Breaking Down a Genre: Westerns

11 min readNov 5, 2021


Westerns is a genre that is defined predominantly by its setting — the American West. The vast plains, rugged tablelands and prodigious mountain ranges create the genre’s unique iconography. Usually set in the time period from the 1850s to the late 19th century, westerns often depict the lives of the white settlers, and in particular their conflict with the native Indians. In fact, this is a recurring theme in this genre. In the stories of the Wild West, violence is often used to resolve conflicts because this western society had a tenuous grasp on the rule of law while having a capricious social fabric. Western films notorious for romanticising the concept of the Western hero (usually the cowboy).


Westerns were rudimentary to the development of American cinema. It encouraged the relocation of the film industry from New York to Southern California, where many of the westerns where the Californian desert provided the apt exterior location for the films. It’s also one of the first genre in popular cinema together with gangster films in the 1950s. Besides being a genre with a distinct iconography, westerns have an indispensable relationship with American History and myth and its depiction in film have provided source materials for ideological analysis.


1903: The earliest known western film The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was released. This film established the framework for western films.

1920s — 1940s: At the beginning there were mostly low-budget western films Gradually, big epic westerns dominated the genre. Notably James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) popularized this subset of western, featuring famous stars, larger budgets and modern productions. In the 1930s to the ’50s, the singing cowboy, an accoutrement to westerns and popular by Gene Autry, entered the silver screen.

1950s: in this decade, western films undertook a more serious note when exploring themes with sensitivity and dramatic realism. Relinquishing traditional archetypes such as the “good” lawman versus the “bad”, their characters are more multi-faceted and flawed.

Notable films were “Henry King’sThe Gunfighter (1950), Anthony Mann’sWinchester ’73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955)

1960s: Westerns emphasised on human psychology and motivation. These films had a different perspective, specifically they sympathised with the Indians and showed understanding and appreciation towards them. Take a look at Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).

Other Notable films: Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks(1961), Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962)

1970s: The genre declines after there were attempts in debunking the myth of the Wild West, thereby destroying its credibility and relevance. Wayne made his last film (The Shootist, 1976). By 1980s, westerns were rarely produced in the United States. In its stead space epics took over the silver screen, which are films that utilises almost every aspect of western but its setting (the Star Wars franchise, for example). However, in Europe low-budget Italian western (known as Spaghetti Westerns) and Spanish westerns (known as Paella Westerns) reached commercial success (especially during the late ’60s and ‘70s). An important Spaghetti western was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) featuring Clint Eastwood.

Components of the Western Genre

Western action films often come hand in hand with the following concomitant attributes:

Cowboys/Gunfighters & Horses

The plot of a film of western genre often portrays the life of a wandering cowboy or gunfighter who rides a horse. Cowboys/gunfighters often wear chaps, broad-brimmed and high-crowned Stetson hats, neckerchief bandannas, vests, spurs, cowboy boots, and buckskins; while the horses often pull stagecoaches, galloping and tipping their riders to the ground when shot at.

Pistols and Rifles

Characters often carry pistols and rifles to shoot their enemies. Having them in possession often symbolises one’s power (it may be commensurate with their gun size), especially when compared to the spear or bow of the Native Americans. In the western genre, guns tend to represent the “rule of law” and patriarchal (male-dominated) authority. On the other hand, since guns are explosives, they provide visual effects in a film, making it spectacular and exciting for the audience.

Desert setting and Wild-west Saloon

Western films are often set in deserts, with cacti, canyons and log cabins. Fist-fights also often occur in bars. Specific settings include isolated forts, ranches and homesteads; the Native American village; or the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse

Common Themes

“The Western genre sometimes portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilisation or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier.” — Kim Newman (1990)

According to film scholar Jum Kitses (1969), cowboy films function on the basis of binary oppositions, such as:

- Freedom versus responsibility

- Civilisation versus the wilderness

- Tradition versus change

- Community versus individualism

- Settling versus nomadic wandering

Take Freedom versus responsibility as an example. Many western films portray a “restless wandering hero” and a “domesticated, stay-at-home wife/girlfriend/sister”. The hero may represent freedom, individualism and change; while the female symbolises responsibility, community and tradition.

