The Western: An American Film Genre Like No Other

The 1892 Winchester put to good use by John Wayne in "The Searchers." (Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

For all the trials and tribulations we've endured in recent years, America remains a country like no other.

Many other nations have longer histories, but no nation has a history quite like ours. Our founding conflict, the American Revolution, saw an infant nation of thirteen states along the eastern shore of a vast continent, populated mostly by farmers and tradesmen, throw off the world's most powerful empire of that time. Later, after the government of the United States was fully formed, the first president of our country again rattled the hereditary monarchs of the Old World by peacefully handing over power to a successor and, and like old Cincinnatus, returning to his farm.

But one of the greatest chapters in a great nation happened when that infant republic turned its eyes West, eventually extending its territory to the Pacific Ocean. The stories of those westward migrants are many, and those stories have given rise to a film genre that is distinctly and uniquely American: The Western.

In June, Kevin Costner will be releasing the first installment in a three-part series of movies, "Horizon," and it sure looks like a winner. As of this writing, we have only the trailer to go on, but as Costner has done before, with films like "Dances with Wolves" and "Open Range," not to mention the "Yellowstone" series (which Costner starred in but did not direct), he gives us a simple story that shows the best of us: Tough, courageous people daring great things. There are good people and bad, but it's a fair portrayal; not all the settlers and explorers are good people, and not all the natives are bad; they are people, strong, courageous people in a vast land, competing, sometimes fighting, to build, to grow, to maintain their traditions.

 I'll offer a prediction here, and it's this: Despite how "woke" Hollywood has gotten, despite how many beloved franchises the "woke" have destroyed, this film, judging by the trailer, is distinctly not "woke" and will be a hit. This may well be the "go-to" film of the summer - and we should hope it is.

Related: ‘Be Successful, This Will Not’ - Kathleen Kennedy Shows Disney Has Learned Nothing from Its Woke Failures

The reason for the decades-long success of the Western is due to precisely these issues. The Western gives us something to aspire to. 

Americans are not, of course, alone in our love of heroes. There are counterparts in other nations and other cultures; anyone who has seen the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film "Alexander Nevsky" would recognize the same themes of heroism, selflessness, courage, and fortitude in this portrayal of a famous Russian folk hero. And it's difficult to discuss this kind of film without mentioning Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," which of course gave rise to the 1960 American film "The Magnificent Seven," which Kurosawa helped write.

These are films that portray heroes. Some of my favorites include:

The Searchers (1956)

True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)

The Shootist (1976)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Quigley Down Under (1990)

North to Alaska (1960)

And, of course, High Noon (1952)

The expansion of the American people into the West wasn't an endless cavalcade of heroes, of course. These were people, for the most part, ordinary people, and in the vast saga of the American West, there were also cowards, criminals, and unsavory characters of all kinds. Some Western films present those characters as well. But in film, where we expect to be entertained, we need heroes, people who inspire and, yes, entertain. Hollywood seems to be overlooking that in recent years, and ticket sales reflect that.

See Related: Taking a Look at What People Won't Watch - What Is Behind Hollywood's Dismal Summer?

The quintessential Western hero is an American tradition. Laconic, even taciturn, slow-walking, slow to anger, honest to a fault, capable of any task set before him. He is willing to fight for what he believes in. If he has a family (the loner and wanderer also being a Western trope), he will do anything to protect them. The quintessential Western heroine is much the same: Tough, resilient, able to harness a mule and plow a field or to grab a rifle and fend off bandits. She stands beside the hero, not behind him. They dare great things and accomplish great things, and the people these characters are based on built a nation that is still, today, the greatest nation in human history.

Westerns and the people they portray are what we should all want to be. These are films, and stories, that portray heroes. We need heroes - and heroines. Young people especially need to see tales of courage and fortitude. We have seen the damage emulating the weak, the neurotic, and the indecisive can do to young people. We need more good examples; sometimes film and television can provide those. That's the value of the Western. That's the value of America's history. That's the value of America, period.


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