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Western is a genre of fiction set primarily in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century in the Western United States, which is styled the "Old West". Its stories commonly center on the life of a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter who rides a horse and is armed with a revolver and/or a rifle. Cowboys and gunslingers typically wear broad-brimmed and high-crowned Stetson hats, neckerchief bandannas, vests, spurs, cowboy boots, and buckskins (alternatively dusters). Recurring characters include the aforementioned cowboys, Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, bandits, lawmen, prostitutes, bounty hunters, outlaws, gamblers, soldiers (especially mounted cavalry, such as buffalo soldiers), and settlers (farmers, ranchers, and townsfolk). The ambience is usually punctuated with a Western music score, including American folk music and Spanish/Mexican folk music such as country, Native American music, New Mexico music, and rancheras.
Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Often, the vast landscape plays an important role, presenting a "mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West." Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns, saloons, railways, wilderness, and isolated military forts of the Wild West. Many Westerns use a stock plot of depicting a crime, then showing the pursuit of the wrongdoer, ending in revenge and retribution, which is often dispensed through a shootout or quick-draw duel.
The Western has been recognized as the most popular Hollywood film genre of the early 20th century through the 1960s. Western films first became well-attended in the 1930s. John Ford's landmark Western film Stagecoach (1939) became one of the biggest hits of that year, and made John Wayne a mainstream movie star. The popularity of Westerns continued to grow in the 1940s, with the release of films such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and Red River (1948). The 1950s have been described as the golden age of the Western, and had the release of films such as Broken Arrow (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), Wichita (1955), The Searchers (1956), and Rio Bravo (1959). Notable Western films released in the 1960s include Cat Ballou (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969).
Classic Westerns such as these have been the inspiration for various films about Western-type characters in contemporary settings, such as Junior Bonner (1972), set in the 1970s, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), set in the 21st century.
The Western genre sometimes portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilization or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice–"frontier justice"–dispensed by gunfights. These honor codes are often played out through depictions of feuds or individuals seeking personal revenge or retribution against someone who has wronged them (e.g., True Grit has revenge and retribution as its main themes). This Western depiction of personal justice contrasts sharply with justice systems organized around rationalistic, abstract law that exist in cities, in which social order is maintained predominantly through relatively impersonal institutions such as courtrooms. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a seminomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter. A showdown or duel at high noon featuring two or more gunfighters is a stereotypical scene in the popular conception of Westerns.
In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knights-errant, who stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian romances. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight-errant of the earlier European tales and poetry was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds, and bound to no fixed social structures, but only to his own innate code of honor. Like knights-errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many characteristics with the ronin in modern Japanese culture.
The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples (e.g. the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, about an old hired killer) are more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness and isolation of the wilderness, and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape. Western films generally have specific settings, such as isolated ranches, Native American villages, or small frontier towns with a saloon. Oftentimes, these settings appear deserted and without much structure. Apart from the wilderness, the saloon usually emphasizes that this is the Wild West; it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five-card stud), drinking (beer, whiskey, or tequila if set in Mexico), brawling, and shooting. In some Westerns, where civilization has arrived, the town has a church, a general store, a bank, and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is, as Sergio Leone said, "where life has no value".
Common plots include:
- The construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier
- Ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners, or who build a ranch empire
- Revenge stories, which hinge on the chase and pursuit by someone who has been wronged
- Stories about cavalry fighting Native Americans
- Outlaw gang plots
- Stories about a lawman or bounty hunter tracking down his quarry
The American Film Institute defines Western films as those "set in the American West that [embody] the spirit, the struggle, and the demise of the new frontier." The term "Western", used to describe a narrative film genre, appears to have originated with a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World magazine. Most of the characteristics of Western films were part of 19th-century popular Western fiction, and were firmly in place before film became a popular art form. Western films commonly feature protagonists such as cowboys, gunslingers, and bounty hunters, who are often depicted as seminomadic wanderers who wear Stetson hats, bandannas, spurs, and buckskins, use revolvers or rifles as everyday tools of survival and as a means to settle disputes using "frontier justice". Protagonists ride between dusty towns and cattle ranches on their trusty steeds.
Western films were enormously popular in the silent-film era (1894–1927). With the advent of sound in 1927–28, the major Hollywood studios rapidly abandoned Westerns, leaving the genre to smaller studios and producers. These smaller organizations churned out countless low-budget features and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s, the Western film was widely regarded as a "pulp" genre in Hollywood, but its popularity was dramatically revived in 1939 by major studio productions such as Dodge City starring Errol Flynn, Jesse James with Tyrone Power, Union Pacific with Joel McCrea, Destry Rides Again featuring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and especially John Ford's landmark Western adventure Stagecoach starring John Wayne, which became one of the biggest hits of the year. Released through United Artists, Stagecoach made John Wayne a mainstream screen star in the wake of a decade of headlining B Westerns. Wayne had been introduced to the screen 10 years earlier as the leading man in director Raoul Walsh's spectacular widescreen The Big Trail, which failed at the box office in spite of being shot on location across the American West, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the giant redwoods, due in part to exhibitors' inability to switch over to widescreen during the Great Depression. After the Westerns' renewed commercial successes in the late 1930s, their popularity continued to rise until its peak in the 1950s, when the number of Western films produced outnumbered all other genres combined.
