The Indie Filmmaker’s Guide to The Western
The Western film is an American icon born of dark cultural roots. Here’s what it means to American cinema — and cinema around the world.
So, you’ve seen some westerns, you have a camera, and it’s time to make a movie. That’s a perfectly serviceable recipe for success. All you really need is some basic gear, a good story, and some grit.
But before you run off to the American southwest, or the Italian foothills, or wherever it is you’re going to re-create the frontier, there are a few things you should know about the Western super genre in order to do it justice.
Here’s what you need to do know to take your place in the grand tradition of Western filmmakers.
First, by making a Western, you’re already stepping into an indie filmmaking tradition that goes back a hundred years. In the days of the silent film (1894-1927), the Western was a hugely popular genre. However, when sound came around between 1927-1928, the big studios dropped the Western like a hot rock, and it became the purview of smaller studios and producers. These productions went to town on the genre, cranking out scores of low-budget features and serials. By the late 1930s, the Western had been done nearly to death and was relegated to simple “pulp.”
The genre would evolve from there into the industry staple we know today. But before we jump ahead in its development, we need to talk about Thomas Edison.
The what? Why are we talking about Thomas Edison?
The very first films that belong to the Western genre were a series of silent short films shot at Edison Studios in 1904. These nascent, Western gems included veteran performers from Buffalo Bill‘s Wild West Show, a production that showcased the skills of the Old West acquired by performers who’d lived it, like Annie Oakley (a sharpshooter) and members of the Great Sioux Nation (who demonstrated dance).
See, Edison was an inventor, if you didn’t already know, and at the time, industrialization and technological development were sources of unease and fascination. People living in cities, increasingly burdened by the demands of these urban centers, saw freedom in the vastness of the American West, and while the rise of the technological state improved daily life, it was also the mechanism by which the West would be won.
Like most film genres, the Western has its roots in literature, which brings us to the Edisonade. This quirky literary subgenre is a product of that fascination with the West and the thirst for technology. Something as simple as the steam engine was a marvel, and readers were eager to see what it could do.
The earliest example we have of this marriage between tech and the West is Edward S. Ellis‘s The Steam Man of the Prairies from 1868. That’s mere years after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, which, you can imagine, contributed to the power of its escapism. I used to teach this book in a university class called “Jules Verne, the Wild West, and Frontier Socialism,” so I’ve read it a time or two; let me tell you, it gets problematic with depictions of American Indians very quickly (a curse that will plague the genre for many years).
But, it features a “steam man,” capable of carrying its young hero vast distances at great speeds and through all kinds of thrills and chills. It’s a technological invasion upon the frontier, to be sure, and the steam engine continues to be a serpent in the garden of the Western film to this day.
From the spirit of the Edisonade, it’s just a short jump onto the screen.
Frontier Justice, American Anarchism, and the Knights-Errant
The harshness and the isolation of the “uninhabited” West is a hallmark of the genre. Americans had already come to terms with the idea of Manifest Destiny. Much to no one’s surprise, most Americans from this era believed that moving West and conquering the land they found there was a directive from God.
These people believed that the values, organizations, and institutions of the young United States were superior to any other culture in the world. They also believed it was their duty, as white saviors, to tame the savage west and make it more agrarian, like the American East. On top of all this, they just really wanted to do this.
That meant that the West was mythological. It was a problematic, unwelcoming place that had to be tamed. This would become an almost-universal characteristic of the Western film. It fact, many writers often talk about the frontier as a character unto itself.
In the 1950s, new lenses like CinemaScope and new film stocks like VistaVision brought wider screens into theaters. These new vistas were positively jarring in their beautiful largeness to viewers who were used to narrower views. This intimidating, awe-inspiring regard for the ruggedness of the West rendered the land a sort of alien being that didn’t follow the laws of men.
That’s where frontier justice came in. There were ranches to defend, women to protect, and Indians to murder. The frontier thesis held that the American Indians native to the region were, in fact, occupying land imbued with “American ingenuity.” That means they were actively resisting the American influence that would improve their lives — and the lives of Americans who wanted their territory.
For the heroes of the Western film, there were no police forces to intervene when “lawlessless” reared its ugly head — if you were lucky, there might be a sheriff somewhere in the county, but he was a busy man. Occasionally, you’d see an American military fort out on the plain, but they had their own bloody hands full — there weren’t a lot of resources to send to the enterprising heroes willing to take on the savage West in the name of American exceptionalism.