Let’s look at another example — Civilisation versus the wilderness. In most western films, Native Americans are associated with the wilderness. They also live within a strong community with strict traditions. On the contrary, cowboys and gunfighters are civilised individuals who long for change.



Often the considered as the quintessential American hero, the cowboy is hired by ranchers to drive cattle across vast pasturelands. However, it can also be referred to any character that possesses the appearance and/or mannerisms of a cowboy, ranchers or not.

Subtypes includes:
Working Cowboy — whose actual job is herding cattle. They often wear worn clothing, look scruffier and have a strong odour. Their stories focus on their ranch work and the dangers of their job. He is usually perceived as a nice person with a rough appearance, making him desirable to women, though their parents are likely to initially object to their romance.
Drifter Cowboy — he is not attached to a particular ranch and is somewhat a nomad, moving to different towns for work. He is often considered with distrust because of the lack of strong ties to his workplace.
Rodeo Rider — this cowboy likes to show off his riding and roping skills on a rodeo. They are boastful and are often preoccupied with winning trophies. Stories about them often about the difficulties their nomadic lifestyle causes with relationships.
Singing Cowboy — it’s in the name, a musically talented cowboy who likes to sing.
Philosopher Cowboy — the smarty pants who prefers the simple country life over life in the city. They are also well-read.
Lone Cowboy/Ranch Owner — runs his own ranch by himself on a rawhide budget albeit he occasionally has help from a native or a young wife. Often considered as a love interest.
Dude Ranch Cowboy — this cowboy is defined by his job as a tour guide to tourists who want to experience the ranch life. Often depicted as ruggedly handsome and a temporary love interest. However, serious cowboys may find the life of a dude ranch cowboy embarrassing.
Cowgirl — she can do everything and anything a cowboy can, though not as good as the protagonist and is seldom shown doing grungy chores around the ranch. She is often written as the love interest for the protagonist.

The Drifter (also known as the stranger)

This character is often quiet and keeps to himself, he doesn’t look for trouble and his nomadic lifestyle brings him to seek odd jobs in different towns. The drifter is either running away from someone or from his past or he’s just looking for a place to call his home or even he simply loves this way of life. His story usually involves being employed to enforce the law and extort money. Eventually he will develop a personal stake in his quest due to his moral values. The Drifter hides many secrets, such as being a skilled fighter. A recurring secret is his true purpose, that is to defeat the big bad and his goons. He is often perceived as a Guardian Angel with few words, who stays when he is needed but leaves when the job is done.


The western hero with style. This character is skilled with the gun and has plenty of tricks up his sleeves. He Is the one to watch in a duel.


A convict who has escaped his crimes. Exiled from the community, no one is allowed to aid or abet the outlaw unless they want to suffer the same fate. In westerns, the outlaw isn’t entirely out of the law’s protection, but will have a large price for his head making him a valuable prey for bounty hunters. There are often two kinds of outlaws. One that is falsely accused and would develop a Robin Hood type of character, whereas the other maintains a life of crime out in the wilderness.


- Bandito — Mexican version of an outlaw with a thick Mexican accent, wears a sombrero, a poncho and a moustache.

- Highwaymen — robs people on highways

- The Most Wanted — a notorious outlaw that seems nearly impossible to catch. Think John Dillinger

- The Rustler — he is the cowboy’s counterpart. He steals livestock

- Retired outlaw

Bounty Hunter

He makes a living by pursuing criminals with a bounty on their head. His gruff and cynical demeanour is the result of his line of work. He is not too different from the criminals he catch. Most of them would rather kill their bounties, earning the title “bounty killers” or “Assassins”. He can be perceived as the villain or a hero by circumstance. Occasionally they come into conflict with the hero because they would do anything, even disregarding morality to capture their bounty. Sometimes they do hunt the most wanted criminals for the glory.

The Sheriff

The law enforcer in a western town, they can be the hero of the story, an authority figure or a corrupted villain. the sheriff is distinguished by a star-shaped badge. When he is disgraced or morally unworthy of his title, he will be stripped off his title symbolised by bullet hole in his badge.