In their book Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam explains that cinema has combined narrative with spectacle and through this tells the story of colonialism from the coloniser's perspective. Related to this they suggest that cinema has spoken for the "winners" of history and that negative portrayals of in this case Native Americans "helped rationalise the human costs of the imperial enterprise." These negative portrayals can for instance be found in Fighting Blood (1911) and The Last of the Mohicans (1920) were Native Americans were portrayed as savage marauders. This in itself is also a recurring stereotype of Native Americans in Westerns. Shohat and Stam also points out that the point-of-view in Westerns; how the film is structured with for example camera angles, makes it impossible for sympathetic identifications with the Native Americans as the filming always favours the Euro-American protagonist, and that the spectator therefore "is unwittingly sutured into a colonialist perspective." The Hollywood Westerns did also generally show history from a turned point of view as the Native Americans appears as intruders of their own land.
Western films often depict conflicts with Native Americans. While early Eurocentric Westerns frequently portray the "Injuns" as dishonorable villains, the later and more culturally neutral Westerns gave Native Americans a more sympathetic treatment. Other recurring themes of Westerns include treks (e.g. The Big Trail) or perilous journeys (e.g. Stagecoach) or groups of bandits terrorizing small towns such as in The Magnificent Seven.
Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, as in other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, or Wyoming. These settings gave filmmakers the ability to depict vast plains, looming mountains, and epic canyons. Productions were also filmed on location at movie ranches.
Often, the vast landscape becomes more than a vivid backdrop; it becomes a character in the film. After the early 1950s, various widescreen formats such as Cinemascope (1953) and VistaVision used the expanded width of the screen to display spectacular western landscapes. John Ford's use of Monument Valley as an expressive landscape in his films from Stagecoach to Cheyenne Autumn (1965), "present us with a mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West, embodied most memorably in Monument Valley, with its buttes and mesas that tower above the men on horseback, whether they be settlers, soldiers, or Native Americans".
- Union Pacific story: The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon-train stories fall into this category.
- Ranch story: The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners.
- Empire story: The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot.
- Revenge story: The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story.
- Cavalry and Indian story: The plot revolves around "taming" the wilderness for White settlers.
- Outlaw story: The outlaw gangs dominate the action.
- Marshal story: The lawman and his challenges drive the plot.
Gruber said that good writers used dialogue and plot development to develop these basic plots into believable stories. Other subgenres include:
- Spaghetti Westerns
- Epic Westerns
- Singing cowboy Westerns
- Comedy Westerns, such as:
- Contemporary or neo-Western films, such as:
The first known Western narrative film is the British short Kidnapping by Indians, made by Mitchell and Kenyon in Blackburn, England, in 1899. The Great Train Robbery (1903, based on the earlier British film A Daring Daylight Burglary), Edwin S. Porter's film starring Broncho Billy Anderson, is often erroneously cited as the first Western, though George N. Fenin and William K. Everson point out that the "Edison company had played with Western material for several years prior to The Great Train Robbery. " Nonetheless, they concur that Porter's film "set the pattern—of crime, pursuit, and retribution—for the Western film as a genre." The film's popularity opened the door for Anderson to become the screen's first cowboy star; he made several hundred Western film shorts. So popular was the genre that he soon faced competition from Tom Mix and William S. Hart.
The Golden Age of the Western is epitomized by the work of several prominent directors including:
- Robert Aldrich – Apache (1954), Vera Cruz (1954)
- Budd Boetticher – several films with Randolph Scott including The Tall T (1957) and Comanche Station (1960)
- Delmer Daves – Broken Arrow (1950), The Last Wagon (1956), 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
- Allan Dwan – Silver Lode (1954), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
- John Ford – Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
- Samuel Fuller – Run of the Arrow (1957), Forty Guns (1957)
- Howard Hawks – Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966)
- Henry King – The Gunfighter (1950), The Bravados (1958)
- Anthony Mann – Winchester '73 (1950), The Man from Laramie (1955), The Tin Star (1957)
- Nicholas Ray – Johnny Guitar (1954)
- George Stevens – Annie Oakley (1935), Shane (1953)
- John Sturges – Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960)
- Jacques Tourneur – Canyon Passage (1946), Wichita (1955)
- King Vidor – Duel in the Sun (1946), Man Without a Star (1955)
- William A. Wellman – The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Yellow Sky (1948)
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to a makeshift 1960s and 1970s genre called the acid Western, associated with Dennis Hopper, Jim McBride, and Rudy Wurlitzer, as well as films such as Monte Hellman's The Shooting (1966), Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre experimental film El Topo (The Mole) (1970), and Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972). The 1970 film El Topo is an allegorical cult Western and underground film about the eponymous character, a violent black-clad gunfighter, and his quest for enlightenment. The film is filled with bizarre characters and occurrences, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy. Some spaghetti Westerns also crossed over into the acid Western genre, such as Enzo G. Castellari's mystical Keoma (1976), a Western reworking of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).