So, the protagonists in many Western films exemplify Americans taking divine law into their own hands. Western protagonists, with their revolvers and rifles, were itinerant heroes, bound by their very nature to wander from town to town, meting out justice and writing wrongs — just like the knights-errant and the Japanese ronin before them.
The pioneer settlers of the West were subject to no one’s reign. There were few laws they had to follow, which meant they were welcome to use any solution necessary to perpetuate the stories they told themselves about their rights.
See, the American West was largely the domain of pioneer anarchy. Most people think that anarchy means everyone gets to run around waving their arms and doing whatever they want, but that’s omniarchy, which means “everyone rules.” Anarchy means “no one rules.” So don’t tread me, and keep your human rights to yourself, etc.
The issues at stake in the Western were iconic to post-industrial American identity, and no other genre pitted good against evil in such formidable, epic settings. Modern Westerns are less revisionist, and there’s greater attention paid to the realities of the Western frontier, like violence against American Indians, but these more enlightened tales stand on the backs of darker forebears. If you want to contribute to the genre meaningfully, it’s important to know where you’re landing in the conversation.
How Do You Like Your Western?
Pulp writer Frank Gruber, best known for his Westerns and detective stories, codified seven basic plots for Westerns. Rather than re-invent the wheel here, let’s just borrow a bit of Mr. Gruber’s thinking for our survey of the genre.
- 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.
This grab-bag of mix-and-match Western plots will more or less yield the same product. There’ll be some morality tale, be it revenge, justice, or liberation; the landscape will be harsh and uninhabitable (at least by any “civilized” man’s standards); and our hero will wander into town, clean up the moral dilemma, and then ride off into the sunset to go fight crime in another city (oops, wait — see superheroes).
There are exceptions to these rules, and some Western films are more ethically ambiguous than others, but we often see these elements recycled over and over throughout this super genre’s subgenres.
Speaking of which, let’s see Mr. Gruber’s list in action with a tour of the better-known Western subgenres.
Now that it seems like we’ve tied this somewhat-complicated genre up with nice, neat bow, let’s take a look at some of the highest-profile exceptions to the rule — and the subgenres to which they belong.
The Spaghetti Western is a gem in the Western collection. The term comes from Spanish journalist Alfonso Sánchez, referring to the pasta because these films were often shot in Italy. The Spaghetti Western emerged as a subgenre in the 1960s thanks to Sergio Leone‘s signature style of filmmaking — and his success!
Most of the films in this subgenre are from 1960-1978, and they’re known for their international crews (often an Italian director; Italo-Spanish technical crew; and a cast of Italian, German, American, and Spanish actors). There was no official approach to dubbing these languages, so sometimes you’ll see a mix of dubbed English and native English — and vice versa for the films’ international audiences.
The subgenre is known for subverting a lot of the standard dogma of the Western — partly by design, and partly due to cultural differences between Spaghetti Western filmmakers and Western filmmakers.
Singing Cowboy Westerns
We typically think of cowboys on the range as tough, gritty, silent types, but they didn’t always sit around glowering at each other, and the Singing Cowboy Western reflects that.
Based on campfire ballads and songs the ‘boys sang to pass the time while driving cattle up hills and across rivers (okay, maybe not then), this subgenre does the opposite of the Spaghetti Western and mythologizes the folk heroes of the Western genre. This is more Western than Western — a fantasy made reality on the screen with all of the lore you’d expect of a frontier archetype.
The tradition continues today in some categories of narrative country music and vaquero traditions. Indeed, the idea was born in 1925 when Carl T. Sprague of Texas recorded “When the Work’s All Done This Fall.” It would be a few minutes, but this and other early standards would make their ways into the subgenre, and we’d see our heroes singing them onscreen.
Comedy westerns aren’t really hiding many tricks up their sleeves. They take a revered cinema subgenre, with all of its mythology, pomp, and circumstance, and turn it on its head. The result is usually a few good laughs and a few pointed jabs the cultural problems with the Western film super genre — and with the society that celebrates it.
In theory, the neo-Western is a simple concept: it reflections the traditions and conventions of the Western genre, but it sets them in a modern environment. There are a couple of sub-subgenres here that we’ll discuss downscreen, like the Revisionist Western and the Contemporary Western, but the neo-Western is a little less surgical in its application.
Revisionist Westerns and Contemporary Westerns can’t help but deconstruct the dominant perspectives of the traditional Western genre. A neo-Western does a bit of the same by adopting Western storytelling motifs but also introducing new values. (We know: the distinctions are subtle.)