Turning Native — this is a trope in westerns where a character, tired of his life, escapes to an exotic place and assimilates into a new culture. These character arcs often begin with prejudiced attitude towards a native group. Then their journey moves them to embrace a foreign civilization.

Indian Maiden — typically the love interest of a native or a white man she can be the daughter of The Chief. Her romantic relationship with the white man is depicted like a test to see with whether he can be accepted into their tribe. The maiden often bears a meaningful name that matches her personality.

Magical Native American — a native the possess mystical powers related to their ethnicity and couture. They powers are connected to the spirits and nature, a connection that most “civilised” men don’t have. They often wear traditional costumes even in a modern setting.

Noble Savage (Noble Native America) — because of their ethnicity, they are considered barbaric or savage by outsiders when in fact they are nobler and have a better set of morals.

The Saloon

Frequented by many of the characters you see in a western. The bartender exists to serve a round to its many customers and quietly listens and observes the setting, which makes him the man for information. People sometimes seek him for advice. There’s also the Hooker with the heart of gold who typically becomes the love interest for a main character. Miss Kitty refers to a older woman who runs a brothel, and is a staple character of the Wild West. She often plays the love interest of the Sheriff or the U.S. Marshal.


A dictionary definition of a frontiersman is one who live in the region of a frontier that is normally between the settled and unsettled country.

Camp Cook — Source of comic relief with jokes about their horrible cooking.

Hunter Trapper — Generally, the Hunter Trapper will have or quickly acquire excellent survival skills and woodcraft, often with the aid of a Native American friend.

Mountain Man — a large man who lives solitarily in the mountains as a trapper or hunter. They are often covered in furs and skins have long beards and hair.

The Pioneer —
A person who is among the first to explore and settle a new territory. The Pioneer is unsatisfied with his or her life in a settled land, and sets out to find out what lies over the river, or the mountain, or the prairie.


Spaghetti Westerns

These are western films produced in Europe. Many spaghetti western debunk or demythologise the conventions in American westerns.

Epic Westerns

Epic westerns are denoted by their exorbitant production value, a large casr and on-sire shooting. They tend to explore themes on family and struggles in society and/or a corrupted government body. Epic westerns are what brought the iconography of the wild west into the

A type of western, epic in scope, which portrays collective or individual efforts to settle the West and establish national values. Different from the gunslinger and low-budget western, these films often feature lavish production values, large casts, major stars and on-location shooting. Focuses include family or social struggles against wilderness or corrupt governments, while individual actions include traveling stagecoaches and wagon trains, cattle drives, the construction of a town or railroad, and battling Indians. While westerns started out as cheap, short features, director John Ford ushered in the upscale epic form in 1923 with The Covered Wagon, the thrilling trip of a Westward bound wagon train, and followed it with The Iron Horse. These mythical approaches continued into the ’30s and ’40s with films like Union Pacific. With the advent of Cinemascope, images of the old West exploded larger than life onto movie screens. Widescreen versions of the genre made this brand of western not only epic in scope and tone, but in look. Post-war epics like Red River, Shane and The Searchers represented the height of this style. Following the decline of the western in America, several Italian Spaghetti westerns, like Once Upon a Time in West, adopted the form, often playfully mocking its conventions. Later, when the western tried to make numerous comebacks, films like Dances with Wolves reverted back to the epic form.

Comedy Westerns:

It’s important to note that genre is fluid concept. Most times, films don’t can’t be simple categorised into one specific genre. Genre blending refers to films that have themes, elements and characteristics of more than one genre. From its name, comedy western features attributes from a comedic film blended with the setting and theme of a western. Oftentimes, comedic westerns parodies tropes of the western genre and or a comedic duo/group.

Three Amigos (1986)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Singing Cowboy Westerns:

This subtype is a hybrid of western and musical wherein the main protagonist is a cowboy who sings about the challenges and dangers he faces throughout his journey. They style in which they sing is called “Wrangler”.

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

Contemporary or Neo-western films

These films keep the traditional attributes, conventions and values of western but are set in the contemporary time period. Neo-western refers to films that combines conventional Western storytelling with new values and different settings.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Rango (2011)

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