More recent acid Westerns include Alex Cox's Walker (1987) and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995). Rosenbaum describes the acid Western as "formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda"; ultimately, he says, the Acid Western expresses a counterculture sensibility to critique and replace capitalism with alternative forms of exchange.
The Australian Western genre or meat pie western is set in Australia, especially the Australian Outback or the Australian Bush. The genre borrows from US traditions and often features Indigenous Australians in the role Native Americans.
The Tracker is an archetype in this form of Australian Western, with signature scenes of harsh desert environments, and exploration of the themes of rough justice, exploitation of the Aboriginals, and the thirst for justice at all costs. Others in this category include Rangle River (1936), Kangaroo, The Kangaroo Kid (1950),The Sundowners (1960), Quigley Down Under, Ned Kelly (1970), The Man from Snowy River (1982), The Proposition, Lucky Country, and Sweet Country.
Many blaxploitation films, particularly ones involving Fred Williamson, have incorporated a Western setting within them, with examples such as Soul Soldier (1970), Buck and the Preacher (1972), The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973), Thomasine & Bushrod (1974), Boss Nigger (1975), Adiós Amigo (1975), and Posse (1993).
Charro Westerns, often featuring musical stars, as well as action, have been a standard feature of Mexican cinema since the 1930s. In the 1930s and 1940s, these were typically films about horsemen in rural Mexican society, displaying a set of cultural concerns very different from the Hollywood metanarrative, but the overlap between "charro" movies and Westerns became more apparent in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Some examples are Ismael Rodríguez's Los Hermanos del Hierro (1961), Jorge Fons's Cinco Mil Dólares de Recompensa, and Arturo Ripstein's Tiempo de morir. The most important is Alberto Mariscal, great author of El tunco Maclovio, Todo por nada, Los marcados, El juez de la soga, and La chamuscada.
This subgenre is imitative in style to mock, comment on, or trivialize the Western genre's established traits, subjects, auteurs' styles, or some other target by means of humorous, satiric, or ironic imitation or parody. A prime example of comedy Western includes The Paleface (1948), which makes a satirical effort to "send up Owen Wister's novel The Virginian and all the cliches of the Western from the fearless hero to the final shootout on Main Street." The Paleface "features a cowardly hero known as "Painless" Peter Potter (Bob Hope), an inept dentist, who often entertains the notion that he is a crack sharpshooter and accomplished Indian fighter".
Also known as neo-Westerns, these films have contemporary U.S. settings, and use Old West themes and motifs (a rebellious antihero, open plains and desert landscapes, and gunfights). These films have been on the rise since the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (2007). For the most part, they still take place in the American West and reveal the progression of the Old West mentality into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This subgenre often features Old West-type characters struggling with displacement in a "civilized" world that rejects their outdated brand of justice. Taylor Sheridan's filmography can be used as a template to identify what being a neo-Western film means, with three identifying themes. First is the lack of rules, with morals guided by the character's or audience's instincts of right and wrong rather than by governance. The second is characters searching for justice. The third theme, characters feeling remorse, connects the neo-Western film to the broader Western genre, reinforcing a universal theme that consequences come with actions.
