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Defining The Western Movie Genre

Aug 24, 2008
Of all of the movie genres, Westerns are among the most classic and most popular. Most take place during the latter half of the 19th century in the area that became known as the American Old West or Wild West, but several well known western films, including The Wild Bunch, Vera Cruz, Quigley Down Under, The Proposition, and others have been set in Mexico, Canada, and even Australia. The earliest Westerns were filmed entirely on set, and utilized canvas paintings as Old West backdrops.

The underlying theme of these films is often how established but primitive ways of life and routine conflict when confronted with social or technological change, most commonly depicted by conflicts between settlers and natives or ranchers and the impending Industrial Revolution. This theme of the modern encroaching on the established is portrayed in most films of the genre. The established order of things was constantly changing for real Old West settlers as well, as they began to construct towns and farm the land of the new frontier, and this sense of being at the forefront of a new era is often found in many Westerns as well.

There are different sub genres within the larger category. Classical westerns include the very first film in the genre ever made, The Great Train Robbery in 1903, which was a silent film. The popularity of this film led to the production of others, and to the golden age of Western film which lasted until the 1950s.

The 1960s and 70s saw the birth of Spaghetti Westerns, so called because they were often shot in Italy and in the Spanish desert. These films were low budget, and contained more violence and action than traditional Hollywood films of the genre. They were very popular with movie goers, however, and helped launch the careers of many movie stars.

Beginning in 1956, Revisionist Westerns began to be produced. These films challenged traditional elements of the genre, such as portraying American Indians as villains, and giving women more central roles in the story. Acid Westerns, which were produced around the same time, also challenged the traditional formula for a western, ie the gun slinging cowboy hero, the evil robber or Indians, and the damsel in distress and or love interest of the hero. Many Revisionist Westerns contained elements of Acid Westerns, and vice versa.

Contemporary Westerns are still produced today, and still take place, for the most part, in the Old West or American West. The Western as a popular movie genre has endured the test of time, and will likely continue to endure and to be produced for decades to come.
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