For the indie filmmaker, neo-Westerns are a great way to work within the genre without renting a bunch of spurs, cowboys, and ghost towns.
In the 1960s and ’70s, drugs made their way into everything. If you think the Western, with its heroes, landscapes, and values, was sacrosanct, well, you’re wrong.
Anything gets weird when you start breaking down pop psychology and looking into the cracks between the pillars of our most important metanarratives. The Wild West is about hope, destiny, bravery, and American exceptionalism — until it isn’t.
Westerns are myths, fantasies held together by a nearsighted fondness for how things were “better back then.” They weren’t, and perhaps one of the best ways to explore this is by breaking narrative rules, experimenting with storytelling, and getting weird.
Enter the Acid Western, a subgenre popularized by films like Greaser’s Palace, Dead Man (a personal favorite), and Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! The name comes from film critic Pauline Kael, who coined the term “acid Western” reviewing Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s film El Topo in the November 1971 issue of The New Yorker.
Perhaps the best way to sum up this delightful subgenre is like this: in the Western, you head into the frontier to improve your lot in life; in the Acid Western, you head out there to die.
Meat Pie Western
Also more descriptively called the Australian Western, this subgenre calls the bush its home — plot lines often feature “tracker” heroes with more direct relationships with the land than we typically see from cowboy heroes in Westerns from the U.S.
The terrain is less alien adversary and more familiar friend in a Meat Pie Western. Aboriginal Australians also feature prominently in the subgenre, often suffering some of the same issues with racism and sexism that plague their American Indian counterparts. Contemporary Meat Pie Westerns seek to reverse this trend much like their Contemporary Western cousins.
The Charro Western subgenre was part of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema between 1935 and 1959. It helped popularize the myth of the charro (a horseman), often by featuring musical stars and plenty of action. The subgenre began in the 1930s, initially portraying charro life in rural Mexican society, where cultural concerns differed dramatically from the main streets in Hollywood (we see this parodied in the infinitely watchable The Three Amigos). As the charro subgenre continued to develop on through the 1970s, it began to align more closely with the tropes of a “traditional” Western.
The charro, like the Western, didn’t begin with fanciful retrospection into a better, more primitive, more natural ear. Rather, they began by recording life as it was most immediately available, albeit with a bit of cultural mythology for spice. Like all things, these cultures developed with the technologies that arose within and around them, and the subjects of these media began to become more quaint and more backward-looking.
When Western filmmaking came to India, they first earned the moniker “curry Westerns” (1975). However, a more accurate name for the sub-genre comes from elsewhere in the world of Indian filmmaking. The Dacoit film takes banditry as its raison d’être. There is a lively tradition of these gangs of organized bandits irritating the East India Company (an imperial, colonizing organization) around about the same time as white settlers in the United States were gearing up for the Civil War and a bit of the old Western Expansion.
This chapter in Indian history existed on its own well before the recipe of the Western film (and then, more specifically, the Spaghetti Western) lent itself to cultural memory. This new mode of telling the dacoity story served Indian audiences just fine, and the gulfs between imperial bodies and persecuted groups around the world became just a little more shallow.
There isn’t too much to say here. This sub-genre is for documentary films about life in the Old West, however loosely we might define this. These films are of significant cultural value because they commonly deconstruct the mythology of “back then” that has arisen to cloud the truths of this period of American history. There are plenty of lies, misconceptions, and deceits about 19th-century American exceptionalism, and this critical subgenre continues to expose them for greedy audiences.
The list of Western subgenres goes on and on. There isn’t space in this post to cover every outlier, but for further reading, see “Electric Western,” “Fantasy Western,” “Horror Western,” “Wuxia Western,” “Red Western,” and my favorite (and, honestly, a blog post unto itself) the “Space Western.”
The Western Super-Genre has been so influential in the development of American cinema, there are very few other genres (and their associated sub-genres) that it hasn’t influenced. Once elevated to cultural mythology, a metanarrative like the Wild West becomes a dialect of the larger culture. We learn to “speak” Western, and we end up using its phraseology in most of our cinematic conversations.
And that’s why it’s important to understand where the genre came from, what it’s doing now, and where it’s going. We can’t teach you how to film a DIY horse chase scene in one post — or even how to source period-appropriate costumes on the cheap. But those details of indie Western filmmaking have been solving themselves since the genre was first tossed to the hyenas by the bigger studios.
What we can show you, and what we hope you’ve taken from this post, is that there is a heart to the genre, dark and bruised though it be and that listening to that heartbeat is far and away more important than the details of production.
Cover image via Alla-L
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