Examples include Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (1952); John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); Lonely Are the Brave, screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (1962), Hud, starring Paul Newman (1963); the Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971); Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972); Junior Bonner (1972); Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974); Hearts of the West starring Jeff Bridges (1975); John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); Alan J. Pakula's Comes a Horseman (1978); J. W. Coop (1972), directed/co-produced/co-written by and starring Cliff Robertson; Flashpoint (1984); Extreme Prejudice (1987); Robert Rodríguez's El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003); John Sayles's Lone Star (1996); The Way of the Gun (2000); Down in the Valley (2005); Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019); Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005); Wim Wenders's Don't Come Knocking (2005); Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (2007); Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008); Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart (2009); Out of the Furnace (2013); The Rover (2014); Rambo: Last Blood (2019); El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019); Nomadland (2020); as well as George Miller's Mad Max franchise. The television shows Sons Of Anarchy (2008–2014); Justified (2010–2015), Longmire (2012–2017), Mystery Road (2018–present) and Yellowstone (2018–present) along with the Nicholas Winding Refn noir/satire mini series Too Old to Die Young (2019); Sicario (2015) and its sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018); Hell or High Water (2016); Wind River (2017) and Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021), all written by Taylor Sheridan; and the superhero film Logan (2017). Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Call of Juarez: The Cartel (2011) and Grand Theft Auto V (2013) are examples of neo-Western video games. Likewise, the television series Breaking Bad and its spin off Better Call Saul, which both take place in modern times, feature many examples of Western archetypes. According to creator Vince Gilligan, "After the first Breaking Bad episode, it started to dawn on me that we could be making a contemporary Western. So you see scenes that are like gunfighters squaring off, like Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef—we have Walt and others like that."
The precursor to these was the radio series Tales of the Texas Rangers (1950–1952), with Joel McCrea, a contemporary detective drama set in Texas, featuring many of the characteristics of traditional Westerns.
The Bollywood film Sholay (1975) was often referred to as a "curry Western". A more accurate genre label for the film is the "dacoit Western", as it combines the conventions of Indian dacoit films such as Mother India (1957) and Gunga Jumna (1961) with those of spaghetti Westerns. Sholay spawned its own genre of "dacoit Western" films in Bollywood during the 1970s.
The first Western films made in India – Kalam Vellum (1970, Tamil), Mosagallaku Mosagadu (1971, Telugu), Mappusakshi (Malayalam), Ganga (1972, Tamil), and Jakkamma (1972, Tamil) – were based on Classic Westerns. Thazhvaram (1990), the Malayalam film directed by Bharathan and written by noted writer M. T. Vasudevan Nair, perhaps most resembles the Spaghetti Westerns in terms of production and cinematic techniques. Earlier Spaghetti Westerns laid the groundwork for such films as Adima Changala (1971) starring Prem Nazir, a hugely popular "zapata Spaghetti Western film in Malayalam, and Sholay (1975) Khote Sikkay (1973) and Thai Meethu Sathiyam (1978) are notable curry Westerns. Kodama Simham (1990), a Telugu action film, starring Chiranjeevi and Mohan Babu, was one more addition to the Indo Western genre that fared well at the box office. It was also the first South Indian movie to be dubbed in English as Hunters of the Indian Treasure
Takkari Donga (2002), starring Telugu actor Mahesh Babu, was applauded by critics, but was average at box office. Quick Gun Murugun (2009), an Indian comedy film that spoofs Indian Western movies, is based on a character created for television promotions at the time of the launch of the music network Channel [V] in 1994, which had cult following. Irumbukkottai Murattu Singam (2010), a Western adventure comedy film, based on cowboy movies and paying homages to the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Jaishankar, was made in Tamil. Laal Kaptaan (2019) is an IndoWestern starring Saif Ali Khan, which is set during the rise of the British Empire in India.
The documentary Western is a subgenre of Westerns that explore the nonfiction elements of the historical and contemporary American West. Ken Burns' The West is an example of a series based upon a historical storyline, whereas films such as Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait provide a nonfiction portrayal of modern working cowboys in the contemporary West.
The 1971 film Zachariah starring John Rubinstein, Don Johnson, and Pat Quinn, was billed as the "first electric Western." The film featured multiple performing rock bands in an otherwise American West setting.
Zachariah featured appearances and music supplied by rock groups from the 1970s, including the James Gang and Country Joe and the Fish as "The Cracker Band." Fiddler Doug Kershaw had a musical cameo as does Elvin Jones as a gunslinging drummer named Job Cain.
The epic Western is a subgenre of the Western that emphasizes the story of the American Old West on a grand scale. Many epic Westerns are commonly set during a turbulent time, especially a war, as in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), set during the American Civil War, or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), set during the Mexican Revolution. One of the grandest films in this genre is Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which shows many operatic conflicts centered on control of a town while using wide-scale shots on Monument Valley locations against a broad running time. Other notable examples include The Iron Horse (1924), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Searchers (1956), Giant (1956), The Big Country (1958), Cimarron (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), Heaven's Gate (1980), Dances with Wolves (1990), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Django Unchained (2012), and The Revenant (2015).
Euro-Westerns are Western-genre films made in Western Europe. The term can sometimes include the spaghetti Western subgenre. One example of a Euro-Western is the Anglo-Spanish film The Savage Guns (1961). Several Euro-Western films, nicknamed sauerkraut Westerns because they were made in Germany and shot in Yugoslavia, were derived from stories by novelist Karl May, and were film adaptations of May's work. One of the most popular German Western franchises was the Winnetou series, which featured a Native American Apache hero in the lead role. Also in Finland, only a few Western films have been made, the most notable of which could be the 1971 low-budget comedy The Unhanged, directed by, written by, and starring Spede Pasanen.
