The Western

The Western

by David Carter

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From the very beginnings of American cinema the Western has been a central genre, as the hazardous lives of the settlers, their conflict with Native Americans, the lawless frontier towns, outlaws, and cattle rustlers all found their way into the new medium of film. This book provides a basic work of reference for all the major directors and


From the very beginnings of American cinema the Western has been a central genre, as the hazardous lives of the settlers, their conflict with Native Americans, the lawless frontier towns, outlaws, and cattle rustlers all found their way into the new medium of film. This book provides a basic work of reference for all the major directors and noteworthy films of the genre. It discusses how folk heroes and heroines such as Jesse and Frank James, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Annie Oakley were all eagerly seized on by filmmakers, and how writers, from the very popular to the very literary—from Zane Grey to Owen Wister and James Fennimore Cooper—were plundered for storylines. The great Hollywood directors are all here, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Sam Peckinpah, and Henry Hathaway, as well as great stars such as John Wayne, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell, and Clint Eastwood. Learn how the Western became popular worldwide by offering escape, adventure, stunning landscapes, and romance, as well universal themes such as survival, law and order, defense of family, and dreams of a new and better world. 

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Oldcastle Books
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The Western

By David Carter

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2008 David Carter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-388-1



In one sense, 'The Western' hardly needs an introduction. In the two decades prior to World War Two, and in the first three after it in particular, most cinemagoers could describe the main characteristics of a western: stories of rugged people in harsh terrains, attempting to settle and civilise the western territories of America; their conflicts with the Native Americans known as Indians; their struggles to establish law and order; wagon trains, stagecoaches and newly built railroads; sheriffs and marshals battling against outlaws; gold rushes and bank robberies; shoot-outs and hangings; buffalo stampedes, cattle drives and rustlers. Nowadays, there are a vast number of academic books and encyclopaedic volumes devoted to the genre, and a book of the present scope cannot and does not attempt to compete with them. Some of the most useful of the more extensive studies are listed in the resources section together with some relevant general works of reference. What this book does aim to provide is a general introduction for the enthusiast or student who wishes to discover more about the range and variety of western films, and also a source of reference for both the recognised classics of the genre and some that have been unjustly neglected or overlooked.

Aside from a chapter devoted to Italian westerns (the so-called 'spaghetti westerns'), the book's main focus is the American cinema western. Although a considerable number of westerns have been made outside America, not only in Italy and Spain but also in countries such as Germany and Russia – to date 500 at least – space here does not permit a survey of these. Neither is there scope to explore the close links that have existed between cinema westerns and TV series, but several of the books mentioned in the resources section do provide further information.

The Western does, however, cover the historical background of the American West, and also westerns in literature, which predated and greatly influenced many of the great cinema westerns. Information is also provided on the notable historical events which westerns either alluded to or recreated, usually distorting and romanticising the facts.

Emphasis is placed on the so-called 'Golden Age' (from the late 30s to the 70s approximately), when many recognised classic westerns were produced, a choice that reflects the declining popularity of the genre as a whole. Other chapters consider more recent contributions to the genre and modern classic westerns.

Ironically, while the early silent period was the most prolific in terms of the number of films made, with many hundreds being made in many years, most were very short, cheaply made and of little artistic merit. Only the outstanding achievements of this period are examined here. Many low-budget films, known as 'B' westerns, were also made during the 1940s and 50s. A brief mention of them is made in chapter 5.

Most westerns do not fit into easy compartments and for any complex and thorough consideration would have to be considered under several headings at least: westerns about revenge, westerns about law and order, feminist westerns, revisionist westerns and so on. One of the most impressive scholarly studies of the western – David Lusted's 'The Western' – manages this feat and it is an excellent and extensive study. However, it requires prior knowledge of a large number of westerns to be appreciated fully. Since many readers will come to the present book knowing maybe a reasonable number of westerns, some of the major directors in the genre, and the most well-known actors, the films in chapter 5, about the 'Golden Age', are organised by the director's name. After a brief biography, the major westerns of each director are listed chronologically, with only the screenplay writers acknowledged each time. Actors, cinematographers, etc are mentioned where relevant in the plot summaries or comments. Other headings such as 'Music' are introduced occasionally if they are of particular importance in the film. Some other works which do not fit easily into the lists of major directors but are worthy of attention are included in chapter 7, and organised chronologically with the same range of credits. There are special sections on 'Comic Westerns' (chapter 8) and the most well-known 'spaghetti westerns' (chapter 9). Chapter 10, entitled 'The Death and Rebirth of the Western', provides similar information and comments on some recent westerns. In addition, some recognised classics mentioned in chapters 5 and 10 are accorded more extensive analysis in chapters 6 and 11 respectively.

