is overstated.

I mention all of that because a lot of what one sees in a western movie is really fantasy based on the actual year it was made. As long as I don’t see airplanes flying around, cars driving around, space ships, laser guns, disco era clothing, etc. I am fine with what I see in westerns. Okay, I spent this entire article trying to show why Star Wars is not a western! It might be, had I not mentioned the time frame and the geography parts. The funny thing is a lot of people think of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers b-movies as westerns. Practically everything they ever did was in the modern era of the 1930’s-1940’s. It was a cowboy in the depression era taking on whatever news events were current. They would look in the newspaper and get their stories from there. Taking on the mafia, dealing with government subsidy issues, trying to stop the Nazis, international espionage, etc. were stories they might come up with. These movies were designed as family fun during the hard era of the depression that one might watch on the weekend. One of my favorites is The Phantom Empire series Gene Autry did. Again, fun to laugh at, watch it once, and probably throw it away after viewing these days, but not really a real western since the time period is more of a “modern era.”

What Makes a Good Western?

With the time period, the geography, and very loose ideas of history/authenticity mentioned let me say what I really enjoy a western for. As one might expect from just about everything I have done on this blog, part of what makes a really good western is the scenery. I look for really beautiful places in these films. Compared to other genres, the western has the biggest opportunity to film in awesome environments. Honestly, a great many westerns have common themes and stories, but put into the right environment they can greatly be magnified. I will tell you in the next entry there are stories that have are basically the same with a few variations, but the director knew exactly the best areas to film the movies and with that made them really good. There are some exceptions to this where showing a lot of scenery may not work for the movie, but usually this is what I look for. One example of a recent movie that I do not think worked out for the best because of this. The recent 3:10 to Yuma could have been a lot better had this allowed for more scenery to be shown. The editing was very quick at some points. As side note, even though it is fantasy, I love The Lord of the Rings movies for this. Although a lot was CGI, I think it is so cool to see men on horses or people hiking through enormous terrain that dwarfs and towers over them. You can probably see how this connects to places I love to hike to.

Action scenes are important, but not as important to me as when I was younger. A lot of the 1950’s-1960’s westerns are pretty tame by today’s standards. There are few reasons for that. A lot of it had to deal with the Hay’s Code that did not allow certain types of violence. By the late 1960’s when the code was lifted this would change allowing more of the in your face bloody violence. For me, a few gunfights in these movies and I am fine with it. The people that tend to want more violence in their movies tend to enjoy spaghetti westerns more. I liked them in my younger days, but have a hard time watching too many of them these days. Apart from the Leone movies and a few others, they are a little too one dimensional in this respect. It is more important to see how the story builds to the violence rather than violence just for the sake of violence.

Finally, the story and the actors are other considerations. You need both to have a good western. Most stories tend to be about taming cattle towns, water rights, mining rights, land rights, cattle rustling, the cattle trail, saving lost kin, dealing with Indians, being a captive, and a little bit of revenge mixed in based on whatever the villain(s) had done. One of the key themes usually is the strong hero(s) protecting the weak and that justice is done in the end.

That pretty much covers what I wanted to say about defining westerns and what I look for in my favorites. In my next entry I will mention a bunch of my favorites.