Fantasy Westerns mixed in fantasy settings and themes, and may include fantasy mythology as background. Some famous examples are Stephen King's The Stand and The Dark Tower series of novels, the Vertigo comics series Preacher, and Keiichi Sigsawa's light novel series, Kino's Journey, illustrated by Kouhaku Kuroboshi.
According to the naming conventions after spaghetti Western, in Greece they are also referred to as "fasolada Westerns" (Greek: φασολάδα = bean soup, i.e. the so-called national dish of Greece). A notable example is Blood on the Land (1966), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Another subgenre is the horror Western, with roots in films such as Curse of the Undead (1959) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), which depicts the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid fighting against the notorious vampire. Another example is The Ghoul Goes West, an unproduced Ed Wood film to star Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the Old West. Newer examples include the films Near Dark (1987) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which tells the story about a human falling in love with a vampire, From Dusk till Dawn (1996) by Robert Rodriguez deals with outlaws battling vampires across the border, Vampires (1998) by John Carpenter, which tells about a group of vampires and vampire hunters looking for an ancient relic in the west, Ravenous (1999), which deals with cannibalism at a remote US army outpost; The Burrowers (2008), about a band of trackers who are stalked by the titular creatures; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). Undead Nightmare (2010), an expansion to Red Dead Redemption (2010) is an example of a video game in this genre, telling the tale of a zombie outbreak in the Old West. Bone Tomahawk (2015), one of the most recent entries in the genre, received wide critical acclaim for its chilling tale of cannibalism, but like many other movies in the genre, it was not a commercial success.
While many of these mash-ups (e.g., Billy Jack (1971) and its sequel The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)) are cheap exploitation films, others are more serious dramas such as the Kung Fu TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1975. Comedy examples include the Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson collaboration Shanghai Noon (2000). Further subdivisions of this subgenre include Westerns based on ninjas and samurais (incorporating samurai cinema themes), such as Red Sun (1971) with Charles Bronson, Alain Delon, and Toshiro Mifune.
The Northern genre is a subgenre of Westerns taking place in Alaska or Western Canada. Examples include several versions of the Rex Beach novel, The Spoilers (including 1930's The Spoilers, with Gary Cooper, and 1942's The Spoilers, with Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, and Wayne); The Far Country (1954) with James Stewart; North to Alaska (1960) with Wayne; Death Hunt (1981) with Charles Bronson; and The Grey Fox (1983) with Richard Farnsworth.
Ostern films, also known as "Eastern" or "Red Western" films, were produced in the Soviet Union and Socialist Eastern Europe. They were popular in Communist Eastern European countries and were a particular favorite of Joseph Stalin.
"Red Western" films usually portrayed the American Indians sympathetically, as oppressed people, fighting for their rights, in contrast to American Westerns of the time, which frequently portrayed the Indians as villains. Osterns frequently featured Gypsy or Turkic people in the role of the Indians, due to the shortage of authentic Indians in Eastern Europe.
Gojko Mitić portrayed righteous, kind-hearted, and charming Indian chiefs (e.g., in Die Söhne der großen Bärin (1966), directed by Josef Mach). He became honorary chief of the Sioux tribe when he visited the United States, in the 1990s, and the television crew accompanying him showed the tribe of one of his films. American actor and singer Dean Reed, an expatriate who lived in East Germany, also starred in several Ostern films.
"Eastern" films typically replaced the Wild West setting with by an Eastern setting in the steppes of the Caucasus. Western stock characters, such as "cowboys and Indians", were also replaced by Caucasian stock characters, such as bandits and harems. A famous example of the genre was White Sun of the Desert, which was popular in the Soviet Union.
Pornographic Westerns use the Old West as a background for stories primarily focused on erotica. The three major examples of the porn Western film are Russ Meyer's nudie-cutie Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962), and the hardcore A Dirty Western (1975) and Sweet Savage (1979). Sweet Savage starred Aldo Ray, a veteran actor who had appeared in traditional Westerns, in a non-sex role. Among videogames, Custer's Revenge (1982) is an infamous example, considered to be one of the worst video games of all time.
First used in the publicity of the film Tampopo, the term "ramen Western" also is a play on words using a national dish. The term is used to describe Western style films set in Asia. Examples include The Drifting Avenger, Break the Chain, Millionaires Express, East Meets West, Thai movies Tears of the Black Tiger and Dynamite Warrior, Let the Bullets Fly, Unforgiven, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, Buffalo Boys, The Good, the Bad and the Weird and Sukiyaki Western Django.
