themes

Westerns

Westerns

With its unbridled frontier violence, themes of civilization versus savagery, and iconographic cowboy figure, the western is the most beloved and recognizable of American cinematic genres. These tales of the white expansion westward across the continent in the decades following the Civil War descended from the dime-store novels and Wild West theme shows that had captured the imagination of the American public in the late nineteenth century, and they were Hollywood box office staples from the very birth of the movies. From the late 1930s through the ’50s, the continually evolving genre experienced an effortlessly mythic golden age in the hands of such A- and B-movie practitioners as Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, Samuel Fuller, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Raoul Walsh, who used it to explore ideas of human psychology, morality, and social conflict. Above all, there was John Ford, whose recurrent use of Monument Valley (on the border between Arizona and Utah) as a location for films like Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine made for cinema’s most indelible images of the West. In later years, the genre waned in mainstream popularity, and filmmakers—Michael Cimino, Clint Eastwood, Monte Hellman, and Arthur Penn among them—returned to it for revisionist purposes, creating more existential visions and laying bare harsh historical truths about difficult living conditions and the white man’s treatment of American Indians.