The Western genre is set in the American West (trans-Mississippi including Mexico and Canada) during the time period from 1803 to 1915, though the end of the American Civil War in 1865 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 is more common. Within these broad parameters is found a great variety of movies from feature-length big budget movies to numerous low budget “B” movies. Movies with Western themes set in other countries (such as South America and Australia) are generally not included in the Western genre.
Themes in Westerns tend to focus on man vs. nature, man vs. civilization and the individual striving against the encroachment of modernity. The individual is celebrated in the Western, from the U.S. Marshall to the “nameless” stranger. Westerns tend to be set in locations that do not have fully developed criminal justice systems, allowing the lone individual to be the instrument of justice. The Western “cowboy” is an American 19th century version of the knight errant or Japanese ronin, traveling a land where law and order are not present or challenging a corrupt local system. The knightly code is replaced with the concept of personal honor with a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. On the frontier, the individual use of violence is not only tolerated but necessary for survival.
The Western was present at the very beginning of the motion picture industry. The popularity of Wild West shows in the 1890’s and its stars like Annie Oaklie made the transition to the big screen a sure thing. Thomas Edison produced several Western shorts and an Edison engineer was responsible for the first great Western (and a landmark in motion pictures) The Great Train Robbery in 1903. While the Western has waxed and waned in Hollywood it has never gone away and is unlikely to anytime soon.
*Matuszak, David.The Cowboys Trail Guide to Westerns (Pacific Sunset, 1998)