After the early 1960s, many American filmmakers began to question and change many traditional elements of Westerns, and to make revisionist Westerns that encouraged audiences to question the simple hero-versus-villain dualism and the morality of using violence to test one's character or to prove oneself right. This is shown in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). One major revision was the increasingly positive representation of Native Americans, who had been treated as "savages" in earlier films. Examples of such revisionist Westerns include Ride the High Country (1962), Richard Harris' A Man Called Horse (1970), Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), Man in the Wilderness (1971), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), The Quick and the Dead (1995), and Dead Man (1995). A television miniseries, Godless (2016), also fits into this category. A few earlier revisionist Westerns gave women more powerful roles, such as Westward the Women (1951) starring Robert Taylor. Another earlier work encompassed all these features, The Last Wagon (1956). In it, Richard Widmark played a white man raised by Comanches and persecuted by Whites, with Felicia Farr and Susan Kohner playing young women forced into leadership roles.
The science fiction Western places science fiction elements within a traditional Western setting. Examples include Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1965) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), the latter featuring cowboys and dinosaurs. John Jakes's Six Gun Planet takes place on a future planet colonized by people consciously seeking to recreate the Old West (with cowboys riding robot horses...) . The movie Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Wild Wild West (1999), and Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and the television series Westworld (2016, based on the movie). Fallout: New Vegas (2010) is an example of a video game that follows this format, with futuristic technology and genetic mutations placed among the Western themes and desert sprawl of the Mojave Wasteland.
The space Western or space frontier is a subgenre of science fiction, which uses the themes and tropes of Westerns within science-fiction stories. Subtle influences may include exploration of lawless frontiers in deep space, while more overt influences may feature literal cowboys in outer space who use ray guns and ride robotic horses. Examples include the American television series BraveStarr (which aired original episodes from September 1987 to February 1988) and Firefly (created by Joss Whedon in 2002), and the films Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), which is a remake of The Magnificent Seven; Outland (1981), which is a remake of High Noon; and Serenity (2005, based on the Firefly TV series). Another example is the Japanese anime series Cowboy Bebop. The classic Western genre has also been a major influence on science-fiction films such as the original Star Wars movie of 1977, with 2018's Solo: A Star Wars Story and 2019's Star Wars: The Mandalorian more directly featuring Western tropes. Famously, Gene Roddenberry pitched the concept of the TV show Star Trek as a "Wagon Train to the stars."
During the 1960s and 1970s, a revival of the Western emerged in Italy with the "spaghetti Westerns", also known as "Italo-Westerns". The most famous of them is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the third film of the Dollars Trilogy. Many of these films are low-budget affairs, shot in locations (for example, the Spanish desert region of Almería) chosen for their inexpensive crew and production costs, as well as their similarity to landscapes of the Southwestern United States. Spaghetti Westerns were characterized by the presence of more action and violence than the Hollywood Westerns. Also, the protagonists usually acted out of more selfish motives (money or revenge being the most common) than in the classical Westerns. Some Spaghetti Westerns demythologized the American Western tradition, and some films from the genre are considered revisionist Westerns. For example, the Dollars Trilogy itself has much different tropes compared to standard Westerns, demythologizing the Sheriff figure (in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More), putting both the Union and the Confederacy in ambiguously moral positions (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), and not featuring Native Americans (except for a brief mention in A Fistful of Dollars).
The Western films directed by Sergio Leone were felt by some to have a different tone from the Hollywood Westerns. Veteran American actors Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood became famous by starring in spaghetti Westerns, although the films also provided a showcase for other noted actors such as James Coburn, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Klaus Kinski, Jason Robards, Gian Maria Volonte and Eli Wallach. Eastwood, previously the lead in the television series Rawhide, unexpectedly found himself catapulted into the forefront of the film industry by Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (the first in the Dollars Trilogy).
The weird Western combines elements of the classic Western with those of other genres, invariably fantasy, horror and science fiction. The Wild Wild West television series, television movies, and 1999 film adaptation blend the Western with steampunk. The Jonah Hex franchise also blends the Western with superhero elements. The film Western Religion (2015), by writer and director James O'Brien, introduces the devil into a traditional Wild West setting. The Old Man Logan (2008–2009) graphic novel combines the elements of superhero and post apocalyptic fiction with Westerns.
In the 1960s, academic and critical attention to cinema as a legitimate art form emerged. With the increased attention, film theory was developed to attempt to understand the significance of film. From this environment emerged (in conjunction with the literary movement) an enclave of critical studies called genre studies. This was primarily a semantic and structuralist approach to understanding how similar films convey meaning.