It must be stressed that many films could fit well into several different chapters. This is especially true of some of the comedy westerns in chapter 8. The easiest way to find entries on particular films is therefore to refer to its title or director's name in the Index.

Finally, one matter should be clarified concerning the issue of political correctness. Throughout the book I have quite deliberately used the term 'Indians' for the peoples who are nowadays referred to as 'Native Americans'. This is because it was the term commonly used in the nineteenth century and in virtually all the westerns in which they appear. It would be pedantic and historically unjustified to use the more recent terminology. The reader should therefore assume that whenever the term 'Indian/s' occurs, the concept of 'Native American' is implied.




The concept of 'The West' is a very loosely defined term, both geographically and historically, when applied to those parts of America associated with the literary and film genre of 'The Western'. Apart from the eastern seaboard, almost every part of the United States had been referred to as 'The West' at some stage in the country's history. Nowadays most people take it to refer to the area of the Great Plains and the Southwest in general, but officially the federal government defines 'The West' as including the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. 'The West' referred to in popular imagination, in literature and film consists usually of those areas associated with the final frontiers of American settlement, incorporating specifically the plains, mountains and deserts to the west of the Mississippi River. This is the area associated commonly with cowboys, Indians, covered wagons and outlaws. But cowboys and cattle driving were also common in several non-western states, such as Nebraska and Kansas.

Most of this western area became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, though the Southwest remained a Mexican possession until 1848. The Pacific Northwest was opened up for settlement via the Oregon Trail, which was established by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–06. Crucial in increasing migration to the West Coast was the discovery of gold in California in 1848. This led to the admission of California into the Union in 1850, only two years after it had been ceded from Mexico.

The Great Plains remained only sparsely populated for many decades, thought of as inhospitable desert land, with little water, and hostile Indian tribes. By and large, they were not opened up to white settlement until after the Civil War of 1861–65, when the Plains Indians were gradually conquered and eventually deprived of most of their lands by the settlers and through the agency of the US Cavalry. The conflicts between the white pioneers and the Indian tribes in these areas formed one of the basic themes in the western genre. Another central theme became the conflicts between the Indians and the cowboys, hired by ranchers to drive cattle across many hundreds of miles to railheads where the animals could be transported east to the markets. With the development of cattle-farming and mining communities also came the growth of towns, many of them with rather unruly lifestyles. Imposing some system of law and order became a major concern in many such places, and another major theme in many westerns, with the figures of the town sheriff, his posse of honest men, and US marshals featuring prominently.

By circa 1870 only a few parts of the Great Plains could be truly described as unsettled. And by the late 1880s, as the great cattle ranges declined in importance, large areas were fenced off into family farms. And with this, together with the settlement of the Oklahoma Indian Territory, the last period of large-scale westward migration came to an end. By the early 1890s no real western frontier existed anymore.


Texas played a special role in the history of the American West and made its own unique contributions to the mythology of the western. Following the coup in Mexico in 1833, when Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna took over the presidency, many Texans supported him in the hope that this would strengthen their own chances of gaining freedom from restrictive government control. Santa Anna, however, considered the Texans to be fermenting insurrection. It came to outright conflict when the Texans first set up their own provisional government in 1835, and then in 1836 declared independence. David G Burnett became the new interim president of the Republic of Texas and Sam Houston its military commander. It was not simply a conflict between Anglo-American settlers and Mexican soldiers. Many of the revolutionaries were themselves Mexicans, who supported the same goal as the white Texans: freedom from tyranny.

