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Film Appreciation... Westerns Overview


The Western, along with the musical and the thriller, is one of the three great escapist genres. In Film Appreciation we study the Western and its rituals and conventions. Specifically, we are going to examine three of the greatest Westerns of all time: John Ford's "Stage Coach", George Steven's "Shane", and George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid".

Before we discuss specific Westerns it will be beneficial for us to discuss the Western itself. More than any other genre, rituals and conventions envelop the Western. And more than any other nation America and Americans have Western's indelibly etched in their brains. For proof of this one need only think about the essential elements of Westerns -- the environment, people, rituals and fundamental conventions.

What comes to mind when you think about the typical environment associated with Westerns? Do you immediately think about a dusty main street, a cemetery (often called "Boot Hill") with a gnarly looking tree (placed conveniently for hanging), the saloon (hey, where else can you have a really good fist fight?), or perhaps a sheriff's office enclosing a jail.

Just as the Western's environment is firmly ingrained in our memories, so too are the characters who typically populate the Western. Typically, we would expect to encounter a variety of people: the sheriff, the doctor, the prostitute, the telegrapher, the saloon keeper, the schoolmarm, and the quiet, mysterious stranger who wanders in and may just be the fastest gun alive. We automatically recognize the hired killer, the ranching baron, and the card shark - all of whom typically wear black hats.

So, too, we generally expect to encounter certain Western rituals: the posse, the hanging party, the Cavalry rescue, the Indian attack (and massacre), the poker game (preferably including a deadman's hand - Aces over eight's), the cattle drive, and the shoot-out on Main Street.

When coupled with typical situations such as an Indian war, law and order, crossing a dangerous territory, ranchers versus homesteaders, cattleman versus sheepherders, the construction of a railway, a stagecoach or railway heist, the threat of a marauding band of outlaws, a man torn between public duty and private desire, or a hundred other basic situations the rituals and conventions of Westerns are indelibly etched into the American psyche. None of these things is unanticipated because virtually every American is a connoisseur of the Western.

It is no coincidence that one of the first great commercial cinematic successes was also the first great Western, "The Great Train Robbery" of 1903. "The Great Train Robbery" was one of the first in a long line of classic Westerns with divergent themes. Ranging from message Westerns such as "The Oxbow Incident" and "3:10 to Yuma" to psychological Westerns like "Duel in the Sun", "High Noon", and "Shane". These are as memorable as such classic historical Westerns as "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and "Little Big Man" and those unforgettable comedy Westerns "Destiny Rides Again"; and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".


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1999 Debbie Twyman. All rights reserved. TERMS OF USE