One of the results of genre studies is that "Westerns" need not take place in the American West or even in the 19th century, as the codes can be found in other types of films. For example, a very typical Western plot is that an eastern lawman heads west, where he matches wits and trades bullets with a gang of outlaws and thugs, and is aided by a local lawman who is well-meaning, but largely ineffective until a critical moment, when he redeems himself by saving the hero's life, as in the quite complex[according to whom?] classic The Man who shot Liberty Valance. This stars James Stewart and John Wayne although Lee Marvin, then a supporting actor, bears the title role to which the unknown hero (and plot ambiguity) alludes. This classic description can be used to describe any number of Westerns, but also other films such as Die Hard (itself a loose reworking of High Noon) and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which are frequently cited[by whom?] examples of films that do not take place in the American West, but have many themes and characteristics common to Westerns. Likewise, films set in the American Old West may not necessarily be considered Westerns.
Being period drama pieces, both the Western and samurai genre influenced each other in style and themes throughout the years. The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai, and A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Red Harvest, an American detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns and was a fan of the genre, most especially John Ford.
Despite the Cold War, the Western was a strong influence on Eastern Bloc cinema, which had its own take on the genre, the so-called "Red Western" or "Ostern". Generally these took two forms: either straight Westerns shot in the Eastern Bloc, or action films involving the Russian Revolution and civil war and the Basmachi rebellion.
An offshoot of the Western genre is the "postapocalyptic" Western, in which a future society, struggling to rebuild after a major catastrophe, is portrayed in a manner very similar to the 19th-century frontier. Examples include The Postman and the Mad Max series, and the computer game series Fallout. Many elements of space-travel series and films borrow extensively from the conventions of the Western genre. This is particularly the case in the space Western subgenre of science fiction. Peter Hyams' Outland transferred the plot of High Noon to Io, moon of Jupiter.
More recently, the space opera series Firefly used an explicitly Western theme for its portrayal of frontier worlds. Anime shows such as Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star have been similar mixes of science-fiction and Western elements. The science fiction Western can be seen as a subgenre of either Westerns or science fiction. Elements of Western films can be found also in some films belonging essentially to other genres. For example, Kelly's Heroes is a war film, but its action and characters are Western-like.
The character played by Humphrey Bogart in noir films such as Casablanca and To Have and Have Not—an individual bound only by his own private code of honor—has a lot in common with the classic Western hero. In turn, the Western has also explored noir elements, as with the films Pursued and Sugar Creek.
In many of Robert A. Heinlein's books, the settlement of other planets is depicted in ways explicitly modeled on American settlement of the West. For example, in his Tunnel in the Sky, settlers set out to the planet "New Canaan", via an interstellar teleporter portal across the galaxy, in Conestoga wagons, their captain sporting mustaches and a little goatee and riding a Palomino horse—with Heinlein explaining that the colonists would need to survive on their own for some years, so horses are more practical than machines.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that meshes themes of Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction, and horror. The protagonist Roland Deschain is a gunslinger whose image and personality are largely inspired by the Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's films. In addition, the superhero fantasy genre has been described as having been derived from the cowboy hero, only powered up to omnipotence in a primarily urban setting. The Western genre has been parodied on a number of occasions, famous examples being Support Your Local Sheriff!, Cat Ballou, Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody.
George Lucas's Star Wars films use many elements of a Western, and Lucas has said he intended for Star Wars to revitalize cinematic mythology, a part the Western once held. The Jedi, who take their name from Jidaigeki, are modeled after samurai, showing the influence of Kurosawa. The character Han Solo dressed like an archetypal gunslinger, and the Mos Eisley cantina is much like an Old West saloon.
Meanwhile, films such as The Big Lebowski, which plucked actor Sam Elliott out of the Old West and into a Los Angeles bowling alley, and Midnight Cowboy, about a Southern-boy-turned-gigolo in New York (who disappoints a client when he does not measure up to Gary Cooper), transplanted Western themes into modern settings for both purposes of parody and homage.
Western fiction is a genre of literature set in the American Old West, most commonly between 1860 and 1900. The first critically recognized Western was The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister."Classic Wild West Literature". Other well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey, from the early 1900s, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, and Louis L'Amour, from the mid 20th century. Many writers better known in other genres, such as Leigh Brackett, Elmore Leonard, and Larry McMurtry, have also written Western novels. The genre's popularity peaked in the 1960s, due in part to the shuttering of many pulp magazines, the popularity of televised Westerns, and the rise of the spy novel. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and reached a new low in the 2000s. Most bookstores, outside of a few Western states, now only carry a small number of Western novels and short-story collections.
