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
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".