I was at a “pops” concert this past weekend that was all music about the American West, either tone poems, cowboy poetry set to music, or themes from TV and films. Which was a wonderful break from everything else going on in my world, and got me thinking about what exactly is a western?
This ties in a little with the fuss about a new slogan for the University of Wyoming, and the university deciding to stand their ground and not bow to political correctness. There’s a stereotype of a “western,” that seems to include 1. only Anglo-Saxons, 2. horses, 3. cattle and cowboys, 4. women are saints or sinners (the harlot with a heart of gold…), 5. abuse of non-White people, 6. Indians shown as Red Savages and 7. farmers are the victims (if there are any farmers around). So Zorro, the Cisco Kid, and a lot of other movies and TV shows are not Westerns.
Is a Western defined by setting? If you limit it to the US west, then Firefly isn’t a western for all that it feels and is written as one. Does it have to have cowboys? If so, Paint Your Wagon isn’t a Western even though it really covers a lot of the experience of the non-flat US West. Is Chinatown a quasi-Western? After all, it’s about water rights and justice and so is The Big Country, which is 100% Western. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men are both Westerns, but are not “classic” Westerns. Ditto Zorro and the movie of The Milagro Beanfield War.
I think the easiest way out is to say, “I know a Western when I see or hear one.” Or read one, which is why The Time it Never Rained is very much a Western. I should say that with books, setting really does define the genre, something that isn’t always as apparent in film and TV. Thus the movie Little Big Man has Indians, the US Cavalry, and a lot of Western elements but is not a Western. It’s a Vietnam War film using the US West as a metaphor.
Frontier and border is a major element, agriculture and water as well. Often the tension in the story is over resources and lack thereof, or contested access to something – land, water, mineral rights. The environment usually plays a major role in the story, and if you see men and women on horseback in a dry landscape with mountains on the horizon, it certainly forms a major “beat” for “This is a Western.”
One difficulty today when it comes to saying “Western” or “Not Western” is that the 1960s and ’70s saw a lot of beating-up on the ideas promoted by the Lone Ranger, Marshall Dillon and Co., Gunsmoke, John Wayne, and The Alamo. Ranchers became abusers of the land and oppressors of the humble farmer and noble Indian (and innocent Mexican and Chinese). Cowboys were frauds, cows out of fashion, and the US Army were really the bad guys beating up on poor, innocent Indians and Mexicans. Western Civilization was a corrupt fraud and the Western doubly so. No one made Westerns or wrote the books any more, because they were too simplistic and stereotypical.*
And then along came Star Wars, which has elements of a Western in it, and Silverado, the mini-series Lonesome Dove and Centennial, and gee, Westerns are still popular with the average viewer. Not that Hollywood can make a straight Western anymore, it seems, Silverado being one of the exceptions, but the success of Elmer Kelton, Peter Grant, Tony Hillerman, and others might be a sign that people still want good stories set in the West with Western themes. And are willing and interested in a lot of things beyond cowboys, school-teachers, and Indians.
*Which just shows that they never really read a Western or listened to the Gunsmoke radio series. Louis L’Amour’s novels are not simplistic or stereotypical, neither is Centennial, or any of Elmer Kelton’s novels.