Television Westerns are a subgenre of the Western. When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV Westerns quickly became an audience favorite. Beginning with rebroadcasts of existing films, a number of movie cowboys had their own TV shows. As demand for the Western increased, new stories and stars were introduced. A number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right, such as: The Lone Ranger (1949–1957), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955–1961), Cheyenne (1955–1962), Gunsmoke (1955–1975), Maverick (1957–1962), Have Gun – Will Travel (1957–1963), Wagon Train (1957–1965), Sugarfoot (1957–1961), The Rifleman (1958–1963), Rawhide (1959–1966), Bonanza (1959–1973), The Virginian (1962–1971), and The Big Valley (1965–1969). The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was the first Western television series written for adults, premiering four days before Gunsmoke on September 6, 1955.
The peak year for television Westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during primetime. At least six of them were connected in some extent to Wyatt Earp: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory, Broken Arrow, Johnny Ringo, and Gunsmoke. Increasing costs of American television production weeded out most action half-hour series in the early 1960s, and their replacement by hour-long television shows, increasingly in color. Traditional Westerns died out in the late 1960s as a result of network changes in demographic targeting along with pressure from parental television groups. Future entries in the genre would incorporate elements from other genera, such as crime drama and mystery whodunit elements. Western shows from the 1970s included Hec Ramsey, Kung Fu, Little House on the Prairie, McCloud, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, and the short-lived but highly acclaimed How the West Was Won that originated from a miniseries with the same name. In the 1990s and 2000s, hour-long Westerns and slickly packaged made-for-TV movie Westerns were introduced, such as Lonesome Dove (1989) and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Also, new elements were once again added to the Western formula, such as science-fiction Western Firefly, created by Joss Whedon in 2002. Deadwood was a critically acclaimed Western series that aired on HBO from 2004 through 2006. Hell on Wheels, a fictionalized story of the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, aired on AMC for five seasons between 2011 and 2016. Longmire is a Western series that centered on Walt Longmire, a sheriff in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Originally aired on the A&E network from 2012 to 2014, it was picked up by Netflix in 2015 until the show's conclusion in 2017.
A number of visual artists focused their work on representations of the American Old West. American West-oriented art is sometimes referred to as "Western Art" by Americans. This relatively new category of art includes paintings, sculptures, and sometimes Native American crafts. Initially, subjects included exploration of the Western states and cowboy themes. Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell are two artists who captured the "Wild West" in paintings and sculpture. Some art museums, such as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, feature American Western Art.
The popularity of Westerns extends beyond films, literature, television, and visual art to include numerous other media.
Anime and manga
With anime and manga, the genre tends towards the science-fiction Western [e.g., Cowboy Bebop (1998 anime), Trigun (1995–2007 manga), and Outlaw Star (1996–1999 manga)]. Although contemporary Westerns also appear, such as Kōya no Shōnen Isamu, a 1971 shōnen manga about a boy with a Japanese father and a Native American mother, or El Cazador de la Bruja, a 2007 anime television series set in modern-day Mexico. Part 7 of the manga series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is based in the American Western setting. The story follows racers in a transcontinental horse race, the "Steel Ball Run". Golden Kamuy (2014–present) shifts its setting to 1900s Hokkaido, having the Ainu people instead of Native Americans, as well having other recognizable western tropes.
Western comics have included serious entries, (such as the classic comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s (namely Kid Colt, Outlaw, Rawhide Kid, and Red Ryder) or more modern ones as Blueberry), cartoons, and parodies (such as Cocco Bill and Lucky Luke). In the 1990s and 2000s, Western comics leaned towards the fantasy, horror and science fiction genres, usually involving supernatural monsters, or Christian iconography as in Preacher. More traditional Western comics are found throughout this period, though (e.g., Jonah Hex and Loveless).
Western arcade games, computer games, role-playing games, and video games are often either straightforward Westerns or Western-horror hybrids. Some Western-themed computer games include The Oregon Trail (1971), Mad Dog McCree (1990), Sunset Riders (1991), Outlaws (1997), Desperados series (2001–), Red Dead series (2004–), Gun (2005), and Call of Juarez series (2007–). Other video games adapt the "weird West" concept – e.g., Fallout (1997), Gunman Chronicles (2000), Darkwatch (2005), the Borderlands series (2009–), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), and Hard West (2015).
Western radio dramas were very popular from the 1930s to the 1960s. Some popular shows include The Lone Ranger (first broadcast in 1933), The Cisco Kid (first broadcast in 1942), Dr. Sixgun (first broadcast in 1954), Have Gun–Will Travel (first broadcast in 1958), and Gunsmoke (first broadcast in 1952).
- Dime Western
- Wild West shows
- List of Western computer and video games
- List of Western fiction authors
- Lists of Western films
- Western lifestyle
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- Western at IMDb
- Western at IMDb
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- Articles on Western film and TV in Western American Literature
- Special issue of Western American Literature on Global Westerns
- Most Popular Westerns at Internet Movie Database
- Western Writers of America website
- The Western, St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, 2002
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- Film Festival for the Western Genre website
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