One famous event during the ten-year life of the republic was to find many literary and cinematic treatments: the siege of the Alamo. The siege of the Alamo, a group of former Franciscan chapel buildings in San Antonio, lasted from February 23 to March 6, 1836. The aim of the confrontation between the Texan settlers in the fort and the attacking Mexican forces was to keep off the Mexican troops long enough to enable the Texans to organise themselves militarily. The climax of the siege involved a massive attack by the Mexicans, resulting in all the defenders, apart from a few women and children, being killed, including two men who were to become legendary: Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. The Texans secured victory over the Mexicans on April 21, however, when Sam Houston led a surprise attack on the Mexicans at the San Jacinto River, where he also managed to capture their leader Santa Anna. The Alamo, which has been restored as a historic site, has become an important symbol of Texan identity.

During the ten-year life of the republic there were frequent raids by Mexicans and also Indians. To combat these incursions a mobile, armed force was founded which also became a stock western theme: the Texas Rangers.


The American Civil War (1861–65) was between the federal government of the United States and eleven southern states who wanted to secede from the Union. The states in question were South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia. Apart from issues of trade and tariffs, the primary concerns were the states' own rights and the question of slavery. The northern states mainly depended on the manufacturing industries and small farms, while the southern economy was mainly dependent on slave labour on the large cotton plantations. By the 1850s many northerners were demanding the abolition of slavery, and the southern states threatened to secede to protect their social and economic structure. With the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency as the candidate of the Republican Party, which was strongly against slavery, the southern states carried out their threat to secede.

After several years of conflict Lincoln gave supreme command of the army to General Ulysses S Grant, in March 1864. By March 1885, the southern army under General Robert E Lee was in a desperate situation: low on supplies, with countless casualties, having lost many troops through desertion. Lee surrendered on April 3 and by the end of the month the war was over. The victory by the North ensured the preservation of the Union and brought about the abolition of slavery, granting citizenship to the freed slaves.



When people think of the Indians of North America it is usually those of the Great Plains. They occupied an extensive area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, including parts of Canada as well as the United States. It consists predominantly of broad grasslands stretching from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba in the north to the border of Texas along the Rio Grande in the south. All the tribes in this area were mainly hunters of wild game, especially buffalo, which provided not only their main source of food but also materials for shelter, clothing and various tools. The most well-known of the tribes, or nations, mainly due to their prominence in the western genre, are the Sioux (also known as the Dakota), the Cheyenne, and the Pawnee. Other well-known names are the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Crow, and the Arapaho. As well as having their own distinctive languages, the Indians also used a standardised sign language for communication between tribes speaking different languages. It involved a system of fixed hand and finger positions symbolising ideas. These feature in some western films, though often in crude form.


The other major area of Native American habitation is that within, and bordering, Arizona and New Mexico. It is a very dry and climatically unstable region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre in Mexico. The Indian tribes living in this area had to adopt lifestyles which enabled them to cope with often unfavourable geographical conditions. They became extremely diversified culturally and linguistically, but can be identified in roughly four groups: the Yuman tribes constituting the first, the Pima and the Papago the second, the more widely known Pueblo Indians (meaning 'Village-dwelling' Indians) making up the third group, and probably the most famous, the Navajo and Apache, the fourth.


The Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, in 1868, guaranteed to the Eastern Sioux (Dakota) and Northern Cheyenne Indians exclusive possession of the Dakota territory west of the Missouri River, but white miners in search of gold started settling on land which the Indians regarded as sacred. The US government was unwilling to remove the settlers and could not persuade the Indians to sell the territory. When the Indians started attacking the settlers in the territory, the government felt that this released them from the obligations of the treaty and ordered them to return to their reservations, otherwise appropriate action would be taken. In June 1876, the government sent in troops under the command of Brigadeer General Alfred H Terry to drive the Indians from the territory. It was planned to trap the Indians between two groups of government troops, one led by Terry, the other by Lieutenant Colonel George A Custer with the 7th Cavalry. Custer abandoned the agreed plan and pursued a strategy of his own. A large force of Indians eventually managed to attack Custer and his men, leaving more than 200 dead including Custer. This event so stunned the white Americans that large numbers of forces were sent in to force the Indians into a final surrender. This battle, which took place near the Little Bighorn River, has also become known as 'Custer's Last Stand'. It has been much discussed and analysed, and featured in many a western film, for example The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), directed by Sydney Salkow, and Custer of the West (1967), directed by Robert Siodmak.


Excerpted from The Western by David Carter. Copyright © 2008 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Carter has recently published translations of Georges Simenon's Three Crimes and Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine. He is also the author of Georges Simenon, Literary Theory, and East Asian Cinema.

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