Features and Columns · Movies

What is a Western, Anyway?

The Western is dead, long live the Western.
Stagecoach what is a western
United Artists
By  · Published on November 11th, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a dissection of the genre conventions of traditional Hollywood Westerns.

One of the great things about genres is that they work on a framework of expectations—a web of images, plot devices, stock characters, and themes—that create a promise with the audience. Whether that promise will hold over several decades and cultural shifts is another matter.

As far as genres are concerned, the journey of the Western is one of the most intriguing. Pre-war classical Westerns laid the foundations for what were to become givens: desolate landscapes, dueling gun-play, and rogues partial to quelling violence with violence. At their best, these were stories about society and what the individual stood to gain and lose by entering it.

However, because the genre’s foundation is built on a specific flavor of heroism, shifting cultural attitudes around “what makes a hero” impacted the Western more directly than other genres. More specifically, the cynicism of the 1960s challenged the classical Western’s assumptions, sowing seeds of criticism that would complicate the genre’s stronghold on the cultural conscious.

The video essay below charts the course of the Western in more detail from the genre’s key players to its shifting thesis and to its modern incarnations. It may not be possible to make a classical Western today, but we can still approach the good, the bad, and the ugly of the genre with some historical distance. And we can still work from inside the Western to make a point about our changing views of heroism.

Watch “Westerns: Is the Genre Dead?”:

Who made this?

This video is a part of the Museum of Modern Art‘s “How to See” series, in which curators introduce their favorite film subjects. Dave Kehr, the Adjunct Curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, wrote and narrated this video. You can check out MoMA’s other offerings on their YouTube page here. And you can follow Kehr on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).