How Do You Define a “Western”

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.

31 thoughts on “How Do You Define a “Western”

  1. It always seems to play out that the ‘simplistic’ label on old stuff really means ‘it didn’t catch my interest that one time I watched part of an episode’, or ‘I don’t understand it.’

    • You left out “violently philosophically opposed”.
      The Western is anathema to the myth of the noble savage.

      • Eh, sort of– I try to not include “throwing every insult I can think up to make myself look good” in the sample.

        “Gosh, I am just too SOPHISTICATED to enjoy /that!/”
        Me, silent: Well, the ‘sophistry’ part is true.

  2. A Western is set in the drier parts of the American West, generally after the civil war but before WWI, featuring Americans in conflict with Indians, Mexicans, each other, or some combination of all three. It is normally in the form of a morality tale where the rights of “the little guy” are upheld against powerful interests or ravenous bandits (which can be the same character). Use of force as both a problem (antagonists) and solution (protagonists) are often central themes.

    • There’s also an “man vs environment” as an underlying theme. It generally isn’t the conflict that drives the plot, but it influences or causes that conflict.

      There’s also an element of being an outsider, in that the characters are preparing the way for a civilization that has no place for them.
      (As an aside, Kenneth Hite’s essay about the parallels between Lovecraft’s stories and the Western sounds like one of those inane “are hot dogs sandwiches?” thinkpieces, but actually has some useful insights.)

        • Dubious Shards.
          If you’d like to borrow a digitized copy of the essay, drop me a line.
          If you can’t click my name to get my addy, Nose(underscore)of(underscore)death at Yahoo dot com (I had a bloodhound at the time, it made sense in context.)
          Loaning one essay out of a collection fits my personal rules about fair use.

            • He chased something through two fences and part- way across a busy highway.
              (Shrug) at least he was doing something he loved. (Dang dog could open doors, gates, and memorably rolled a log over to the fence so he could climb on top and jump over. He was a good boy. If a bit too single-minded for his own good.)

  3. Apparently, to those shining-bright intellectuals who inhabited the NY Literary-Industrial Complex (rather like a circus of fleas inhabit a dog) when I was venturing my first couple of historical novels — if it’s set anywhere to the west of the Mississippi River in the 19th century, it’s a western. And they – as many of them smugly informed me on their agency websites — don’t “do” Westerns.
    Me saying – “Noo, it’s a historical novel set in the 19th century trans-Mississippi West” cut no ice.
    So – story of the first wagon train to get to California over the Sierra Nevada (even though there are no cowboys involved, and practically no violence, or the presence of the cavalry, or the US government) – a Western!
    Family saga about the German settlers in Texas? (where the Comanche were most particularly brutal towards everyone else!) is a Western! To be sure, cattle drives, Texas Rangers and some gunplay is involved.
    And the novel about a young woman working as a waitress in a game-changing hospitality corporation which had the restaurant concession for a major rail line in the trans-Mississippi west! Why, of course – a western!
    I learned to embrace the concept – and darned if it didn’t prove to me that Westerns are still pretty darned popular.

  4. Simple and stereotyped are the literary people in NYC. McChuck jets it exactly. I know a couple of the younger ones, and they’re remarkable coherent NPCs, all with a dislike to loathing of American heritage. I like Western-themed literature. Sometimes the answer is dam the stream or river, or “He needed killin’.” Getting the answer is never simple or easy, but usually a great story..

    You triggered a nightmare: “Paint Your Wagon”, arguably the worst musical ever filmed. Lee Marvin as a SINGING romantic lead?

    • Clint Eastwood singing? Yeaaaaahhhhhh. The music is good, when done by others (or by Harve Presnell [Rotten Luck Willie])

    • Hey, there, I love that movie. It’s the more or less true history of Seattle.

      Anyone can sing. But not everybody should do so in public. Lee Marvin’s song is decent. Clint’s, not so much.

  5. Victor Davis Hanson sees Trump as the classic hero of a Western:

    “In some sense, Trump is playing the role of the tragic hero, reminiscent of the Western hired gun like Shane or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He recalls the Sophoclean Ajax, whose unorthodox means are temporarily put to the good ends of solving intractable problems, but who suffers the paradox, like all tragic heroes (and they are not always modest or predictable), that successful problem-solving allows his once beleaguered beneficiaries the luxury of setting aside the crude style and means of the man who has just saved the day.”

  6. In the setting of “The Last of The Mohicans,” “civilization” ended at the eastern slope of the Appalachians. “The West” or “The Wilderness” for most of what would become the United States, and Canada started at the Appalachians and extended to the Pacific. Some exceptions were made for places like New Orleans, and Spanish California.

  7. The only reason anyone ever has any problem with the idea that ‘the only good indian is a dead indian’ is racial hatred. The wages of multiculturalism is the understanding that the idea that all Homo sapiens are people is merely a cultural preference. It is a view that is racist to impose on others.

    If frictions between nomad and sedentary are simply the innately imperialist character of western civilization, then it is a true and authentic part of my culture without any nuance permitted.

    The foreign policy implications are simple. It was the manifest destiny of the Americans to carry out cultural genocide on the Nazis. So also must fall the communists and all other religions and cultures that are not in accordance with the Constitution of the United States of America. It is culturally inappropriate for us to put the survival of even a small remnant of our population over finishing the extermination of the foreign devil cultures that occupy the rest of the world.

    Which is to say that if it were my custom to swear and curse, I would have instead spent the verbiage swearing and cursing at the stupid fellows who plug the past into their Marxist decoder rings, and refuse to understand what was possible and impossible from the perspective of the times. Sure, I start from a perspective of sympathy with Andy Jackson’s foreign policy. Much contemporary analysis starts from the perspective of wishcasting, rather than historical political realities, and pretends that the ‘white’ ‘side’ had no interest in peace, no interest in anything but killing. All those fancy degrees and publication credits, and they are completely innocent of a fuller understanding necessary for understanding both the past and present of America. If our youngsters were being raised with that fuller understanding, violent white supremacism would be substantially more marginal than it is, and would have no future in America*. It irritates me that the colleagues have the gall to pretend to be superior to certain past historical schools of thought that had only political expedience in their favor.

    *Alma. Thank you very much for your work on this.

  8. The funny part is, the ACTUAL west was entirely different. Every race was represented in the cowboy world, and many of the ranch owners were Hispanic… sigh…

    • Spanish.
      Said with either pain or outrage if you thought those guys down in Mexico had some sort of authority.

      Worked better with the Basque, at least in our area.

  9. In westerns the overarching federal authority is absent, or only a secondary element. If the cavalry shows up, in more than a minor way, it’s not a western anymore. The authority figures (the sheriff and his deputies) may be corrupt, or ineffectual (“that ain’t my jurisdiction”). Or the law officers may be outnumbered by the bad guy and his henchmen – e.g., the John Wayne “river” movies. Come to think of it, aren’t there always henchmen? The single protagonist, with maybe a couple of loyal sidekicks, is usually battling a much bigger crowd of uncouth bully types.

    • So, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Ft. Apache,” and similar films are not westerns? 😉

      Yes, I’m teasing a little, but you do have a good point about local authority being the only authority in most cases.

  10. “farmers are the vicims …” got some hair-raising stories about Colorado and the central Rockies pre Would War I. Believe me, the farmers were’nt always the victims!

    • My family got lucky when the Frontier was only about 50 miles west of Philadelphia when they establish Paradise Pa, the Indians were friendly. The hair raising part was what they had to do to get there and lucky break in London meeting William Penn. You can read up on what has been pieced together by one of the other branches of the family here:

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