Westerns, or stories of cowboys, Indians, and frontier life, are probably the most iconic American cultural export. Westerns appeal to people from every nation, because they stress freedom, personal responsibility, and honour in the face of lawlessness and loneliness.
The hero of the story is usually a gruff but ultimately decent lone wolf sort of character, who wanders across the frontier dispensing his own personal brand of justice according to his own sense of honour, rather than according to the law. In fact, in Westerns the law or the government is often an antagonistic force, seeking to impose its own values on the people struggling to survive in the rugged, lawless frontier, exterminating the Indians, and generally upsetting the balance of power and restricting individual freedoms.
The opening of the American frontier was a great source of excitement and fascination to people around the world, and the Western genre began to take shape very early on, through books and articles. When silent film was developed, of course Westerns were made and they proved to be extremely popular. However, by the end of the 1930s Westerns were considered low-brow and outside the mainstream of Hollywood.
In the 1950s and 60s, widescreen, colour film formats made Westerns popular again as filmmakers were able to capture the wild, dramatic landscapes of the West in their movies. In the 60s and 70s, Westerns started getting darker, with more blood and violence and less moral certainty on the part of the protagonists. Cowboys were just as likely to act out of revenge or greed as out of a sense of morality or honour. Films from this era are known as Spaghetti Westerns and launched Clint Eastwood to fame.
It’s interesting to note that during this period a lot of American Westerns were not actually filmed in America. At the height of the Western genre’s popularity, many low-budget B movies were being made, and it was much more cost-effective to shoot these films in locations like dusty Almeria, Spain where labour was much cheaper.
More evidence that Westerns transcend national boundaries and appeal to people all over the world can be found in the fact that the basic frontier justice theme is a very old one, dating back to the days of medieval knights. Like cowboys, knights also had their own code of honour and often dispensed justice in defence of the weak and poor. Japanese samurai were another group of men that fit this description, and they actually inspired a whole bunch of American Westerns in the 1950s.
With such a long cultural history behind them, why wouldn’t you want to check out some classic Westerns? You can start with some of these most famous Western movies of all time:
- Stagecoach (1939)
- Red River (1948)
- High Noon (1952)
- Shane (1953)
- The Searchers (1956)
- Magnificent Seven (1960)
- Fistful of Dollars (1964)
- For a Few Dollars More (1965)
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
- True Grit (1969)
- Little Big Man (1970)
- Unforgiven (1992)