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The Western: An Overview

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7    by Gary Johnson -- page 2 of 7

Frederick Remington's "Downing the Nigh Leader."
American painters helped define "The West" as
a land of violent conflicts.


The era of the American West lasted from about 1850 to 1900, when the country was expanding at a staggering rate. Settlers trudged West on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, cattle empires sprang from the prairies, cow towns grew around railroad stations, and legendary cattle drives cut great swaths across the plains. This time period provided the raw material for the Western.

Back on the East Coast, dime novels about the West flooded newsstands and bookstores, spreading the legendary feats of real life characters such as Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James. Artists Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederick Remington and Charles Russell captured this world on canvas, emphasizing epic mountain vistas, valiant cavalry actions, and noble Indians. Wild West Shows featuring Indian war dances, stagecoach chases, and authentic frontiersmen (such as Buffalo Bill Cody) packed in audiences and even toured Europe.

Onto this world, the early filmmakers turned their cameras. Thomas Edison produced several short films that plainly and simply showed Indians and cowboys at work and play. These minute long movies that played in Mutoscope and Kinetoscope peep-show viewers were the beginning of the West on film. In 1898, the Edison Company recorded the first Western dramas. Cripple Creek Bar Room shows several prospectors slogging down beers until they get drunk and thrown out of the bar, and Poker at Dawson City shows a game of five-card stud that ends in a brawl.

At the conclusion of The Great Train Robbery, an outlaw fires directly at the audience.
[click photo for larger version]

One of the most famous films of early cinema followed in 1903, The Great Train Robbery. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, it featured a train holdup, a posse pursuit, and a shoot out. Most notably the film featured one of the earliest recorded instances of parallel editing, as the outlaws flight is intercut with the posse's formation and pursuit.

The Great Train Robbery had no heroes, but one member of its cast, Gilbert M. Anderson, would soon become one of the great silent Western stars. Between 1908 and 1916, he churned out dozens of Westerns every year for the Essanay Company, featuring himself as Broncho Billy. He usually played a good badman, outfitted in wide chaps, leather gauntlets, and a ten-gallon hat. He lacked good riding skills, but his aw-shucks charm won him a loyal following. In addition, while most film companies shot their Westerns in New Jersey and New York, Anderson took his units to Colorado and California, allowing him to add some impressive scenery to his horse operas.

Anderson's main competition came from directors Thomas Ince and D.W. Griffith. With the services of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and Wild West Show at his disposal, Ince created an efficient assembly line process at Inceville (as the studios of Bison Company become known), frequently building entire films around Indian characters. Working at Biograph, D.W. Griffith created several Westerns that show his developing facility for editing and pictorial composition. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914), for example, Griffith creates a strong sense of tension during an Indian attack by cross-cutting between Indian attackers, a family hiding inside their cabin, and the cavalry riding to the rescue.

W.S. Hart prevents the church service from being interrupted in Hell's Hinges (1916).
[click photo for larger version]

A veteran of Ince's Westerns, William S. Hart was one of the few Western stars who actually knew the West. As a result, his towns are dead ringers for photographs of actual Western streets, complete with tattered, ramshackle buildings and dust that hovers in the air. Playing a good badman who adheres to an ironclad code of honor, Hart's status soared after films such as Hell's Hinges and The Narrow Trail (both 1917), and he became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. With the rise of the flamboyantly dressed fancy cowboys of the '20s, however, Hart's movies fell out of style. In 1925 he made one last movie, Tumbleweeds (widely regarded as his masterpiece) and retired.

Tom Mix was one of the fancy cowboys and his movies were pure fantasy. He drew his inspiration from the circus and Wild West Show, so his movies featured plenty of horse riding stunts, lassoing tricks, and broad comedy. He played an uncomplicated guardian of the prairie who didn't smoke or cuss. With a wide popularity that eventually eclipsed William S. Hart's, Tom Mix became the model for countless B Western stars in the 1930s and '40s.

Other Western stars of this period included Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Ken Maynard. Carey played Cheyenne Harry (a good badman) in a series of movies for Universal, some directed by John Ford. Gibson developed a slow, deliberate style of comedy. He never carried a gun and his films featured little physical action. Jones and McCoy played serious cow pokes in the W.S. Hart tradition. Maynard played a friendly, colorful hero who excelled at horsemanship and blushed in the presence of women.

Workers struggle to complete a transcontinental railway in John Ford's The Iron Horse.
[click photo for larger version]

The Western received a push for respectability with The Covered Wagon (1923) and The Iron Horse (1924). The Covered Wagon is an epic saga of wagons west on the Oregon Trail, featuring set-pieces such as a river crossing with 400 wagons. The movie was a great box-office success and spawned several more feature-length Westerns. The Iron Horse offered superior filmmaking in its story of the building of the transcontinental railroad. Director John Ford enlivened the proceedings with exciting action sequences and vivid details of everyday life.

As the sound era approached, however, audiences dwindled, and the studios slashed the production of Westerns. Photoplay magazine declared the Western "motion picture heroes have slunk away into the brush, never to return."

But the Western gradually fought back. Early sound Westerns such as In Old Arizona (1928) and The Virginian (1929) were noted for their use of realistic sounds--the roar of the locomotive, the creaking of floorboards, and the swing of the saloon doors. And they contained lively dialogue, such as "When you call me that, smile!"

Ian Keith, Marguerite Churchill, and John Wayne in Raoul Walsh's epic Western The Big Trail (1930).
[click photo for larger version]

In 1930 Fox and MGM each released wide-screen Westerns. Starring a young John Wayne, Fox's The Big Trail captured realistic shots of wagons floating across swollen rivers and being raised over steep cliffs. MGM's Billy the Kid served up a faithful recreation of outlaw life in New Mexico. These tales, however, arrived at the beginning of the depression, when audiences were looking for escapism not hardship. In addition, exhibitors refused to install new wide-screen projection equipment. (They had only just installed sound systems.) As a result, the movies flopped at the box office. John Wayne reverted to B Westerns and wasn't seen in another major studio production for nearly a decade.

A tale of the great Oklahoma land rush, Cimarron was released in 1931, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, a feat unequaled by any other Western for 60 years. Cimarron's impact on the industry was negligible, for few feature-length Westerns followed in its wake. By the mid '30s, the Western had been almost completely turned over to the Poverty Row studios.

page 2 of 7


Page 1 Introduction

Page 2 Beginnings

Page 3 The B Western

Page 4 The Rise of the Feature Western

Page 5 The Western Matures

Page 6 The Western Loses Its Way

Page 7 The Western Survives

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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