Cinema Spelunking: What in tarnation is a Western?

Photo from a scene in a Western movie
Warner Bros/Courtesy

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The opening credits of “The Searchers” unroll to the folksy thrum of a banjo as a baritone chorus croons: “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?” The lilting instrumentals invoke wistful images of untouched, unknown wilderness while the lyrics eulogize a form of independence only achieved when one abandons civilized society and journeys to the wild, wild West.

As a genre, the Western predates cinema, first emerging as a literary phenomenon in the era of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. In the 19th century, white settlers purported their divinely ordained duty to colonize terrain west of the Mississippi River and impose “civilized” values onto an “uncivilized” land. The racialized definitions of “civilization” and “savagery” served to glorify white settlers while demonizing Indigenous Americans. Western novels, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” pioneered enduring character archetypes to envision the white frontiersman as a strong, virtuous and fearless hero — a conqueror of evil and a tamer of the lawless land. By the mid-19th century, legends of the American West proliferated pulp magazines and dime novels, spawning a cast of quintessentially American figures, such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill and the James Brothers.

In the cultural imagination, “the West” began to represent a concept instead of a physical place: an escape from the restrictive codes governing colonial “Eastern” society. The West represented a welcomed retread to simple values of agrarianism, individualism, self-knowledge and nature; it foiled Eastern America’s culture of industry, social responsibility, institutions and law. 

When filmmakers fixed their gaze upon the Western, the genre had already planted strong roots in its conventions, fertilizing a vast landscape of stories and characters ripe for artistic reproduction. The emergence of Western films spilled into the development of silent movies, so the first Westerns hushed the ring of gunshots, the trotting horse hooves and the trail of cattle. 

Yet, Westerns reached wild popularity in the film industry, largely due to John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach.” Ford’s movie raised the bar for Westerns by retaining exciting B-picture action on an epic scale with surprisingly sophisticated characters. Westerns became an accepted, acclaimed genre inextricably linked to the United States and its character. French film critic André Bazin championed Westerns as “the American film par excellence,” and many contemporary cinephiles revere Westerns as some of the best films ever made.

The Western ricocheted around the world. In the mid-’60s, Sergio Leone’s filmmaking kindled a subgenre that critics dubbed the “Spaghetti Western,” since most of these films were directed and produced by Italians. Director Juzo Itami delivered the tantalizing tour de force “Tampopo,” branding the movie as the “Ramen Western.” There was even a rise of “Osterns,” a Russia-based subgenre usually set on the steppe of the Soviet Union.

There’s something irresistible, it would seem, in the way Westerns reflect national identity. Westerns historically grapple with conflict between good and evil, justice and corruption. The genre finds its hero in strong white men, fitted to be marshals (“High Noon”), cavalry officers (“Rio Grande”), fur trappers (“Man in the Wilderness”), mysterious travelers (“High Plains Drifter”), military scouts (“Ulzana’s Raid”) and, of course, cowboys.

Westerns were historically made for white male audiences, and their heroes codify and promote a fantasy of American masculinity. There’s a scene toward the end of “Two Mules for Sister Sara” in which Clint Eastwood, playing a rugged gunslinger and Civil War veteran, climbs into the bath with Shirley MacLaine’s character Sara. The camera shows MacLaine’s bare decolletage, suggesting her naked body beneath the bubbles. Eastwood’s character struts into the room and confidently steps into the tub completely dressed — clothes, guns, boots and all. He knows that he’ll be welcomed.

The strong strides in “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to avoid male nudity not only affirm the Western genre’s taboo on homoeroticism, but also illustrate a broader theme in the way Westerns represent their heros. While the genre obsesses over masculine physicality, heroes such as Eastwood’s Hogan aren’t meant to appear in the same way that the camera “looks at” women, characters of color and villains. In movies, the act of “looking” is an act of power, and Western heroes are meant to be the ones “looking” — not the ones being “looked at.”

These types of heroes project a distinctly white and masculine power. Their inevitable victory over evil reflects the triumph of societal values, thus buttressing structures of white supremacy and patriarchal order. 

While 20th century U.S. cinema found its Garden of Eden in wide open spaces, this garden has wilted in the modern day. Recent releases, such as “Django Unchained,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Bone Tomahawk,” attest to the difficulty in adapting a genre that peddles inaccurate, exclusionary accounts of American history. 

For those interested in entering the world of Westerns, here are some cinema suggestions: “The Searchers,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and, my personal favorite, “Tampopo.”

Cinema Spelunking is a series designed to explore and unpack nuanced topics in film discourse to cultivate a curious, globally conscious cinephile.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].